Emotionally Recovering from Trauma – Self-Blame

A closer look at self-blame and its relationship to a traumatic experience is the third and final installment of this miniseries.  We have looked at the three most challenging emotions that are presented when recovering from a trauma.  Although logically it does not make sense to many people, including those who have survived a traumatic experience, self-blame can be one of the more difficult emotions to overcome.  This post will look at the underlying factors that follow a traumatic experience that perpetuate the feeling of self-blame.

Often times, self-blame develops out of a power and control dynamic.  Blaming oneself for any negative event experienced in one’s life is a way to feel like you are able to maintain a level of control.  Follow the logic.  If you believe that you are to blame for any part of your trauma, then you can feel like you might have control over preventing a similarly negative event from happening to you again in the future.  However, the reality is that you had no responsibility in the trauma that occurred and this focus of trying to prevent another trauma in the future is unrealistic.  There is no way that we can fully control the actions of others and trying to do so is only uselessly expending our effort and energy.  Self-blame causes additional damage by increasing stress, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and harsh self-criticism. 

Self-blame following a trauma will likely fit into one of two categories described below, character and/or behavioral self-blame. 

  • Character self-blame refers to essentially attacking yourself by focusing blame on personal characteristics that had previously been constant in your self-concept.  This blame then becomes global, applied to all areas of your life, and stable, maintaining for a long period of time.  This negative event, or repeated negative events, may encourage you to believe that there is something wrong with you or something within you that causes these events happen.  A sense of helplessness may develop as a response to believing that your traumatic experience was a punishment or inevitable.  However, it is important to remember that these were the actions of someone else and your self-worth is completely unrelated to the decisions of another person.
  • Behavioral self-blame is focusing on the belief that certain behaviors you engaged in brought about your trauma.  One may actually feel like they have more control if they focus on behavioral self-blame, as mentioned above.  The foundation of this self-blame is the belief of making a change to your behavior will lead to preventing a similar event from occurring in the future.  Often times these behavior changes become significant efforts to avoid any level of vulnerability.  This will also eventually damage current and healthy relationships.  Regret and anger can develop out of this type of self-blame.  The level of energy expended will become exhausting and the amount of time spent working to protect yourself will be wasted.  Although remembering that no one can be 100% safe 100% of the time may be hard and scary, it is the reality for everyone in the world.  Working to accept this will free you to get back that time and energy spent on unrealistic over-protection. 

This craving for a level of mastery over your traumatic experience will, unfortunately, only allow the self-blame to continue.  Letting go of the self-blame is a very difficult task.  Participating in trauma-specific therapy will assist you in being able to address feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame in a healthy way, allowing you to enjoy your life more fully.

Authored by:  Kaitlan Gibbons, PsyD