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What should I do when I feel self-blame, guilt, and shame?

My kids love stories about superheroes and “bad guys.” They love to tie fabric around their necks and fly around the living room in their “capes” chasing “bad guys” and putting them in “jail.” It’s fun to see who they become and what adventures they come up with each time they play this game. We only have one rule for this game: nobody REAL is the bad guy- the bad guys are always imaginary. Why? Well, nobody WANTS to be the bad guy! The bad guys are always doing bad things- it’s not just what they do, it’s who they are. So, of course my kids don’t want to be the bad guy! I wouldn’t either?

Yet, I act like I’m the bad guy all the time!

Who else blames themselves for a million little things on the daily?

I don’t know about you, but I find SO MANY REASONS to blame myself for anything and everything.

When I was younger and even often I thought blaming myself was a good thing to do. As a Christian, it felt like a spiritual discipline, similar to reading my Bible and daily prayer. If I blame myself then that means I’m taking responsibility for sin and that’s a good thing, right? It felt like my place to take, an appropriate posture to take before God and others. Part of denying myself, picking up my cross, to follow God, (to paraphrase Jesus’s words).

I feel silly admitting this because it seems such an obviously immature way to understand faith and deal with problems. I also don’t want to exclude people who don’t identify as religious from this conversation, but that’s honestly how I related to blame. I thought of it as the best way to express my identity.

Except I felt crappy all the time. I often felt “not enough” and held back. If you consider yourself religious or not, I think we can all have an unhealthy relationship with blame.

A Non-Comprehensive List of Things to Blame Myself For:

-Not exercising enough

-Not being able to have a natural childbirth

-Overeating on sweets

-Not having “it” all together (like I’m sure others do)

-Being impatient with (real talk: yelling at) at my kids

-Not noticing a friend is having a bad day

-Interrupting all the time during conversations

-Scoring less than 100% on a test (99% means I missed at least 1 thing- WHY did I miss it?)

-Whatever I did to get a breakout (not wash my face enough? Use the wrong products? Eat a triggering food?)

-Leaving my career to stay at home with my kids

-Not feeling 100% fulfilled staying at home with my kids

-Buying a dress that doesn’t make me feel amazing (but it was on sale!)

-Using hanging participles in my writing

-Not including enough relevant examples in a list…

I could go on and on…  How about you?

Take a moment to think about some of the things you often blame yourself for. (One more for my blame list: Using hanging participles in my writing.)

Self-blame pops up in so many ways. Have you heard that phrase “stop SHOULDING on yourself” (haha for cheezy puns)? Or How about “The Blame Game?” Everyone knows self-blame is not generally good but what do we do with those accusations? Especially when they feel so true?

The problem with blame is that it isn’t helpful long-term. Taking responsibility for our actions is one thing but holding onto guilt as our identity and marinating in shame is completely different.

Self-blame is the result of assuming 2 things:

1) There is a problem and

2) You and/or your actions are the cause of the problem.

Here’s where guilt shows up: It is an emotional expression of self-blame. At this point you can either ignore or acknowledge this emotional response. I find my habit has been to ignoring it and being stuck in this feeling of guilt, dread, and negativity.

Recently, I’ve been changing my strategy: I pay attention to my negative emotional responses. I take a moment and instead of distracting myself from the discomfort I look it straight in the eyes. You know the look- it’s the look small babies give: open, connected, honest, nonjudgmental. Examine the feeling bravely, with curiosity instead of fear: What feeling are you, exactly? Why did you show up right now? What are you a response to? What are you trying to tell me? The next time you have a negative emotion try doing this and avoiding labeling the feeling “good or bad.”  

Yup- feelings aren’t necessarily bad and guilt can actually be pretty useful! It’s just a feeling, literally a wash of chemicals from your brain and your gut (central and enteric nervous systems) that flushes through your bloodstream and gives you a biophysical experience. Guilt is meant to be a temporary internal response that serves to alert us to a problem. It is the red flag waving to attract attention to a behavior that is harmful to both us and others. Guilt is the gift of perspective that points us to a different and better way to not only live our lives but have healthier relationships.

When you do this you give yourself space to examine the problem. Were there factors out of your control that you couldn’t have known about, and despite that you did the best you could with what you had? It turns out most people ARE doing just that, according to Brene Brown’s research. If you did your best and couldn’t have known what to do differently, then use guilt as a temporary tool to examine your actions and develop a plan to do better the next time. Acknowledge the feeling, give yourself permission to change and then make a list of what you could do better the next time when you encounter a similar situation.

What about the time you truly messed up, when you know your actions were harmful or careless or ignorant? Accept responsibility for your actions (or in some cases lack of actions), apologize to yourself or others for the hurt and/or harm you have caused, identify what changes you can make in behavior and action in the future, and if possible, work to restore/repair the break in  relationship. Then let it go.

In either case, whether you are to blame or not, you glean wisdom through hindsight. How can you do better the next time? How can you realistically prepare better? What can you change to result in a more desirable outcome? Ask others for their input so you can get even more perspective. Get everything you can out of your failure, then put the guilt aside. You used the tool and it’s role in this particular situation is complete. If you continue to identify with guilt beyond this point it morphs into shame. In other words, Guilt lets you know there is a problem. Self-blame is taking responsibility for a problem. If you hold onto either of those things they turn into shame which loves to seep into your identity.

If you remember anything, remember this:

Identifying as shameful doesn’t serve your growth.

Imma say it again for the people in the back (and myself):

Shame does NOT serve you.

So what now? Just let it go, like Elsa in Frozen? It sounds simple, right? But it’s not easy! I get so frustrated when people say “just let it go” or “just let it not bother you” and I always wonder HOW do you actually DO that? What do you do to do that?  

Here’s what I do: it’s more of a cultivated practice than a “one-and-done” checklist.

First, remember you always have a choice. You can either take responsibility for change or you can identify with shame by staying in the cycle of self-blame. You can choose to identify the actions causing the problem or identify as the problem. Deal with the guilt and self-blame first, then give yourself permission to continue on your journey. If you are not to blame, even if someone else thinks you are, you do not have to feel guilty. Yes. I said that. And it’s true. You don’t have to destroy yourself emotionally just because someone else thinks you should. I’m not saying you should discount other people’s input in your life, but you are ultimately responsible for your choices, your response to emotions, and your growth journey.

Second, pay close attention to your emotional cues: Shame blurs healthy boundaries. You begin to be motivated by shame, saying yes to things you don’t love and no to things that drag you down. Since these decisions are incongruent with who you truly are you will begin feeling upset or ashamed or “less than,” all emotional symptoms of shame. (To learn more about setting healthy boundaries check out Cloud & Townshend’s work in their books or at http://www.boundariesbooks.com .)

If (and in all honestly, I think for most of us it is not simply if but WHEN) that feelings of guilt and shame show up again during or after this process you can take your cue from Marie Kondo and tidy up your blame:

  1. thank your emotions for their role in your growth and gently remind yourself that these feelings have served their purpose in this situation. (Bye Felicia!)
  2. train your brain to think differently about the situation. You do NOT have to think negative thoughts about yourself, for any reason. When you catch yourself thinking those negative (and sometimes even horrible) things about yourself, stop yourself. I give you permission to not think bad things about yourself! (To the Left negative thoughts!)
  3. Then, as quickly as you can, fill that negative space with positive truths about who you are. This isn’t denying your feelings or negative thoughts, but making new pathways in your brain to create healthier mental and emotional habits. If you can’t think of anything good then reach out to people who love you (or even books!) to ask for perspective and help. But I bet, if you allow yourself the indulgence of enjoying who you truly are you will find some amazing things about who you were created to be. This isn’t pride, this is essential for health. You were created to be free, healthy, and whole. You weren’t created to deny the beautiful things about yourself. You are allowed to look for the positive in any situation, even in your own self.
  4. Practice daily gratefulness for each step. The emotions help us by letting us know to pay attention. Thank God for these emotional markers! Self-blame allows us the opportunity to acknowledge our weaknesses and give us the choice to change and grow. I’m so thankful for the ingrained ability to change and grow! Our brains have natural pathways, yes, but we have the ability to positively influence how we perceive ourselves and our place in this world. I am so grateful for this physical ability!
  5. Last but definitely not least, if you are practicing this and still feel stuck, ask for help. Shame is not a healthy home, so if you find yourself living there and can’t find your way out, then ask for help. Go to someone you know and trust who has gone through something similar and has come out of it in a healthy way. Look for the helpers, as Mr. Rodgers always said. Go find a counselor or professional that can help you work through these issues in a safe, caring environment. I can’t stress this enough. We are communal people not made for isolation, and if you feel isolated because of shame please please remember that is not where you have to live. Reaching out could be the bravest thing you ever do, because you deserve connection and freedom and love.

I had a rough time processing the birth of my kids. I held this ideal in my mind, a natural, unmedicated birth, and I ended up needing a cesarean for both kids. I judged myself, felt guilty wondering if I could or should have done anything else. Wondering, going back to the metaphor about superheroes and bad guys, if I am the bad guy.

I didn’t begin the road to healing until I started paying attention to my emotions, exploring them, and then laying down blame for not meeting my “ideal.” Not until then was I able to truly be grateful for what my body could do: form and hold a completely new human being, then make literal food for their infancy, and continue to be a soft (somewhat squishy) place for them to return to in the form of hugs as they grow up.

Maybe your body can’t do those things, and you have felt guilt for that. Those feelings are real and are saying Hey something is hurting here! Pay attention! So dive into them, ask for help if you need it, and re-write your story.

Mabye it’s not about childbirth but about any one of the things you blame yourself for, big or small.

Now I know identifying with constant self-blame, guilt, and shame is not more spiritual at all. To me, this is what that Jesus meant about denying yourself meant. It is denying the lies that you are the bad guy, wrestling with difficult situations and emotions, and ultimately choosing to believe good news about your place in this world.

What if we were all made to be heroes? You are definitely not the bad guy who deserves shame. You are wonderful and amazing and I can’t wait to see where you go on your journey.

Elisabeth