Self-criticism

Here’s an excerpt from chapter 2.

Why do people doubt, criticize, and blame themselves when they’ve been hurt?

Connie’s preoccupation with self-blame illustrates one of a handful of mechanisms that people automatically use in an effort to come to terms with distressing events. They seem to work in the moment. However, just because everyone uses them automatically does not make them effective or healthy.

In order to come to terms with stubborn pain, it is necessary to look at the tools you have been using to manage it, whether they support how you want to live, the purpose they attempt to serve, and their actual results. In the next chapters we will look at more effective approaches.

There is nothing more attention-turning, more distracting, than castigating ourselves for events. Nothing grabs our focus more completely. We don’t see the emotions lined up to be dealt with. Unfortunately, when we beat on ourselves, we close the doors of our awareness, so we see no options, no real opportunities to improve the situation or to get the heck out of there.We also do not accurately perceive what’s going on in the present…

While Connie’s defense mechanism is automatic at this point, unconsciously she is trying to achieve four goals through blaming herself:

~ First, she is distracting herself from seemingly intolerable emotions. Facing the feelings that keep surfacing after an event that already has you burdened with horrible visuals seems much too terrible. Our impulse is to counter feeling out-of-control and violated by using anything that imparts some sense of personal power. Under the circumstances, blaming the victim seems like a reasonable price to pay. And the problem is, it works great! In fact, nothing is as effective in turning one’s attention away from unacceptable feelings than as blaming oneself. Nothing grabs our focus more completely. However, doing so does not lay the incident to rest or help us move on. Like alcohol, drugs or other addictions, it simply covers the hurt with a maladaptive habit. [i]

Unfortunately, when we beat on ourselves, we close the doors of awareness. We don’t see the emotions lined up needing to be dealt with. We see no options, no real opportunities to improve the situation or to get the heck out of there. We also do not accurately perceive what is going on in the present.

~ Second, she is trying to gain some control over the situation, after the fact. There is nothing like being violently attacked to make you feel completely out of control. Helplessness is one of the least acceptable and most intolerable emotions. In order to counter it, people develop self-blame as a management technique very early in life. Children blame themselves for everything, both because they feel helpless and therefore endangered when bad things happen (and they hate it as much as we do), and because they naturally are self-centered: they have not yet developed the ability to see things from others’ points of view, so they assume that everything that happens relates to them. When children blame themselves for events, they are trying to assure themselves that they have some power, rather than being at the mercy of grown-ups and circumstances. If the child is at fault, then she believe that she can change events by affecting the only thing under her jurisdiction – herself. The psychological assumption is that if she can figure out what she did to make it happen in the past, she can stop a bad thing from happening in the future by changing her behavior, thus placing her in charge of the outcome. Survivors of violent or chronic abuse blame themselves for the same reason.

~ Third, it displaces danger, making it seem less threatening. Victims’ focus on trying to keep bad things from happening in the future also blocks their awareness from the fact that the bad thing already happened. Hypervigilance seems less threatening than attending to the fallout of the past.  The problem is that displacing the danger onto the future makes what is coming much scarier, affecting their adrenals and their outlook, inadvertently loading their sense of life with more danger and helplessness. And they are not taking care of the business already on their plates.

~ Fourth, it perpetuates the fantasy that they are loved and safe. Children also blame themselves for circumstances because they cannot tolerate feeling unloved. They cannot wrap their minds around the notion that an adult might not care about their well-being. It is impossible for a small child to face living in a world in which care-givers or other adults could be harmful. After all, children’s survival depends entirely on the concern of adults. They know this. If they can believe that something is their fault, then they can continue to see their parents as loving (and would behave lovingly if they had a decent child to deal with).

Adults blame themselves for the same reason. Psychologically, it seemed much better for Connie to blame herself. Doing so maintained the unconscious belief that, if only she were not an idiot and could figure out what she did wrong, she could maintain a vision of the world as a safe place in which people do not violently attack innocent strangers. Blaming yourself is a (futile) effort to gain some sense that the world is an okay place to live, and that you have some say in everything that happens.

Connie had become hyper-vigilant. At the first glimpse of any man walking by who remotely reminded her of the attacker, Connie would dart into the street rather than stay on the sidewalk. She was almost hit by cars several times. She changed the way she dressed, now covering herself as much as possible in baggy sweaters and pants. She stopped meeting friends at the local hangouts, staying in her room whenever she did not have a class or work.

These behaviors were similar to her unending self-analysis in that she was unconsciously attempting to prevent future occurrences through changing herself, as if she were in charge of whether she was attacked. Unfortunately, she was not addressing the real situation.  The longer she continued to do this, the more trouble it was to deal with the fact that she had already been attacked. She had feelings and hurts that needed to be addressed, before she, and her body, could realize that the attack was over.

What is accurate?

The parts of your nervous system charged with keeping you safe perceive danger based on what gets your adrenalin and anxiety going, whatever that may be. When you can take a deep breath and step back enough to see that your self-criticism and self-blame are not the voices of incontrovertible fact about you or about a situation, it is possible to notice that the criticism is designed to protect you from the perceived danger of your own painful emotions and memories. The voices of your own armament of self-blame don’t care about external proof at all. They will say anything in order to get you to step away from internal unrest. When you see that the real effect of their protection is that it holds you in an endless feedback loop in which the trauma is always present and looks as if it will repeat in the future, then you may be more able to mobilize your strength to risk questioning the veracity of your self-blame and eventually give it up. There is huge freedom in doing so. It is such a relief to experience the reality that you are not to blame for everything, and that in fact, not that much is under your control. It is a major milestone to realize that feeling helpless, while painful and scary, is preferable to beating ourselves up. It is more effective too, because it allows the release of the stranglehold of painful memories and allows us to move on. We feel more powerful when we learn effective ways to work with emotions, with the past, and with future situations.

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2 Responses to Self-criticism

  1. Emily Sloan says:

    Sarah, so much of the past and the present involves self blame..I see it in me as well as others…what a waste of time! Just lately I have been evaulating how destructive this can be and absolutely it blocks further undertstanding and development so one can move forward. It is comforting to see it explained so simply by you. Thank you!

    • Sarah Gillen says:

      Emily, thanks for your thoughtful comments. Yes, and I have found that the more people understand the internal purpose for various behaviors, in themselves and in others, the easier it is to make lasting change. Blessings!

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