As a psychologist, I have worked with many families, teens, adults, and couples. And in this work, I have noticed a very interesting thing. Every family handles blame differently, and every individual person develops his or her own style of handling blame.
Generally, I have noticed 4 specific styles.
4 Ways Of Handling Blame
- Externalizers: These are folks who automatically look for someone or something to blame when things go wrong, and it’s almost never themselves. Externalizers are like Teflon when it comes to blame.
- Internalizers: Take too much responsibility for problems when they arise, and turn the blame toward themselves, even when they don’t even remotely deserve it.
- Balanced: These people recognize and own their own mistakes, while also taking a realistic and balanced account of the contribution of other people and circumstances.
- Inconsistent Internalizers: This involves blaming yourself harshly and often, but also flipping over to the extreme opposite at key times, letting yourself off the hook and failing to hold yourself accountable when you should. There is little in-between these two extremes. This style is common in people who grew up with Emotional Neglect.
The best way to become an Externalizer or an Internalizer or an Inconsistent Internalizer is to grow up in a family that handles blame in an unbalanced way. A family’s unbalanced approach to blame sets its children up to be either overly harsh with themselves or to be Teflon. Or to be Category 4, someone who flips.
3 Ways Families Handle Blame
- Automatically look for someone to blame when things go wrong and tend toward assigning the blame harshly.
- Ignore the concept of blame completely and tend to let each other off the hook for virtually everything. Special Note: most of these families are emotionally neglectful.
- Don’t seem to need the concept of blame, and instead hold each other responsible for mistakes while also being kind and reasonable about it.
You may have surmised that Family #3 is the one that handles blame in the healthiest way. But before we get to that, let’s talk about you. How do you deal with blame?
Chances are high that your way of dealing with blame as an adult is rooted in the way your family dealt with it while you were growing up. Even if you wouldn’t classify yourself as a clear Externalizer or Internalizer, you probably have a general tendency to go more in one direction than the other.
As long as your way of dealing with blame is close enough to the balanced Family #3 description above, you will probably manage okay. But if it’s too close to Option 1 or 2, you may be experiencing some negative effects on your life. And since this is the way you grew up, you are probably unaware that it’s a problem.
Extreme Externalizers tend to be personality disordered in some way. When you are virtually unable to take responsibility for your mistakes and choices, it is very hard to learn from them. This can lead you to repeat your mistakes and to take paths in your life that continue to harm you.
Extreme Internalizers often find themselves depressed or anxious, or both. You become drained by the internal voice in your head accusing you, blaming you and perhaps even criticizing you. It’s also easy to become stuck in your life when you are taking too much responsibility for everything that has, is, or may go wrong and direct mistakes, mishaps, and problems harshly against yourself.
Inconsistent Internalizers flip back and forth between the two extremes described above. So you suffer the drain and pain of the harsh self-judgments and self-criticism, but you also have another disadvantage. Since you are busy attacking yourself or letting yourself off the hook, you also have a hard time learning from your mistakes. And you may end up feeling stuck in your life as a result.
The Role of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)
A harsh, un-compassionate, externalizing family is almost definitely emotionally neglectful. But so is the family that skirts responsibility among its members, allowing the children’s errors and poor decisions to go unchecked.
As we have discussed in many other previous blogs, growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect is a recipe for self-blame and shame. And these two types of families do little toward teaching you how to allow yourself to be human, own your mistakes and problems without harshness, and approach them in a balanced way.
How To Teach Your Children — And Yourself — The Balanced Way: Practice Compassionate Accountability
Practicing Compassionate Accountability protects you from all of the negative effects of over-externalizing and over-internalizing. It involves these steps:
- Acknowledging that something went wrong and that you may have made a mistake that’s caused a problem for yourself and perhaps others too.
- Thinking through how this went wrong. How much was someone else’s contribution? How much was due to external circumstances? And what was my own contribution to this problem?
- Asking yourself: What can I learn from this? How can I prevent this from happening again in the future?
- Taking forth some new knowledge or growth from this unfortunate experience. Then putting it behind you.
In Compassionate Accountability there is freedom. Freedom from attack, freedom from harm, and freedom from getting stuck.
By acknowledging, owning, considering and learning, you are taking accountability, but also showing yourself compassion. You are treating yourself the way you wish your parents had treated you as a child.
No Emotional Neglect, no harshness. Just you, being human. Making mistakes and learning from them, exactly as we all are meant to do.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible and difficult to remember so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. it’s free.
To learn more about how to raise your children with Compassionate Accountability, and practice it for yourself, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.