“I am not smart enough.”
He took a sizable exhale as if about to confess to a crime. He had decided it was time to “come clean.” His shoulders were slumped over, weighed down by years of internal strife and self-blame as he apologetically revealed this agonizing belief. We sat across from each other, with only his desk and his truth between us, in the office of the radically successful company he launched just four years prior. The gravity of this statement was palpable for both of us.
“Please, just don’t tell anyone,” he asked. Believing his self-proclaimed “ineptitude” was the cause of a recent business loss.
It would have been easy for me to express how the smartest people routinely sell themselves short. And that it is wise discrimination, and far more impressive, to recognize personal limitations instead of exhibiting illusory superiority. You know, the “brilliant jerk” type. Or perhaps, that smart people are more tolerant of ambiguity, a soft skill imperative to success as a leader.
However, because I have had the honor of sitting within offices of power for decades as a strategic business consultant, executive coach, and torchbearer for executive well-being, I can recognize the imperious grip of self-blame quickly. One thing I’ve learned is that nobody else can release that clench for us. And, even more importantly, it is simply not possible to judge or blame ourselves into improvement.
Self-Blame as a Means to Control
Self-blame is a futile control mechanism. We can’t fault ourselves. Every day, we are repeatedly exposed to conditions outside of our control. Behavioral self-blame is a maladaptive attempt to fulfill a genuine, primitive need for survival and psychological safety.
In my client’s case, his investors were coming down hard on him for an acquisition that recently fell through. There was nothing he could have done to salvage it. Instead of viewing it from that lens, accepting circumstances beyond his control, he perceived the loss as a direct hit to his long-term battle with self-worth and average intelligence.
Something is Wrong, or Something is Missing
When we take a direct hit and turn to self-blame, we become disconnected from reality and fall into a state of false mental constructs and stories. From this place, we often firmly believe that something is wrong or missing when things don’t go as planned.
This state of contraction leads us to attempt to experience something more. So we spin ourselves into an endless frenzy, feeling like we should be doing something different than what the present moment contains. Does this sound familiar?
In an attempt to regain control, we frantically aim to bring our environment in line with our desires (primary control) while aligning ourselves with our external environment (secondary control). Our intentions are good. We want to limit the future probability of a negative outcome for ourselves and those around us. However, we are operating from a deficient self. From that place, we cannot trust others, and we cannot trust ourselves. Enter the destructive loop of self-blame.
Science Says Self-Blame is Not Your Fault
Our limbic system, the part of the brain involved in behavioral and emotional responses anchored to survival, has habituated us to a state of hyper-vigilance. Beliefs such as “I am not smart enough, I am not safe, I am not worthy, and I am not lovable” have become deeply ingrained in our nervous system.
When we are triggered, as we frequently are, these stories show up and perpetuate our life experience. Since we are designed by our evolutionary frame to survive, our limbic system becomes highly reactive when we believe there’s even the slightest deficiency or threat.
As if feeling deficient isn’t tricky enough, we don’t like our insecurity; we don’t like our pain; we don’t like our anger. So, in a second attempt to control and protect, the ego makes a judgment call, steps in, and says: “there’s something wrong with me (and, potentially, you) for this.” Frequently, this condemnation is referred to as the second arrow. The limbic system loops again, defending our need for self-preservation even stronger. In concert with the ego, we now tell ourselves that we own the feelings. In the case of my client, this loop solidified the grip of his negative thoughts and embedded the story even deeper into his mental script as an undeniable truth.
“I am not smart enough” is born.
Marrying Burnout and Self-Blame
Societal and self-constructed standards are too high for most of us. The burnout rates across the globe have reached pandemic levels. We face daily chronic pressure and judgment that’s only exacerbated by a sense of unworthiness. In terms of our evolution, many experts would argue that we’ve hit a developmental arrest. As long as these thoughts are on repeat, and we identify them as our truth, shame and self-blame are the go-to control mechanism. This judgment obscures our ability to view our lives at the macro-level, and self-blame takes hold.
Fortunately, this does not have to be the end of the evolutionary story. Built into our nervous system, we can hack the limbic looping, loosening blame’s grip and shifting our identity. Sometimes we need the support of trusted thought partners to guide us through this process. It does take dedication and vigilance, but the investment pays off in all areas of our lives.
So, how can we begin?
Hacking Our System to Release Ourselves from Self-Blame
First, it’s important to note we didn’t sign up to repeatedly inflict self-blame upon ourselves. There is often a juxtaposition where we say “oh, that’s a familiar story,” identifying cyclical thoughts and self-defeating beliefs. Even as we recognize this conditioning, we continue to repeat patterns in a way that creates chronic blame. We cannot take it personally, but can isolate the storylines for inquiry, leading to a tectonic shift.
The key is to become aware of the story in real-time before blame arrives. Shine a light on it with curiosity instead of condemnation. Pause and reframe the belief.
The following exercise, inspired by psychologist and mindfulness teacher, Tara Brach, assists in loosening the grip of self-blame:
- Identify a situation today when you felt the clench of self-blame. Visualize it and ask:
- What stories am I telling myself?
- How am I relating to what’s going on?
- How am I relating to myself?
- Where am I harsh and judgmental?
- Where am I impatient and demeaning?
- How does this make me feel?
- Allow everything to be as it is. Refrain from criticism for the thoughts and feelings that arise. Stay with them and investigate what comes up for you. Try to stay out of problem-solving mode. We must be able to feel what’s underneath, to resolve it.
- Contact the fear, the guilt, the feelings of being flawed and notice where you sense it most in your body. There may be a squeeze or clench in the shoulders, throat, heart, or gut region. You may experience a hollow sensation or a sinking feeling. Check it out for yourself.
- Decide how you want to be with that place of hurt? Instead of shooting the second arrow, can you allow yourself to be compassionate toward it, and yourself? What does this place need from you?
You’re Too Busy Holding Onto Your Unworthiness
Most top performers live to achieve — what an exhilarating way to experience life. What we don’t talk about is how the external expectations of us exponentially increase with each success. We then feel the pressure to drive harder to hit the raised bar, which is a formula for three things: unworthiness, loneliness, and chronic self-blame.
Why are we so busy holding onto our flaws and sense of unworthiness? For one, we fear failure. However, we know we cannot judge or blame ourselves into improvement. In the broader sense, we experience conditioned sound bytes (thoughts) we are accepting as our truth.
The limiting stories feel comfortably familiar, reinforcing a perceived barrier of protection. In reality, the only thing we are sheltering ourselves from is the brilliant existence we hope for and know we’re capable of.
After many rounds of honest investigation together, my client was able to nurture the limiting story he burdened himself with for decades and call it out for what it was: fictitious.
Our life is as it is because we repeatedly tell ourselves who we are. Consider changing the channel. Ask yourself: How much of your life does self-blame impact? How does it separate you from others and from experiences you want to have in your life? What would your life be like if you could eradicate self-blame and finally trust who you are?
Brach, Tara. (2016). Releasing Self-Blame: Pathways to a Forgiving Heart. https://www.tarabrach.com/releasing-self-blame/
Rothbaum, F., Weisz, J. R., & Snyder, S. S. (1982). Changing the world and changing the self: A two-process model of perceived control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42(1), 5-37. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168