Self-Blame: Controlling the Pain

Karen came in for counseling because one day she would have crying spells, another day she would have fits of rage, then she would withdraw into silence for three days. Karen was in danger of losing her job, her boyfriend and her friendships.

In talking to Karen, it turned out that her father was an overcritical bully and her mother was passive and disengaged. Karen’s mother could not protect the children from her husband’s painful insults and sarcasm. Karen, the youngest, took a terrible verbal beating from her father. He could not tolerate her weakness, helplessness, mistakes or any of the other attributes that most children have. He criticized her lisp, her walk, her posture, her dependency, and everything else that came to his attention.

During her second session, Karen opened up about a time when she was 6 years old.

“I guess I didn’t have very good judgement. I was playing on the back stairs landing and my ball took an unexpected bounce. I grabbed for it and leaned too far over the railing and landed on the ground in a patch of tall weeds. I was all scratched up, dirty and crying. I went in the back door to find my mother. My father was there. He called me a crybaby and spanked me for getting dirt all over the kitchen floor.”

Karen begins this recollection with a self-criticism about her “poor judgement,” as if judgement had anything to do with this debacle. As her father’s obedient daughter, she criticizes herself. Perhaps she thought it would be less painful if she ridiculed herself before he came around to do it for her.

Her father’s abuse taught Karen that she couldn’t do anything right. If something bad happened to her, it was her own fault for failing to prevent it. She assumed that her inability to accurately forecast the future was because she was stupid and a failure. The implication of father’s criticism was that other little girls never have accidents because they are smart enough to stay out of trouble. Karen learned to compare herself unfavorably to these mythical little girls and to feel inferior, stupid and guilty: “It’s all my fault.”

Now, twenty years later, faced with the loss of her latest boyfriend, Karen’s go to “logic” is to blame herself. She “knows” she is doing something wrong, she just doesn’t know what. If she could find out, maybe she could stop.

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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