“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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Anna

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Anna Runkle

I'm founder and CEO of Click to Play Media, a video production company, and author of the Crappy Childhood Fairy blog.

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