This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…
“Why do I always feel like everything is always my fault?”
There’s a famous scene in the movie Good Will Hunting where the late, great, Robin Williams repeatedly tells Matt Damon’s character “It’s not your fault” until he breaks down into tears, hugging Robin Williams. Change happens.
Feeling like you’re always to blame for what goes wrong in your relationships is common to the experience of many with depression, and it incapacitates people. In the face of bad treatment from others, in the grip of distress, rejection or hurt, it causes us to collapse. Unable to fight, we instead fall into despair.
See, everyone knows you’re bad. Everyone knows it’s your fault.
Good Will Hunting may have acted out an unrealistic solution to Will’s despair and shame, but it was right about the causes.
Children’s worlds are small, and they are naturally inclined to place themselves at the centre of their own universe. They are also constantly soaking up information from the world around them to help them figure out who they are, and their place in the world.
If a child is treated with hate and intolerance, it will naturally figure it deserves it. To be treated as if one doesn’t matter, is to come to believe one doesn’t matter.
Abuse, neglect, put downs, excessive discipline: these can all lead a child to form the idea that they are treated badly because they are bad.
“If I just try harder, if I am good, then perhaps they’ll treat me better.”
The fault of the parents becomes the shame of the child, and shame over time turns into self-blame.
The task then is not to simply try to convince ourselves it isn’t out fault, but to learn to feel compassion for ourselves, but more specifically to harness the power of healthy anger.
When self-blame dominates, anger turns towards inwards, at the cost of being able to healthily express anger outwards. In the face of bad behaviour by others as adults, once more we blame ourselves, and feel the need to keep trying to make the relationship work by trying harder.
The ability to protect ourselves, to utilise anger in the service of caring for ourselves, is vital in relationships.
Because while we’re frequently told we should take responsibility for our own actions, when it is actually someone else’s bad behaviour at fault we should blame them. Then blame and anger leads to self-protection.
Self-care isn’t just about being kind, about bubble baths and positive thoughts. It’s also about caring enough about ourselves to be in our own corner, to be our own protector. Even when, especially when, it feels like no one else is.
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