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  • Writer's pictureJasmine Dixon

Breaking the Illusion: Self-blame ≠ Control.

“The worst guilt is to accept an unearned guilt.”
-Ayn Rand

When working through guilt or shame with a patient, I often suggest that they welcome these emotions as a quiet voice. A quiet voice that serves us by reminding us simply when we can be kinder to ourselves or others. Should that voice ever become a deafening shout, or an incessant droning, it is no longer serving us as it should. It can be turned down or muted, just as any song on a radio.

Although guilt and self-blame are commonly associated with low self-esteem or low self-worth, in my time as a therapist I have become ever more aware of the relationship between self-blame and control. A person may unconsciously take on unnecessary blame and guilt as a means of feeling a sense of control, especially when a negative experience is initially perceived as being unjustified. This unconscious defence mechanism can unfold as follows:

  1. An unexpected, emotionally painful event or situation occurs.

  2. The individual has limited, or no control over the negative event/situation. They are unable to see a way to stop the pain they are experiencing.

  3. They now have two options:

(i). Accept that the pain is entirely unjustified, unfair, and undeserved. Accept too however that they have little control over it, and that bad things can still happen to good people without warning or reason.

(ii). Believe that the pain is deserved. That they are responsible for the negative event/situation, and that the pain is simply a justified punishment. Believe too that in being responsible for the negative event, they are naturally also in control of it.

The unfortunate consequences of option (i) can be increased anxiety, anger, a sense of hopelessness, or a loss of motivation. The consequences of option (ii) however can be extremely damaged self-esteem, self-worth and confidence; excessive self-critical ruminations; catastrophising thoughts; and ultimately a stressful tendency to try and “fix” situations that are beyond our control.

Yet so many of us choose option ii because ultimately, it is easier to believe we deserve the pain we are in, than to accept that our suffering is unfair.

So, what choice do we have if both paths ultimately lead to negative consequences?

Control is an interesting concept. Some philosophers argue that we have no control. Some neuroscientists would instead maintain that all of our thoughts and actions are predetermined by our unconscious brain, meaning we have full unconscious control, and yet no conscious control whatsoever.

I instead uphold that we cannot expect to control everything. We live in a universe that does not allow it. Humans can not control the rotations of all its cogs and wheels. We cannot control lightning, tides, and volcanoes, as much as we can not control another person’s decisions, desires, or beliefs. In all situations however, there will be an aspect that we can control. It may be small or hard to find, but we fundamentally can control our own behaviours, how we treat others, and how we choose to move forward.

In option (i) we choose to accept that bad things can happen to good people, but we can also choose to ensure that this does not stop us from trying to do good, or from trying to live a full and enriched life alongside the pain that accompanies us. In doing so, pain can not control us, and we immerse ourselves in all that we can control.

“Remember – it is not what is happening, it is how you respond.”

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