The Self-Blame Trap

It’s easy to look back on events and think “I should have known better!” It might not be the kindest thought to offer yourself, but sometimes it gives you information about how you would like to handle a situation differently in the future. Or, you might say that hindsight is 20/20 and dismiss it.

For people who have experienced trauma, it might not be that easy to let go of thoughts about previous events. One of the symptoms of PTSD is re-experiencing (meaning the event plays over and over again in your head). They may find themselves thinking about what happened and looking for new information about how they could have handled things differently. Usually, people reach one conclusion: they could have done something to prevent what happened. Perhaps, someone in their life even told them that this was true.  People who have experienced trauma as a child or in a relationship might find this statement to be particularly true.

Many people make sense of situations by blaming themselves. Usually, it falls into one of two categories: believing there’s something wrong with yourself (thoughts like “I’m a bad person” or “I’m defective”) or thinking that you could have taken a specific action to prevent what happened. However, that’s not true. Traumatic events not about a person’s character or actions that they could have taken. Traumatic events are about how what happened overwhelmed that person’s ability to cope. Fundamentally, these events aren’t supposed to make sense through self-blame. Yet, it’s such an easy response.

It makes sense to take responsibility. In fact, it’s a cultural value to take do so. It gives you a sense of control to think that there are things that you can do to stay safe. The illusion of control can be comforting. We all like to think “If I just do x, then y won’t happen again.” It feels like you have a sense of mastery over what happened. However, these thoughts are also linked with higher levels of depression and anxiety and greater difficulty recovering from trauma (Harvey & Pauwels, 2000). When you take responsibility for things that were not your fault, you internalize what happened in a way that prevents trauma processing. It’s not grounded in fact, and it’s easy to find yourself in a loop of trying to make sense of a situation that will never make sense.

Self-blame is also a strategy that people use in order to feel safe. They avoid social interaction, trying new things or leaving the house. Using self-blame, it’s easy to reach the conclusion that these strategies will prevent what happened from happening again in the future. It’s an illusion, though, and one that can cause a lot of suffering.


What’s the alternative to self-blame? Saying “What happened was not my fault.”


Even knowing how painful it is, it can be difficult to let go of self-blame and acknowledge that what happened was not your fault. It means being open to the possibility of putting responsibility back where it belongs: in the situation or in the other person. It’s scary to think that, though, because it might feel like you are opening yourself up to vulnerability. It can be terrifying to give up the illusion of safety that self-blame provides. That safety is an illusion, though. My guess is that if you could have prevented what happened, you would have. Very rarely do people choose the path that causes long-term suffering.

Even if you know all of this logically, it can be challenging to feel like it’s true. Part of you may not want to let go of the control, the safety, the reassurance that it all provides. We all like having plans to fix things. When you let go of self-blame, it can feel like you are letting go of your safety net. It might mean that painful emotions start to bubble up in ways that are difficult to push back down. Being with the difficult emotions that come with letting go is not easy. You don’t have to do it alone.

Working with a therapist, you can build safety strategies so you don’t feel like you are leaping with wild abandon into the abyss of fear. There is grey in the middle. There is a place that you can acknowledge what happened without swinging from one extreme (“So what? I’ll do anything if I can’t prevent terrible things from happening”) to the other (self-blame).

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