Sometimes you have to use shock to make a point. Sensing I’d get away with it, I said to my chronically self-blaming client Claire:
“You know, there’s a kind of greed in snatching all the blame. You and I have our fair share of responsibilities, but we shouldn’t be grabbing too many pieces of the blame pie. Not when some of those pieces rightly belong to other people. Why should you grab all the blame? It’s just greedy!”
(Understand I said this with what I hoped was a jocular glint in my eye!)
I noticed Claire’s lower lip tremble. Then, for the first time, she laughed with me. Not a polite laugh like the ones that had punctuated our initial meeting. This was different. A genuine laugh and a real connection. Which was great because I had (sort of) been joking.
When her chortling died down, she replied with her lovely Irish brogue, “Well, no therapist has ever called me greedy before. You’re not too PC, are you Mark?” But I could tell my un-PC words had appealed to her. She was plain speaking, so I was too.
Then, in mock seriousness, she said, “Gosh, Mark, are therapists even allowed to say what you just said to their clients? Isn’t that victim blaming?”
“Oh, and you haven’t been victim blaming?” She laughed a little at that too. But she also looked pensive. My reframe of excessive self-blaming as a form of greed had obviously cast it in a new light for her.
“And now I have to blame myself for being greedy, I suppose!”
“Or you could just stop being greedy!”
She laughed again. “I’ll remember what you said… next time I’m being ‘greedy’!”
Earlier in the session Claire had described how she always blamed herself for everything. She took the blame for her sister’s marriage break-up, her son’s laziness at university, her husband’s dissatisfaction with his job.
“I immediately feel responsible,” she admitted. “For everyone. When my neighbour got depressed, I immediately wondered, was I not good enough to her? Was I not helping her enough? I don’t even watch the news anymore, because I feel like I should be doing more – but I don’t know what.”
I wasn’t surprised when Claire told me she was prone to depression. In fact, even as she spoke, she exhibited three common depressive thinking biases.
How to think like a depressed person
Martin Seligman, who was also the first to describe ‘learned helplessness‘, found that children who showed certain thinking styles in the way they explained events to themselves were much more prone to developing depression.1
He also found that when he taught kids who were vulnerable to depression (because of the way they responded to life) to change their ‘explanatory styles’, they were much less likely to depress.
So, just quickly, what are the explanatory styles that leave people at risk of sliding into depression?
First, those prone to depression tend to globalize negative events, going from ‘this specifically is bad’ to ‘all generally is bad’: “I failed my test in college (specific), so my life is ruined (global)!”
Second, they tend to stabilize the negative in their mind – and also in their language – so that the badness is felt as permanent, a fixed and therefore hopeless state of affairs. They use words like ‘never’ or ‘ever’ when describing negatives:
- “I’ve never been any good.”
- “Things will never get better.”
- “Nothing ever works out for me.”
But any positives are seen as temporary and fragile: “Yes, my relationship is great at the moment, but what worries me is that it’s too good to last!”
Third, those prone to depression have a tendency to blame themselves or, in psychological parlance, to ‘internalize’ negatives. This is the part of the self-destructive thinking triad we’re looking at here.
Blame isn’t spread evenly; it’s collected up and applied exclusively to oneself.
So, for example, if a person prone to internalizing negatives (and also externalizing positives!) experiences a relationship breakup – which may have been the result of myriad factors – they will tend to take the line: “The relationship ended because I screw up everything!” (Notice how this also manages to globalize the negative too!)
People prone to internalizing negatives like Claire also tend to externalize things that go well:
- “Yes, they agreed to go out with me, but it’s probably only because they feel sorry for me!”
- “Yes, they said I did a good job, but they are just being kind!”
So you see the bias here? When stuff doesn’t work, it’s my fault (exclusively), but when it does work, it was luck, or other people, or maybe it didn’t actually go well at all but people just said it did. This is the formula for low self-esteem and is often part of the ‘maintenance mechanism’ of depression.
So my first suggestion for helping people overcome excessive self-blame is:
1. Get used to generating other possibilities
We leap to conclusions and concoct assumptions almost before what happens even happens:
“This proves I’m stupid/wicked/weak… or all of the above! I’m a terrible person. I’m rotten to the core. I’m the loser I always suspected I was. Why else would my co-worker not seem to acknowledge me when I smiled and said ‘hello’?”
In the blink of a self-blaming eye our feelings are confirmed by what we think about something. And if you feel responsible for everything then other people’s failings become your failings.
Quite a neat trick of self-sabotage.
But we can teach our clients to get creative with their explanations. Okay, so why else? What other reasons, other than you being a faulty product of nature, might there be for an event or situation?
There is a kind of inverse hubris in feeling that everything is about you (or your terribleness). It’s as though people feel the world revolves around them, but without the conceit and arrogance that normally tracks along with those kinds of perceptions. I jokingly said to Claire, “It’s not always about you, you know!” But I wasn’t really joking.
She told me she felt terrible because her son spent his time partying but not studying. I asked her to generate three possible reasons unrelated to her and her “lack of encouragement”. She thought for a while and eventually suggested:
- “Maybe he’s surrounded by other people who party all the time. Maybe he’s just going along with the crowd.”
- “Maybe it’s his way of coping with being away from home for the first time.”
- “Maybe he’s just finally letting his hair down and relaxing and enjoying his freedom because he’s 18 years old!”
Claire also acknowledged that, in fact, she had and did encourage him to study.
I asked Claire to generate three possible external reasons why her husband might not like his job and why her sister’s marriage had ended. I suggested that these possible causes might not be right, but they might be.
Ask your client to engage in thought experiments: “If someone says hello to a co-worker at work and that usually friendly co-worker blanks them, what are some possible causes for this which don’t lead to the assumption that the person has done something wrong?”
They can then use their creativity to fill in the gaps as to possible non-self-blaming reasons. Martin Seligman carried out many thought experiments like this in children at risk of developing depression and found that helping them loosen up their thinking had a kind of inoculation effect.
Like any skill, the more this is practised the better your clients will get at generating multiple possible causes for events they would have previously exclusively blamed on themselves.
People who self-blame discount, ignore, or fail to see the role of other people. We need to teach them to overcome this bias.
2. Share the blame fairly (and don’t even think of it as ‘blame’)
I would repeatedly ask Claire what responsibility other people had for a situation. What part did they play? If someone mugs me I might blame myself for walking in the wrong part of town, for wearing a flashy watch and so on, and that might be a part of it, but ultimately, who actually did the mugging?
Did Claire’s sister and her husband play any part in their own marriage breakdown? Was it simply that Claire hadn’t always welcomed her former brother-in-law into her home because she (quite rightly by the sound of it) didn’t trust him?
Was it just Claire’s fault? Could Claire be generous in sharing out the responsibility pie? I asked her facetiously whether anyone else had been in her sister’s marriage other than just Claire. She found that quite funny, but she got the point. I asked her to practise sharing out the ‘pie’ when thinking about all the things in her life she felt largely responsible for.
Next, we can consider how people see themselves and what they expect.
3. Examine client expectations
Expectations shape life experience.
We can only be disappointed, shocked, or delightedly surprised if we were expecting something else.
The feeling of disappointment is a real opportunity for self-knowledge. When people disappoint themselves or are disappointed by others, we can ask: What exactly was the expectation? The answer to that question tells us how the person feels life should be.
Sometimes we all need to relax our expectations to see what is actually there. To do that we may need to be calm and also examine our own expectations.
What do your clients expect from themselves? And what do they expect from others? Are these expectations reasonable?
Continual disappointment in oneself or others, or gratitude for any crumb of decency from others, may tell us more about what we are like than how ‘life is treating’ us.
I asked Claire what she felt she should be like. “I like to do things perfectly”, she told me. “I do have very high standards for myself.” Maladaptive perfectionism can cause people real problems.
But it seems that Claire only had these rigid expectations of herself, not of others. In fact, she had low expectations of other people. If a mutual endeavour didn’t work out the way she had decided it must work out, she would take it exclusively upon her own head. ‘My fault’, not ‘our fault’.
So we can help our clients by examining their expectations. And also working to loosen them up a little.
When clients excessively self-blame, we can also explore with them what their intentions had been. Did they want things to go wrong?
Claire had studied mythology, so when she was in trance I spoke to her about the Greek gods. They were gods, yet still they had weaknesses, foibles, and personal failings. Without this human side, they would have been totally unrelatable and disconnected from the human world.
I suggested Claire might have some goddess-like qualities, but surely she wanted a human life.
Helping our clients observe and relax their own expectations links to my next tip. In fact, it enables the next tip.
4. Help your client become less sure of themselves
We human beings love simple causes for stuff. And if that obvious cause doesn’t immediately manifest, we get creative. We get the imagination involved, we make stuff up, and we believe it. We make believe.
It’s a great paradox that those with low self-esteem, or who just tend to overly self-blame, are extremely sure of themselves.
Your job is to rock that surety.
Someone hasn’t texted back and it’s been all of thirty seconds? I don’t know why they haven’t texted back, so I make up a reason (“I’ve upset them!”), and I believe my fantasy. Of course, the fantasy might be right. But it might not be. I need to read reality, not just reference my own imaginings.
But if you must imagine, imagine relaxing with not knowing. Imagine being able to hold a meaning vacuum in your mind until actual, real information comes to fill that vacuum. Resist filling the meaning vacuum with imagination, and instead let it sit empty for a while until real knowledge fills it.
Psychotherapists call this skill of relaxing with not knowing ‘tolerating ambiguity’.
“I don’t know why my co-worker seemed to snub me. Maybe they are distracted by worries, maybe they are really tired, maybe they are angry with someone else or at themselves, or… or, maybe I don’t need to know right now because I don’t have enough information.”
So the first step is generating other possible factors which don’t necessarily have to do with your client, and then we can teach them to be cool with not knowing, and not having to know right now. Tolerating ambiguity and even relaxing with it.
In order to relax with uncertainty, we need to relax in general, and I’ll come on to that in tip five. But we can certainly talk to our clients about meaning vacuums and not prematurely filling them with fantasy.
Claire had never thought about things in this way before and found it useful. She loved to do things well, and she wanted to master the skill of being cool with not having to know too.
5. Soothe the feelings so thoughts behave
It’s amazing what people feel they can or should be able to control, and also what they can’t possibly influence. Getting these assumptions wrong has major effects on people’s lives.
For example, some people think they should be 100% responsible for whether someone else is happy or not. One client I knew organized a picnic for her family on a day the forecast had been good. But it rained. She still ruminated about her ‘stupidity’ years later. She was to blame for the capricious wiles of the weather!
Others feel they can’t control what they could have more control over, such as their own feelings. “I hope I don’t cry or ‘lose it’ during this conversation!” Understanding our client’s locus of control can be really important. To what extent do they feel they do or should control different elements in their lives?
I asked Claire about specific times in which she blamed herself excessively. She told me that whenever she saw her son’s social media updates in which he joked about not having done work at university she would feel as though she were failing him.
I taught her to relax deeply using clinical hypnosis and to experience seeing updates like that and feeling calm and open, recognizing his (major) part in that, but relaxing with that too.
If we don’t let people have their own problems we don’t let them have their life. Feeling we have to solve everyone’s problems can be seen as a form of devouring others’ independence, of theft. Yes, I know that sounds strong, but it’s a point worth considering.
Sometimes we need to learn to set boundaries with others, but sometimes we also need to learn to set boundaries within ourselves.
Troublesome thoughts tend to come from troublesome feelings.2 (The opposite of what classical cognitive therapy models seem to suggest!) So we can work with our clients to directly calm and relax their feelings around issues of self-blame, and that’s just what I did with Claire.
This isn’t about letting people off the hook when they actually do hold some responsibility. Indeed, we’ve seen the dangers of never taking responsibility, of always blaming others without taking personal responsibility into account.
But chronic self-blamers are not likely to ever be people who take no responsibility or excessively blame every person and thing other than themselves.
Claire told me she was happy to let go of all that ‘greediness’.
Tyranny is tyranny, even when it’s self-imposed. And Claire didn’t need or deserve to live under tyranny.
And for clients who are prone to depression as a result of self-blame, or any other reason, our How to Lift Depression Fast online course provides a structured approach to depression treatment. You can read about it here, and sign up to be notified when the course is open for booking.
- I recommend Seligman’s ‘Learned Optimism’ https://www.amazon.co.uk/Learned-Optimism-Change-Your-Mind/dp/1400078393 for details of his research and findings in this area.
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