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by Heidi Hanson

artist, writer, trauma survivor

A decorative image with text saying it was not my fault

“It wasn’t your fault.”

This is such a healing, repairing message for trauma survivors.

In our society, all too frequently the conversation around a traumatic event shifts to the victim’s character, choices, faults, etc. as if to imply that something done to them was their fault. This is almost always untrue and it is harmful, traumatizing, and stigmatizing. It leaves emotional scars on top of the deep scars left by the traumatic events. It makes healing more difficult. And the fear of being blamed prevents people from coming forward and telling their stories.

“So many clients come to a therapist thinking that they have caused their own suffering. Shame and guilt are overwhelming sexually abused victims. Many would rather be insulted in some fashion and remain under the cloud of depression before admitting that they were assaulted.” — What If the Buzz Says, “Don’t Be a Victim”?

I am going to give you an introduction to Self-Blame or Internalized Blame the Victim here in this article, then expand into more of a comprehensive analysis of the blame the victim mentality in the next 9 parts of the Blame the Victim Series.

This series of articles constitutes a healing course or healing program addressing internalized blame the victim mentality.  If you read through all of it, it should help to shift any residual unconscious and/or conscious self-blame you may have.

How Does Self-Blame Affect Us?

Self-blame has been studied and there have been some interesting findings. I will share some of them here. This research is ongoing so it may change as more information is discovered.

“There are competing theories regarding the effects of self-blame attributions on psychological adjustment. Some researchers argue that attributions of self-blame correlate with poorer psychological adjustment, including symptoms of depression. For example, the reformulated learned helplessness model predicts that an internal locus of control for negative events can result in the loss of self-esteem, thereby negatively affecting psychological adjustment (Abramson et al., 1978).” source

This means that – When you blame yourself for bad things that happen in life, you can feel bad about yourself, have low self-esteem, and have symptoms of depression and poor psychological adjustment.

“Psychosocial adjustment or adaptation refers to people’s capacity to adapt to the environment, which implies that the individual has sufficient mechanisms to feel good, integrate, respond adequately to the demands of the environment, and achieve his or her objectives” source

Formula 1:

blame yourself for bad things that happen in life = feel bad about yourself, have low self-esteem, have symptoms of depression and poor psychological adjustment.

However, when we are talking about PTSD, when you blame yourself sometimes it’s helpful. Feeling in control and taking control of a situation can prevent PTSD symptoms from developing. Peter Levine tells a story of a boy who found a way out after a building collapsed around him and his friends. He took control and felt less PTSD symptoms. He probably did not blame himself for the building collapsing in the first place though.

“On the other hand, Janoff-Bulman and Wortman (1977) suggest that blaming oneself can positively affect adjustment, as was evidenced in their study of paralyzed accident victims. These authors hypothesized that perceptions of control were enhanced when victims blamed themselves for their accidents, as internal causes are perceived as controllable and therefore changeable.”

So, perhaps blaming oneself for everything – the cause of the harm as well as the cause of repairing the harm – and in this way enhancing a sense of control overall – can be good in specific circumstances.

Formula 2:

blame yourself for bad things that happen in life = feel in control, have less PTSD symptoms, have good psychological adjustment.

This does seem contradictory, doesn’t it? Blaming yourself can make you depressed but also prevent PTSD? The reason is because there are two kinds of self-blame.

Two Kinds of Self-Blame – Behavioral and Characterological

Behavioral Self-Blame

I did something wrong and it led to a bad outcome. I can always change what I do which will lead to a good outcome.

“Bennett, Compas, Beckjord, and Glinder Janoff-Bulman (1979, 1992) attempted to resolve these contradictory findings by distinguishing between two forms of self-blame. Behavioral self-blame is defined as blame that is directed at specific behaviors (e.g., “I did not eat the right foods.”) in which the person has engaged. Janoff-Bulman contended that when individuals attribute blame for a current stressor to past behaviors, and when they perceive those past behaviors to be modifiable, perceptions of control over future instances are enhanced. Enhancements in perceptions of control, in turn, positively affect psychological adjustment to the stressor. It is important to note that the beneficial effects of behavioral self-blame are not hypothesized to be immediate. Rather, it is proposed that an individual must incorporate this new information into his/her assumptive world, re-establishing and integrating these new data over time.”

Behavioral Self-Blame causes:

  • increased psychological adjustment to the issue at hand
  • reduced PTSD symptoms

Characterological Self-Blame

I am a bad person, and this led to a bad outcome. This will just continue like this forever.

“On the other hand, characterological self-blame is marked by blame that is directed to stable aspects of one’s personality and character (e.g., “I am the type of person who has bad things happen to her.”). Janoff-Bulman (1979, 1992) contended that this form of self-blame is linked to poor psychological adjustment because of its fatalistic nature. Characterological self-blame is likely to elicit feelings of helplessness and poor psychological adjustment because personality and character are considered unchangeable. Janoff-Bulman proposed that self-blame, as studied within the reformulated learned helplessness model, is likely to represent characterological processes whereby self-esteem and adjustment are negatively affected. At the center of the distinction between characterological and behavioral self-blame are perceptions of control, which Janoff-Bulman (1992) contends mediate the effects of self-blame on adjustment. “

Characterological Self-Blame causes

  • poor psycholgical adjustment
  • helplessness
  • low self asteem

Control is the Key

So, its helpful to perceive oneself in control of what happened and what is going to happen. It’s unhealthy to feel as if one is a terrible person because of what happened, and because of being a terrible, flawed person, more bad things are going to keep happening – in fact, not being in control of what happens at all.

In regards to PTSD, believing oneself to have been in control, having Behavioral Self-Blame, and feeling in control now and in the future, helps one heal from PTSD.  Characterological Self-Blame, on the other hand, adds depression and low self-esteem on top of the PTSD.

What is Internalized Blame the Victim?

Internalized Blame the Victim Mentality is a kind of Characterological Self-Blame. The feeling is of being a bad person.

4 Ways Internalized Self-Blame Harms and Why it is Crucial to Heal:

  1. Depression It adds depression and  to PTSD, making PTSD more challenging to handle.
  2. Lowers self-esteem. It lowers self esteem which makes healing more difficult.
  3. Self abuse. In my personal experience, it can be a kind of self-abuse, in which a person is shaming themselves unnecessarily for things they did not do.
  4. Identification. Feels like the Trauma IS Ourselves. The traumatic incident lives inside the body in a visceral way. Because it lives inside the body in such a felt way, it is so overwhelming if triggered, it feels like it was born our of us. But it was not born out of us. It was created by the perpetrator in us. In a way, we need to give it back to who it belongs to. It “belongs” to the perpetrator but lives inside us seemingly forever.

(I go over more harmful elements than this in the Blame the Victim Series. See 16 Ways Blaming Trauma Survivors Harms Them)

Ultimately, we can’t let something belonging to the perpetrator lower our self-esteem – it’s not even ours. It should lower their self-esteem. The idea of healing Internalized Blame the Victim Mentality is to not let something someone did to you lower your sense of self, self-esteem, self-respect. I think that healing this kind of Characterological Self-Blame is important for healing from trauma.

Ultimately, we can’t let something belonging to the perpetrator lower our self-esteem – it’s not even ours. It should lower their self-esteem.

The Blame the Victim 10 Part Series Table of Contents

Part 1 is this article – Healthy and Unhealthy Self-Blame – Intro to the Blame the Victim 10 Part Series (WAS: Why it’s So Crucial to Unburden Trauma Survivors of the Blame-the-Victim Mentality

Blame the Victim Part 2 – 16 Ways Blaming Trauma Survivors Harms Them

Blame the Victim Part 3 – 14 Signs You May Have Unconsciously Internalized Blame the Victim Mentality

Blame the Victim Part 4 – Trauma Symptoms Are Not Victims’ Fault

Blame the Victim Part 5 – New Age Blame the Victim

Blame the Victim Part 6 – 16 Things that Cause People to Blame the Victim

Blame the Victim Part 7 – 7 Blame the Victim Logical Problems

Blame the Victim Part 8 – The Healing Process

Blame the Victim Part 9 – 24 Non-Yes Yeses – The Subtle Nature of True Consent

Blame the Victim Part 10 – The Avoidance Part of PTSD Prevents Healing

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