10 Steps to Self Esteem: Step 3 - Stop Self Blame

Welcome to the third step of your 10 steps to solid self esteem

ACTION POINT! Remember to fill in your Progress Checker before you start.

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Neither blame nor praise yourself.

Plutarch (ancient Greek author)

In this step we are looking at the unhealthy habit of always – or at least way too often –blaming yourself when things don’t work out.

In the last step we looked at how low self esteem makes people under estimate how attractive they really are. But did you know it also makes people over estimate how much they are to blame for bad stuff that happens?

Sheila, put it like this:

I feel like I’m to blame for everything, for my parents’ divorce when I was young, for my son being bullied at school, for my husband drinking too much.

But if I try to work out why it’s my fault, I come up against a brick wall. It’s not logical. It’s as if I’m just at fault for being alive!

During this step I want to help you feel less ‘faulty just for being alive’.

One of the ways we can do that is to begin to develop a proper strategy for blaming yourself when things don’t go to plan.

The habit of unreasonable self blame often grows from being conditioned by peoplewho tend to blame others.

If we are blamed often enough by one or more such highly critical people – especially when young, but it can happen when you are older too – we will ‘internalise’ the idea that it is ‘our fault’.

Once this has happened, we hardly need anyone to tell us we’re wrong, or at fault. We have already rushed to condemn ourselves, even for things which are nothing to do with us.

Sheila (that’s not her real name, of course) even admitted that she had been raped as a young woman, but had never reported it because she blamed herself for the rape. This is awful, and the first thing to understand is that when you have a tendency to always find fault with yourself, then you can actually blame yourself for anything, and I mean anything.

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You’ll hardly believe this, but years ago I had a colleague who even blamed herself for the weather!

The forecast had been for fine, sunny weather. She had organised a big picnic for friends and family. And then it rained, and they had to call it all off. She could have blamed the unreliable forecasters, or the well known awful British climate, but oh no, she was so used to blaming herself that that’s what she did.

Blaming yourself less by becoming more generous (with blame)

As your self esteem improves you’ll find that you’ll become more generous with apportioning blame, rather than keeping it all for yourself.

But first we need to distinguish between blame and responsibility.

Blame v responsibility

When we blame somebody (and this can, of course, include ourselves), we feel emotional about it. ‘Blame’ implies feeling anger, regret and anxiety.

When we can see which people (or person, or circumstance) may be (and notice I say ‘may be’) responsible for some unwanted outcome, we might cast blame anywhere.

If my friend spills her coffee over me, and I’m fair-minded enough and know her well enough to see it was genuinely accidental, then even though I can clearly see he is responsible for my getting soaked, but I don’t have to blame him, because it was an accident.

I’m not suggesting we should never blame other people, or ourselves. What I am sayingis:

  • Distinguish result from intention. If someone, you included, didn’t mean to bring about that unfortunate outcome, then they (or you) may be responsible, but casting blame is an unnecessary waste of emotional energy.

  • Blame should have a ‘sell by date’. I may have been appropriately angry with myself over some bad thing I was responsible for in the past, but hanging on to that anger or self disappointment for longer than necessary eventually becomes almost self indulgent. If you punish yourself by constantly replaying in your head some bad event you blame yourself for, how long is your sentence? How long are you going to punish yourself for?

    If self blame serves any purpose, it is to teach us not to repeat a mistake. Once this lesson is learnt, the self blame is redundant.

    If you blame yourself for stuff that went wrong in the past, ask yourself two questions (and make sure you answer them too):

  • How fair is it for you to blame yourself for it anyway?

  • How long do you want to keep this self blame going? In other words, has the ‘punishment’ served its purpose – even if it is fair?

You could even, and I am being serious here, put a date on your calendar for when to stop self blaming. Demarcation rituals like this have a surprising power.

But self blame can present in everyday ways too.

Self blame minute to minute

Sheila said when she was at work she felt responsible for other people’s moods. And when it came to projects she was involved in, she felt totally responsible for how they turned out, no matter how many other people were working on them.

To start with, we focused on this minute by minute self blame:

I shoulder all the responsibility for whether a social event goes well. Even if I’m just having some drinks with friends I feel like it’s totally down to me to keep everybody happy all the time and I’m constantly anxious about how it’s going...

It was clear from this that Sheila’s ‘locus of control’ was out of kilter, and she needed to think more realistically about apportioning responsibility.

Let’s be reasonable

Our ‘locus of control’ means the extent to which we believe we control events.
If we believe we have complete 100% control over everything that happens, we have a completely internalised locus of control (It’s all down to me!).

If we believe we have no control whatever (0%) over anything, and are mere hapless victims of circumstance and the behavior of others, we have a completely externalised locus of control (Nothing is ever my fault!)

The woman who blamed herself for the bad weather spoiling her picnic assumed she was personally responsible (perhaps 100%) for the weather (and remember, the forecasters had been wrong!).

If that had happened to me, I would not have assumed any level of control (0%) over the weather, and so would not have felt in any way to blame for what happened, only disappointed that we didn’t get the nice picnic we were all looking forward to.

Of course, when we talked about this and discussed how she made her assumptions, she agreed that she had been taking responsibility (and blame) for something which really wasn’t within her control at all.

Exercise • A thought experiment

What percentage of control do you feel you have over the following, from 0% to 100%?

Write it down!

  • your health

  • the weather

  • your level of general knowledge

  • whether your friend is in a good mood or not

  • your partner’s happiness

  • the success of a party

  • how hard your child studies in school

  • whether your relationship lasts or ends

  • the world economy

Okay, some of these might seem a little silly, but it’s amazing how people score so differently.

For example, an astonishing number of people assume 100% responsibility over their relationship, or whether their child studies hard.

When we become more reasonable, we also assign (appropriate) responsibility to others.

If I go out for a drink with a friend and I am being my usual pleasant and charming self, and that friend continues to appear bored or bad tempered, then how much of that is down to them and how much down to me?

It’s not that we can’t influence situations, but when we feel we can or should totally control them, that’s when we start blaming ourselves unnecessarily.

Having an internal locus of control

Low self esteem leaves us prey to depression and other anxiety disorders.

Psychologist Martin Seligman found that when things go wrong, people with low self esteem who habitually use depressive thinking styles tend to internalise blame, sometimes in quite abstract ways.

For example, someone who asks themselves things like “Why do bad things always happen to me?”  is implying that the bad things are happening because of them.

They are not obviously accepting responsibility, but they feel as if it is something about them that is attracting or causing the bad luck.

When we externalise bad events we, hopefully, put responsibility where it genuinely belongs, but we also look for external (to us) reasons why it went wrong.

Here are some examples of

• internalising bad stuff and then globalising it (spreading it over everything – a perfect way to maintain low self esteem)

together with contrasting examples of

• externalising bad stuff and specifying it (recognising its limits – a much less depressive response to life’s disasters):

We broke up. I always ruin everything!

We broke up. We both had so much work pressure, our money worries didn’t help and we both could have been a bit more sensitive to one another!

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It’s also important to see how low self esteem and using a depressive bias makes people externalise when they’ve done well, rather than take credit.

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Exercise • Putting out the garbage

Start a logbook to record how you are processing good and bad stuff.

When something negative happens, notice when you automatically internalise the negative aspects.

Write down the event and the negative thought. For example:

EventX didn’t call me this week.
ThoughtI’ve driven him away. Our friendship has ended!

Then write down an alternative, less extreme explanation.

For example:

He’s probably been away.

The battery’s run down on his phone. He’s always forgetting to charge it.

You don’t have to believe the alternative. You are not trying to ‘be positive’ in an artificial way. You are simply practicing being less extreme and harsh and correspondingly more moderate and reasonable.

This is NOT a way of ‘letting yourself off the hook’.

(And remember not to globalise negative events by spreading the meaning to cover your core being: You know the kind of thing: This person left me – I’m just unlovable!  Keep specifics specific!)

Progress indicators

  • you notice when you are unfairly internalising negatives

  • you find you can more easily challenge this type of thinking and apportion responsibility more fairly to others and to outer circumstances

  • you feel more able to accept credit for what you have genuinely done well (even if it is for something you find ‘easy’)

  • you no longer continuously give yourself a hard time over mistakes or wrongs that happened a long time ago and recognise that punishment should have an end date

And once you have chewed over, and slowly digested, and completely absorbed into yourself the many contents of this step, then we’re on to Step 4, which will be all about dealing with a sense of feeling inferior to other people.


Get in touch if you would like to discuss hypnosis downloads to go with this step.

emma@emma2france.com ~ 07702 814690