Self-Blame as an Anxiety Management Tool

Friday, April 27, 2012 15:41 | Filled in Uncategorized

Dear Dr. Stormy,

        I always think that everything is my fault. I try really hard to let others take responsibility for their own issues, but somehow the burden always comes back to me. I say to myself that certain things would never have happened if I had just been more aware, more understanding, or more loving. Intellectually I understand that this can’t possibly by true, but it sure feels like it. What can I do to lighten my load?


Dear Overburdened,

        Oftentimes we humans blame ourselves for whatever is happening because we just can’t face the fact that we don’t control everything. Powerlessness and its cousin helplessness are such intensely noxious feeling states for us to face that we will do almost anything to escape them. The anxiety surrounding them is just too great for us to bear. So we tell ourselves that we weren’t really powerless or helpless at all. We tell ourselves that there were plenty of other options — we just failed to choose the right one.

        Somehow this gives us a sense of control once again. The thought that there were other options from which to choose temporarily soothes our anxiety. Unfortunately, at the same time it puts the blame on us for whatever happened. Now we have terrible guilt or shame with which to contend.

         It would be better all around if we could just briefly acknowledge our feelings of powerlessness or helplessness. We won’t die from this. We might have to grieve or be sad for a little while, but at least we won’t have to concoct a story to convince ourselves that we actually were in control the whole time.

        Humans are a strange lot where powerlessness and helplessness are concerned. We would rather tell ourselves all kinds of crazy stories rather than acknowledge our reality. This, of course, stops us from attending to our feelings with presence and compassion. It also keeps us from formulating a plan for moving on, given whatever has happened.

        This phenomenon of creating a false sense of control in order to manage anxiety can be seen everywhere. It can be seen at a personal level, as you have described, right on up to an international level. For example, when one country is attacked by another, it is very common to hear people from the attacked country putting the blame on their own country. They might say that what happened was because their country was arrogant or had bad foreign policies. They might create conspiracy theories about their country’s culpability. They pretend that their country was the powerful center of everything and that all things are connected to it. Therefore, whatever happens must go back to the hub, to the epicenter of everything.

         Unfortunately, this is a bit of a narcissistic preoccupation. No person nor country, nor anything in between is the center of the universe. There are not invisible strings attached to every event that always lead back to oneself, one’s family, one’s city, or one’s country. The sooner we can come to terms with this the better. It may be frightening to think that we don’t have a say in every single thing in the universe, but it’s the truth. Some things happen because of other people’s issues, genetics, life experiences, cosmic life path, etc. Also, some events are simply accidental. We aren’t perfect.

        Since much free-floating anxiety is present because we are unable to identify the actual threat that we might be facing, I would suggest that you identify as much as possible what may be coming your way so that you can problem solve and fortify yourself with tools for dealing with the problem. Courageously face up to what’s in front of you. Remind yourself that you have the strength to deal with whatever life brings. If you feel like you don’t have the strength to deal with life, surround yourself with people who can advise you well. Remember to be realistic about what you face so that you can prepare and respond correctly. Finally, work on accepting what is rather than staying stuck on how you think things should have been. It’s always easier and more productive to problem solve what is. Also, humbly acknowledging that what is may be part of an overall growth plan for us can be very healing.

Dr. Stormy

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