“Dear Fairy: My Therapist Says I Blame Myself Too Much. Is He Wrong?”

VIDEO TRANSCRIPT: Hi. I’m Anna Runkle also known as the Crappy Childhood Fairy. Today, I’m really excited, because I get to answer a reader question and I love giving advice. Someone wrote in to me and said, “My therapist says I apologize too much and I blame myself too much. Is he wrong?”

I love this question, because for those of us who grew up with a crappy childhood, this is like a problem that comes up over and over and over again where it’s like, “Is it my fault? Is it their fault? Am I totally about to mess things up right here if I don’t apologize or am I an idiot if I don’t runaway from the situation?”

If your therapist says that you’re apologizing or blaming yourself too much — I don’t know. I do know it’s possible to do that. I’ve done it, I’ve seen it done, I’ve had it done to me. I know that when it is done to me it feels icky.

Let’s take apologies and blame as two separate things. Okay, so apologies, how much is the right amount to apologize? When should we do it? We should do it the moment we realize we’ve hurt someone. It could be a small thing like you bump into somebody on the sidewalk or you take their plate away before they were done eating and say, “I’m sorry.” It could be a bigger thing like, “I’m sorry I didn’t call you back” or “I’m sorry I just don’t think we should see each other anymore.” We can say sorry that someone is hurting even when it wasn’t us who hurt them. When we really, really hurt somebody, this is a time when we would want to take big self-reflection to think about how did we hurt them, how would they feel about it, and prepare to really directly talk to them about it.

Okay, but what’s happening when we’re apologizing all over the place and just saying, “I’m sorry?” Now granted, when in doubt — “Should I apologize? Should I not apologize?” — in the moment, just apologize, don’t worry about it so much. Just don’t do it a million times!

When we’re over apologizing, as good as our intentions might be, it’s really selfish actually. What we’re doing is trying to make ourselves feel better and what it’s doing to the other person is making them uncomfortable. A true apology lightens the load on somebody and tells you, “I get it. I get the way I hurt you,” but dumping apologies on someone even though the intentions are good, it’s a form of manipulation. If you think about when people have over apologized to you, it’s awkward. It feels uncomfortable. It’s like somebody is making it all about them and they’re not really listening.

It’s the same thing with blame too. I remember when my dad knelt down on the floor when I was seven years old and told me that he and my mom were getting divorced. The first thing he said, he was like, “Now, I just want you to know, this is not your fault, all right? This does not have to do with you.” I was like, “Yeah, I know.”

But there were a lot of times in my life where I actually did, in painful situations, I wanted to find a way to believe it was my fault. Many times, I would try and try and try to make something right, but to no avail. I had no influence on things getting better. You know what? That’s one of the telltale signs that something is not your fault is that no matter what you do, you can’t really improve the situation. That’s one of the signs of how you know it’s not really your fault.

I had this really great period of my life where I was doing some really major inner house cleaning and for the first time really looking at some of the ways that I had hurt people in my life. It felt so good! It felt so good taking responsibility and apologizing to people. I’d spent years not dealing with that, but then I maybe went in the other direction and tried to take the blame for more things that were really my fault. You know why? Because if it’s my fault — if I broke it, I can fix it! It’s sad. There were broken relationships around my life. If it was my fault, then maybe I could heal the relationship. If I couldn’t heal the relationship, maybe it wasn’t mine to heal. I just saw that my “over” taking responsibility was more of an effort to control the situation.

Sometimes I just had to let things go. Sometimes letting things go, they come back to you like the poster on this wall in the 70s. That whole thing, that poster. “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours, if it doesn’t it never was.” I’m totally sure that that was some sort of a rationale from my friend’s parents to cheat on their spouses. I don’t know…

Miss reader who sent that question to me, I am totally with you about how confusing it gets figuring out what’s my fault and what’s somebody else’s fault and when I’m supposed to apologize.

Here’s a guideline: When in doubt, apologize. If you find yourself apologizing again, begin to wonder if your motives are a little suspect. If you’re apologizing 10 times for the same thing, you’re being a pain!

Remember, just because some of us are really generous about taking the blame for things, that doesn’t mean like that’s the only direction that we’re making a mistake. It’s really common to simultaneously take too much blame over here and not enough blame over here. It’s the same mechanism where we’re not perceiving things accurately, which is totally the wreckage of growing up in a crappy childhood house. What’s my fault, what’s not my fault?

This is what maturity is, right? To be able to stop in the middle of a situation that feels fraught and sense out what’s happening and how other people are affected and say something helpful, say something real, say something that reflects that we get it, that we are actually here in reality and not just being defensive or fantasizing that we’re in control of every situation.

I used to have a lot of struggles in this area. One thing that really helped me on my transition to being somebody who is a lot more comfortable perceiving reality was when I started writing down my fears and resentments regularly.

This is the stuff that was going in my mind. In every situation I was in, half of my mind was taking in what was actually happening and half of my mind was really preoccupied with memories and assumptions and triggers. I started to write the fear and resentment down and just keep having that removed, and being able to perceive clearly what was going on. It’s made a huge difference in my relationships and my ability to get ahead in life. I was able to stop reacting and start taking the small actions, step by step, to solve the problems that I was creating myself. That is what it looks like to recover from childhood PTSD.


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The Great Thing About Growing Up Poor


Hi, I’m Anna Runkle, also known as the Crappy Childhood Fairy. As many people know, I talk a lot about growing up poor. Now my family was a certain kind of poor. We weren’t like trailer poor and we weren’t like refugee poor. We were more like addiction poor, where we started out kind of middle class and educated, but then we started sliding down the ladder. As alcoholism took over my parents’ lives, it turned them from nice people into people who weren’t very stable. Then it took away their reasonableness, and then it took away their marriage, and then it took away their incomes. Then we stopped having the kind of money you would need to have things like vacations or trips to the dentist, or even utilities or car repairs. Eventually, there wasn’t really any sense of safety at all.

But, there are things I learned from growing up poor, by myself or with other kids, that have actually made my life really rich. First, we learned have to be tough. I don’t mean like street tough, because I was never like that, but like strong tough. We had to learn how to get ourselves to school, how to get our own homework done, how to feed ourselves, how to take care of younger siblings, how to stand up for ourselves with bullies or pervy relatives. We learned cool things like how to make a bike out of junk or how to make furniture out of stuff in the backyard, how to build our own forts, how to get some sleep in a noisy room, how to sleep in a car. Growing up poor gave me a sense of confidence maybe sooner than it came for other kids that no matter what happened I would be able to deal with it.

Another thing I learned being poor was how to be entrepreneurial. I figured out really young, starting when I was nine years old, how to start making some money. Because pretty soon into school, I wanted to start buying my own lunch. I qualified for free lunch and I was really embarrassed about it. Back in those days, they made you say a number. My number was 92. That was my lunch number. You had to say it right in front of everybody, and I was so embarrassed to be a free lunch kid that I would skip lunch. As soon as I could, I started making money to buy my own lunch. Even though I pretty much spent it on junk food, it gave me some pride to be able to do that. I did it by starting my own business.

By the time I was 15 I had started like four or five businesses doing things like babysitting, yard work, house painting, dog training, typing services, selling flowers on street corners, selling necklaces I made, selling baby sharks I harvested from dead sharks, housecleaning, selling baby rabbits that I raised. I put on magic shows for a quarter. I was always thinking of a way I could make some money. And you know what? As an adult, I have my own business. Having a business, because of my childhood experience, is kind of like second nature to me. I’m really grateful for that.

The best thing was I learned to be resourceful. Me and my friends knew how to work a thrift store like a salesperson works a room. We’d start at one end and just work our way through and go through like a machine through every item until we found the one thing that was really chic. In fact, I think that’s what punk was invented for, was for people like us to be able to be really cool, but for less than a dollar! We were like punks who knit, the punks who still clean up real nice so that they could keep their babysitting gigs. We were like punks who had our mothers’ hoopty cars out and had to push start them out in an intersection in the middle of the night, in high heels, in the rain.

I grew up poor, so I feel like I can do anything. I don’t always fit in everywhere, but I can have a conversation with anyone and feel something of what they’re going through. I’m not saying that I would choose to be poor, but if I had to go through it all again, I would still want to be like this: strong.

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See you next time!


Childhood Adversity, Telomeres & Love: An Interview with Susana DeLeón, MD

Today I share my abridged interview with psychiatrist Susana De Leon, MD. We are mutual fans on Twitter, and this is our conversation is about the way early trauma changes our DNA by damaging telomeres, with potentially serious consequences for our health and longevity. We talk about how she helps people build lives full of love and Continue reading “Childhood Adversity, Telomeres & Love: An Interview with Susana DeLeón, MD”

The Traumas We Inflict On Ourselves

When we talk about trauma, we are usually referring to the things done TO us — childhood abuse and neglect, growing up poor, violence by a partner, exposure to war…

But the more we were exposed to these traumas from an outside source, the more likely we are to adopt what I call “inside traumas” — the things we believe and do today that can actually make the effects of old traumas worse. They start as an innocent flight away Continue reading “The Traumas We Inflict On Ourselves”

Does Growing Up With Trauma in the House Make You Overweight?

Last year was the best year of my life. For one thing, I finally lost the extra weight I’d been carrying — about 40 pounds.

I was (and am) thrilled to be back in a right-sized body. I’m happy about how I look when I try on clothes, and about how I feel when I get out of bed in the morning. I even got a super-congratulations letter from my doctor when she saw my recent blood work.

Continue reading “Does Growing Up With Trauma in the House Make You Overweight?”

How to Have a Great Day (11 Tips For People with Childhood PTSD)

A lot of people who write about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) focus on the damage — the impact on mental health, the medical problems, the permanent changes to DNA, the behavioral challenges… But in my experience? There’s a whole lot of wiggle room in this wonderful life, driven not by our childhood experiences, but by how we approach today. I’m not just being philosophical here. These are my very practical, time Continue reading “How to Have a Great Day (11 Tips For People with Childhood PTSD)”

Divorced Parents Who Fight: How to Break The Cycle (a New Course)

I remember perfectly the warm wave of hope and relief I felt when my parents told me they were getting a divorce. I was seven.

My dad kneeled down in the hallway with me as he was leaving, his suitcase on the floor next to him, and promised it wasn’t my fault. I pretended I needed to hear this, but I knew perfectly well it was the two of them who had caused all the trouble. They had Continue reading “Divorced Parents Who Fight: How to Break The Cycle (a New Course)”

The Never-Ending Wreckage of Growing Up Poor

Today you’d probably lump me in with the middle class, but I carry some residue of having grown up poor. I work with people who work hard to help the poor, but have not themselves ever been poor. There are things they don’t understand.

People who grew up with money tend to think that poverty is something they can fix with things like education, “empowerment” or initiatives that almost always have the words “community,” “youth,” “program,” and “center” in them.

Continue reading “The Never-Ending Wreckage of Growing Up Poor”

Did Childhood PTSD Leave You With “The Underdog Effect?” Here’s How To Undo It.

This week, my video talks about the seeming cloud that can hang over folks who who went through a lot of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).  It’s a cloud made of negative outside stigma and our injured self-esteem. It limits us through tiny little changes in our habits, our judgment and our thinking. The good news is, there’s a Continue reading “Did Childhood PTSD Leave You With “The Underdog Effect?” Here’s How To Undo It.”