By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW
Many of the good people I see had really rough childhoods. Their psychological diagnosis is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. PTSD usually manifests in symptoms such as flashbacks, pervasive anxiety, an exaggerated startle response, dislike of surprises, controlling behavior and a sense of coming danger, as if they are always bracing for the other shoe to drop. The public has heard of PTSD, so the label provides trauma survivors an explanation of some of their behaviors and struggles.
But today, I want to go deeper into the effects of trauma. Let’s talk about self-blame. First, some basic developmental information: all kids think their parents are gods. Because the adults taking care of them have so much more power, life experience, understanding and agency then they do, children believe they control the world. And in a small way they do: they control (most of) the child’s world. I remember having a conversation with my son when he was four years old.
“Mommy, I want you to make it stop raining.”
“I can’t do that. I can’t control the weather.”
“Mommy just give it your best.”
“Sweetie. I can’t make it start or stop raining.”
“You can! You’re not even trying!” (starts crying in frustration).
Children believe their caretakers know everything and can do anything. Parents are the absolute compass for children, ever pointing in the “right” direction. So, when caretakers beat them, ignore them or sexually abuse them, the children blame themselves for causing it to happen. They think “it’s because I’m bad.”
And the perpetrators of abuse also add to this mistaken belief. They say things like,
“You were asking for it.”
“It’s your fault.”
“You’re more trouble than you’re worth.”
Self-blame is a perfectly reasonable survival mechanism for a young and dependent creature living in a dangerous family. It keeps the world in order. Parents remain gods. It allows them to believe change is possible: if this happens because I’m bad, well I can always change. Self-blame protects abused/neglected children from despair. It keeps them submissive and obedient to their parent/abusers, so more likely to survive and get some emotional needs met. In a dangerous childhood, self-blame makes a ton of sense.
News flash: it’s false. It never was and never could be the child’s fault that they are abused or ignored. Even though this belief system helped children survive lousy childhoods, it’s toxic to maintain in adulthood. Self-blame keeps trauma survivors committed to partners who are dishonest or unreliable, or who consistently berate and devalue them. It keeps them working long hours for withholding bosses. It makes it extremely difficult for them to set boundaries and follow through with consequences when other people trounce those boundaries. Self-blame is a false belief that needs to be grown out of, as soon as safety is attainable.
On the other end of the problematic coping style, there are those who refuse to take personal responsibility. Entitlement issues are also forged in childhood. Parents who don’t feel proud of themselves convey a religious-type worship of external accomplishments and accolades to their children. These kids grow up thinking they must become Nobel laureates or supermodels or Russel Wilson in order to be lovable. Because the mark of acceptability is so lofty, they never make it. Then they feel inferior, and hide it by pretending to be blameless and perfect. Because that is what they had to pretend to be in order to feel approved of as a child.
When entitled folks screw up, they can’t take responsibility. This is a problem because accepting reasonable responsibility is just as important as not taking over-responsibility.
It means admitting mistakes, apologizing WIITHOUT qualification, and understanding that one’s own comfort and convenience is of equal value to others. It means playing by the rules and not thinking of oneself as special or deserving extra cookies. People who cannot take personal responsibility often partner with…. those who take too much! It’s a perfect, gnarly marriage of entitlement to codependence.
We are all in this world trying to heal the wounds of our childhoods. The good and bad news is: if you struggle, you are not special. We all share this story of personal growth and joy and pain.