When blaming yourself for your own suffering becomes a core belief.
When I started having back pain recently, I blamed myself—because surely it could only have been caused by my laziness or weakness or my chronic slouch.
But no. I was born without hip sockets. As a result, my thighbones are dissimilar lengths. This makes slouching nearly inevitable and causes musculoskeletal imbalances that, at fifty-plus, can really hurt.
But my first impulse was to blame myself because self-loathing has some nasty siblings such as self-doubt, self-harm, self-blame and self-sabotage who love to egg each other on.
The most resourceful of them is self-blame. In any circumstances, even apparently golden ones, it will find something to attack.
This began long ago, when—like all babies—we thought the world revolved around us. During those first developmental stages, that's all the survival-focused human mind can do. So if others mistreated us—neglected, frightened, and/or hurt us—we assumed this was our fault. Blaming ourselves for our own suffering became a core belief.
Here are some common things for which we tend to blame ourselves—and some possible reasons why these things might not be our fault.
For each item, please add three personal, specific reasons of your own. Kate didn't acknowledge the birthday card I sent, but that's not because she hates me. It's because she has three rambunctious toddlers. Or is a busy brain surgeon. Or submarine captain. Or is just forgetful.
— Other people's moods are not our fault. A coworker starts throwing things. A friend gazes blankly out a window. Instantly we blame ourselves—especially if we were raised by people who told us that we made them sad or mad. Each adult's moods are his or her responsibility. "Bad" moods often have many triggers, some of them subconscious or seemingly trivial. Traffic? Headache? A cancelled date? Given the vast multitude of potential causes, we're unlikely to be among them.
— Illness is not our fault. Few things are scarier than sickness. Seeking order in this chaos, we seek "causes"—and some of us make ourselves the cause: If only I had urged him to see a doctor sooner. If only I had eaten less candy. If only… But nature is harsh and random. Nonsmokers can get lung cancer; marathoners can have heart attacks. Yes, we should live healthily, but if something goes wrong, we must remember that germs, genes, chemistry, history, and a million other factors are involved.
— Other people's unresponsiveness is not our fault. When our texts, calls and emails go unanswered, it's infinitely easy to blame ourselves. Our cleverly negative minds create Oscar worthy scenes in which the recipients react to our missives with rage, scorn and/or boredom, glaring or grinning or yawning as they hit "delete." Here again, just as we did when we were babies wondering why Dad screamed at us or Mom drank whiskey while our diapers stayed wet, we overestimate our own importance. Hard as it is—for me as well—we must practice opening our minds to the literally thousands of possible causes for our recipients' silence. They could be busy, grieving, incapacitated, ill, offline, away. They could be overwhelmed or overworked. Their phones might have been lost or stolen. They might be composing a reply right now. They might be rude.
In all seriousness, although some of these might look like jokes at first, here are a few other things that you might mistakenly think are your fault—which you might believe you caused, deliberately or not, through some dire constellation of personal flaws—but which are not your fault: crimes in which you were victimized. Abuse inflicted on you. Other people's suicides. Anxiety. Depression. Other people's lack of courtesy: their thank-you notes unsent, your kindnesses to them ignored, taken for granted, unreturned.
Now make your list of things you mistakenly thought—or think—were and/or are your fault. While making it, keep reminding yourself: The world is very large and life is very complicated and people are very different and so many millions of possible reasons might exist for nearly everything: reasons that mercifully, freeingly, legitimately have nothing to do with me.