When my son was 4, he was playing in the playground after kindergarten and decided to give the monkey bars a try. He always watched the other children swinging across but still liked me to hold him as he moved his arms from bar to bar.
This time he wanted to do it independently so he didn’t tell me he was going to do it.
I was standing less than 2 metres away, chatting to some other parents. I watched him running around with his friends before turning to acknowledge something one of the adults was saying. Next thing I knew, he was on the ground screaming.
It definitely wasn’t the first time he’d fallen over, so I wasn’t too alarmed but I quickly walked over to check and comfort him. I picked him up and saw that his chin was gaping open and bleeding profusely. He had fallen while trying to grab the first bar and hit his chin on a horizontal metal bar at the bottom of the equipment.
Luckily we were at school, so we rushed inside and the school nurse attended to him before sending us to emergency to have his chin glued back together (we thought he would need stitches, but luckily glue was enough!).
So many thoughts swirled through my mind during this incident. Firstly, since I have a very weak stomach for anything that involves gaping flesh and blood, I had to really manage my own thoughts to combat the queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Then there were these thoughts:
“I should have been watching.”
“If I’d stood closer I would have noticed he was climbing up to the monkey bars.”
“How could I have let that happen?!”
“I can’t believe he got injured almost right next to me! I’m a terrible mum for not paying more attention.”
I realise that accidents happen and that it wasn’t my fault. I also don’t want to be hovering over him watching his every move, especially in a familiar environment. But in that moment, when my child was hurting and afraid, I blamed myself.
Do you often blame yourself when things go wrong?
Perhaps even when the situation was out of your control?
Taking responsibility for your own actions and the consequences of those actions is an important element of maturity however sometimes we take that too far.
Learning self blame
You may have learned to blame yourself in childhood if you grew up in a household where things needed to be perfect all the time or where you were blamed for things going wrong, even when they had nothing to do with you. Or maybe you watched your own mother blamed herself for everything.
The pattern of self-blame is carried into adulthood and compounded by the pressure and responsibility placed on modern mothers to live up to the perfect mother ideal and set their children up for success in every possible way.
Society tends to blame mothers for their children’s problems or any difficulties the family is facing. People ask, “Where was their mother?”. Was she too permissive or too strict? Too distant or too close? Too empathetic or not empathetic enough? Too absent or a helicopter parent?
There’s plenty of judgement aimed at mothers for their parenting choices, and even their personal choices, like what they eat or the clothes they choose to wear each day. It seems everyone has an opinion on what a good mother should be doing and when we feel like others are blaming and criticising us, it’s easy for this to become our own voice.
We’ve internalised the expectations of mothers in modern society and believe them to be true, or just the way things are, so when we don’t meet them (they’re unrealistic) we blame our own personal shortcomings. We don’t hear others talking about their own struggles, so we assume it’s only us.
Is self blame helping us?
Many people think that criticising and blaming yourself is the best way to motivate yourself into improvement. But what it really does is eat away at your self confidence and self belief. When you feel so down on yourself, you’re not inspired to be your best self. You may also find it really hard to forgive yourself, long after the event. In some cases you might feel hopeless, like there’s no point trying to improve because you won’t be able to do it anyway.
Blaming ourselves excessively undermines our mental and physical health. It can significantly increase our stress levels but it can also serve a purpose. Subconsciously, we may choose to focus on blaming ourselves, because then we don’t have to confront the deeper, even more scary feelings of not being loveable, valuable or good enough. It can distract us from feelings like anxiety. So while it is functional, in the long run it is not addressing the real issues that cause us pain.
How to interrupt the pattern of self blame
If you’d like to interrupt the pattern of self blame in your life, here are some strategies you can try.
1. Consider what you want and can control
Remember that mothers are held to unattainable standards in modern society. May of us strive to meet these standards even when we don’t truly believe they are right for us. You have the power to unhook from these standards at any time, where you feel they are not right for you. What do you want instead for yourself and your family?
Also reflect on situations and identify what you are really responsible for, and what others are responsible for, rather than taking on all the responsibility. Consider factors that are out of your control like the environment, external events, and other people. In fact, the only things you can control are yourself and your actions! And even your actions can’t be totally controlled all the time. Think about a time you were highly stressed and overwhelmed, and then something triggered you and you lost your temper – did you feel like you had control over your response? In that moment, you probably didn’t because you were in fight or flight mode and the part of your brain that governs self control was not engaged.
2. Acknowledge and accept self-blame
You can take the heat out of self blame by accepting it’s presence in your life.
Next time you feel the self blame rising, acknowledge it, as if it was separate to you (because you are not your feelings, you are a person experiencing your feelings). “Hello self blame” or “There you are self blame”.
You might also say something like “I know I’ve listened to you in the past and in some way you are trying to help me”
Notice how self blame feels in your body. Do you feel tension anywhere?
Look for what the self-blame is showing you – it may be feelings of fear, or inadequacy, for example. Allow them to be there and acknowledge them, for example “You really wanted that outing to go smoothly. You wanted everyone to have a good time. You feel like you should have been able to make that happen. It’s not your fault that things didn’t go as planned.”
Take back control from self blame. “Self blame, what you’re saying isn’t supportive to me right now. I’ve got this.”
Avoid criticising the blame thoughts and feelings and allow them to be there in the background. The reality is that they won’t go away in a hurry, and perhaps not at all. But you can allow them to fade into the background and not have control over your life.
3. Practice self-compassion
When we’re blaming ourselves, we’re often not recognising our own humanity and the fact that we all fail. Practicing self compassion helps us interrupt the cycle of being unkind to ourselves and choose something more supportive, without minimising our pain.
Try this, with a hand on your heart to calm your nervous system:
a) Acknowledge that you are experiencing difficulty. “I’m having a hard time right now.”
b) Acknowledge that you are human and that all people face difficulties. “I’m not alone. Others struggle with this too.”
c) Extend yourself kindness by finding the kind words that bring comfort. For example, “I am strong, I can get through this” or “I am doing my best and always learning.”
Not all your thoughts are true
Remember, not everything you think is true. A tendency for self blame often gives us an inaccurate picture of events – giving us a sense of more control and responsibility than we really have or need to have.
We can make peace with self blame and accept it’s presence in our lives, while looking at situations more objectively and giving ourselves a whole lot of self compassion. This will allow self blame to fade into the background so it’s no longer having such an impact on you and your life.