Situation 1: Hiking with friends, I relish the sea breeze but keep falling farther behind. Briskly they stride, disappearing from view, neither noticing nor apparently minding the distance between us.
I think: It's my fault for not keeping up. It's my fault for—despite being otherwise in great shape—walking with a slight limp. It's my fault for not shouting after them to wait. I'm too slow. And a wimp.
Situation 2: A relative habitually interrupts me. She talks nonstop about her work friends. The second I open my mouth, she cuts me off or gazes distractedly into space.
I think: It's my fault for feeling impatient while she talks. It's my fault for resenting and envying her work friends. It's my fault for not being interesting enough to seize her attention.
One of the most tragically classic aspects of low self-esteem is that it makes us blame ourselves for things that aren't our fault.
If rain cancels the track meet, we apologize. Knock our phones from our hands onto the floor; tread on our feet: We apologize.
Low self-esteem lends us a sense of negative omnipotence. We not only cause disasters but are also capable, or so we think, of driving everyone away. Any stated reason anyone offers for rejecting our invitation or missing an appointment with us—flat tire, typhoon, illness—we assume is false and that, whoever they are, they'd rather be anywhere, doing anything, with anyone other than us.
This assumption is a learned behavior. It's a reflex, a habit and a compulsion that we can forcibly un-learn. This will be difficult, because we see it not as a belief or a behavior but as a fact. It's rooted in the very core of our self-image: this idea that whatever goes wrong we caused by our ugliness, meanness, ingnorance, incompetence, thoughtlessness or whatever form our self-perceived badness assumes. It's like some perversion of the Law of Attraction: in our case, the Law of Rejection.
OK, sure: Some things are our fault. That's natural. We're human. We blow it sometimes because everyone does. For us, healing lies in learning to contain our reflexive urge to blame ourselves and, instead, to assess mindfully (a) what, if anything, has gone wrong and (b) who or what, if anything, made it go wrong; and then (c) to act on those assessments. If someone or something besides ourselves is at fault—which, statistically speaking, is far more probable then all fault being ours—then we can choose to blame or forgive, to roll with the situation or rail against it. But at least we won't be making ourselves the center of (negative) attention by automatically convicting ourselves.
In a sense, self-blame is taking the easy way out. Painful as it might be, self-blame saves us the trouble of thinking critically. And it shields us from the discomfort—and potential years of subsequent labor—that comes of facing, challenging and changing self-destructive core beliefs.
If, and only if, we caused harm, we can learn to take responsibility: not by throwing ourselves upon virtual swords but by making authentic amends. Arriving late to a party whose givers expected us at a certain time, we can apologize—and maybe stay afterwards to help them clean up.
The fact that the caterer didn't bring enough canapés to this party, that some of the other guests got into fights, that the tiki torches wouldn't light —those weren't your fault. Accept this, and rejoice.