Woman thinking at a table

How we internalise blame

In Community and Relationship by Barry VissellLeave a Comment

“We see you as a mother who made a big mistake, but you’re not defined by that mistake. And I see you as a mother who has more than made up for all the mistakes. You haven’t been a perfect parent, but who is? I feel deeply loved by you, and for that I am very grateful.”

 

We all carry some degree of self-blame, ways we accuse or condemn ourselves. Often these feelings come from our childhood, where we were blamed for mistakes we made. It’s sad how other people’s blame of us can turn into our blame of ourselves, which then often becomes our secret shame, and can keep us from the happiness we want. When we blame ourselves, it’s then easy to go to step two, which is unworthiness. Rather than seeing ourselves as good people who made mistakes, we can easily choose toxic blame which says we didn’t make mistakes, we ARE the mistakes. With toxic self-blame, there is the deep and hidden feeling that we don’t deserve to be happy and free.

When I was somewhere between 10 or 12, my mother described me as “very hard to handle and too strong-willed”. Now I understand this was my mother’s (and father’s) problem, not mine. They just weren’t strong enough, and didn’t have the tools, to set clear limits with me. I remember one incident vividly. My mother was standing in the kitchen cutting vegetables for dinner. I was wanting something that she didn’t want me to have. I was hoping I could wear her down until she gave in to me. So I persisted with my begging and pleading. She just stood there cutting the vegetables without saying another word. I didn’t know she was having a very hard day. I didn’t know how close she was to the breaking point. I simply wanted what I wanted.

I could never have been prepared for what happened next. Without warning, her hand shot out and the knife was plunged into my right forearm. Shocked at what she had just done, she pulled out the knife while I stared in disbelief at the stab wound in my arm that was beginning to bleed. Next thing I knew, she was pulling me into the bathroom and trying to stop the bleeding with a wet towel. My arm hurt, but didn’t have near the lifelong impact as the words I heard her say, “Now look at what you made me do!”

In my childlike mind it seemed crystal clear. My mother’s stabbing me was my fault! And in the years that followed, my mother often spoke about how incorrigible and stubborn I was at that age. Even Joyce heard about this early in our relationship. Of course, in my mature adult mind, I understood the stabbing was a significant mistake my mother had made, but I still carried my mother’s words with me in some deep childlike part of me. Self-blame was buried deep in my feelings.

One day in one of our workshops, when I was 50, I had an epiphany. I saw how I still held on in my feelings to my responsibility in the stabbing. I realised what I had needed as a child instead of this violence. I needed to hear something like, “Barry, I’m getting so upset that I could lose it right now!” I needed her emotional honesty. I needed clear limits.

I knew I needed to confront my mother. The timing was good. My mother had just broken her ankle, and I flew to San Diego to help her out. I worked up my courage during the visit, sat down on the couch next to her, and opened with, “Mom, remember the time when you stabbed me in the arm?”

Her response was immediate and almost automatic, “That was a time when you were so difficult…” But I was now prepared for that response, for the years-old story. I reached out and gently stopped her with my hand and spoke, “Mom, it’s never a child’s fault when a mother stabs a child.” I spoke without anger, just a certainty of the truth.

What happened next was what I had been needing for the last 40 or so years. She started to cry and very vulnerably spoke, “For two years after I stabbed you, I felt so bad about what I had done that I cried myself to sleep every single night. Barry, I’m so sorry.”

My heart melted. All I needed was for her to take responsibility for her own mistake. I suddenly felt closer than ever to my mom. I held her while she cried. I forgave her for stabbing me, for blaming me, for it all. Seeing her authentic pain, shame and remorse opened my heart to forgiveness.

Sometimes I tell the stabbing story in a workshop to emphasise the need to take responsibility for all our actions and words. And sometimes, during a phone call with my mother, I’d say, “Mom, I told the story about the stabbing in our last workshop.”

She’d say, “Oh Barry, people must think I’m a horrible mother!”

I’d reassure her, “No Mom, we all see you as a mother who made a big mistake, but you’re not defined by that mistake. And I see you as a mother who has more than made up for all the mistakes. You haven’t been a perfect parent, but who is? I feel deeply loved by you, and for that I am very grateful.”

Self-blame will never serve you. Look within to see if you, too, carry a long-held story where you have been blamed and now are blaming yourself, perhaps in the same way. No matter what mistakes you have made, you deserve love and forgiveness. And, come to think of it, so do your parents and anyone else who has wronged you.

My mother died last September, three days before her ninety-fifth birthday. When I look at the healed half-inch scar on my right forearm, I’m so glad I was able to heal this emotional wound with her.

About the Authors
Barry Vissell

Barry Vissell

Barry Vissell is a psychiatrist and counsellor near Santa Cruz, CA. He is widely regarded as among the world's top experts on conscious relationship and personal growth. He is a coauthor of The Shared Heart, Models of Love, Risk to Be Healed, The Heart’s Wisdom, Meant to Be, and A Mother’s Final Gift.

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