I was asked a complex question which I would like to answer in this blog entry. The question was: why do people who survived a trauma like rape, abuse or being in combat zones, still blame themselves even though it was not their fault at all?
People need a sense of stability in their lives; a sense by which they can construct their lives. There is an inner need to believe that there is balance and justice in the world. Unfortunately, trauma survivors have the tendencies to believe that they brought the trauma upon themselves and that the trauma is their punishment for being “bad” or inadequate. Blaming oneself is a way in which one preserved the feeling of control over one’s life. The feeling of mastery helps to reduce the anxiety that a trauma will re-occur, but at the same time it makes the trauma survivor more vulnerable to pathology.
Individuals, who react to trauma with a sense of self-blame, feel that they are responsible for the negative events that occurred in their lives. A misguided sense of power over uncontrollable events has strong demoralizing and self-defeating consequences. Furthermore, self-blame is linked with more distress, anxiety, depression, harsh self-criticism, low self-worth and poorer recovery from trauma (Harvey & Pauwels, 2000). Self-blame is in fact an additional and internal trauma that individuals, who survived the unimaginable, inflict upon themselves. The survivor keeps thinking about the event and what he or she could have said and done differently. The individual feels responsible for what he or she did not feel/do or guilt for what he or she did feel/do. The images keep re-occurring in the individual’s mind and dreams. A re-enactment is an attempt to replay the situation and make it more acceptable. In the hope to relieve the burden and the self-blame, one remains stuck with the images, a fact that also causes a degree of psychological incapacity.
Self-blame can be divided into two types: character self-blame and behavioural self-blame (Jannof- Bulman, & Timko, 1987). Blaming one’s own character means focusing the blame on enduring and stable characteristics. An attribution of blame toward the character is global and stable. Repeated experience of negative events will suggest that there is something in the person that makes the events happen. The individual believes that it happened to him/her because of who s/he is. The individual perceives the self as evil and bad to the core. One might even believe that one was singled out because of some deviation of character. The trauma was the punishment. Character self-blame is associated with depression and low self-esteem. It makes the future seem helpless, unchangeable and uncontrollable. There is a sense of passivity, since they believe that their actions will not make a difference.
Behavioural self-blame refers to the blame of behaviour choices that produced the negative outcomes. The distinction between the two types is associated with perceived controllability. If one believes that a different behaviour could have produced different outcomes, one actually believes in the own ability to control and direct situations. By realizing that something happened because of “bad” behaviour, it also fosters the idea that it can be avoided in the future. Behavioural self-blame reduces therefore the perception of vulnerability. The belief that a change in behaviour will reduce the likelihood of reoccurrence of an event is seen as an adaptive coping method. Behavioural self-blame also promotes the belief in the ability to control, change and avoid negative outcomes. Believing that the future can be different, promotes positive feelings of control and motivation. Thoughts are invested in strategies that can be applied in the future and/or similar circumstances. These strategies can help avoid re-victimization. Nevertheless, behavioural self-blame can also raise anger and hate towards the self. Anger rises due to the thought that one could have done something to prevent the tragedy and yet did nothing. Intense self-hate reduces the ability to cope, to adapt to the trauma and increases the risk of suicidal behaviour (Everly & Lating, 1995).
Survivors try to create meaning to the terrible trauma that they have endured. In this manner, they try to understand why the trauma occurred to them and diminish the sense of uncontrollability of the world. It appears that trauma survivors have the tendency to believe that they brought the trauma upon themselves. The craving for feelings of mastery makes the trauma survivor more vulnerable to pathology. Part of the self-blame tendency also originates due to modern society’s attribution of free will. Modern society tries to cultivate the belief that one is responsible for one’s life (Lamb, 1996). If one is responsible for one’s own life, than one is also responsible for anything that goes wrong in it. Self-blame originates from this simple deduction. The question that needs to be debated is how much free will do we actually posses? Don’t we need to take situational factors into account before we the blame the victim, or before the victim blames himself or herself?
Everley, G. S., & Lating, J. M. (1995). Psychotraumatology: key papers and core concepts in post traumatic stress. New York: Plenum press.
Harvey, J. H., & Pauwels, B. G. (2000). Posttraumatic stress theory: research and application. Philadelphia: Brunner-Mazel.
Janoff-Bulman, R., & Timko, C. (1987). Coping with traumatic life events: the role of denial in the light of people’s assumptive world. In C. R. Snyder & C. Ford (Eds.), Coping with negative life events: clinical and social psychological perspectives. New York: Plenum
Lamb, S. (1996). The trouble with blame: victims, perpetrators, and responsibility.Cambridge: Harvard university press.