Mind traps are ‘thinking errors’. They are inaccurate, negative automatic thoughts that can contribute to depression and anxiety. Some common mindtraps include all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization and discounting the positive – for example, “If I fail at math, it means I am a complete failure.” One of the greatest, most unproductive and destructive mind traps many of us face is self-blame. It’s as if the brain doesn’t know what to do with an uncomfortable feeling and it projects it inward. I am yet to see a single example where self-blame is constructive. We all make mistakes in life, some greater than others. But there is a simple truth worth understanding is that we all do the best we can with what we know in any given time.
- Self-blame is a ‘thinking error’ that could contribute to depression and anxiety,
- A study shows that a communication gap in two important areas of the brain causes depressed people to wallow in self-blame,
- A growth mindset or a learning mindset is about taking on challenges and learning from them. It can help you dismantle the loop of self-blame.
There’s a simple practice that can bring us back to our senses with a bit more self-compassion. This inevitably will lead to greater ease, understanding and refocussing on a more constructive path of health and well-being sooner. Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.
Ultrahuman Take: The neuroscience of self-blame
Research reveals an enhanced amygdala response in case of self-blame and regret. A relatively recent study lends credence to the idea put forth by Sigmund Freud – the highlight of depression is the tendency to blame oneself excessively. A communication gap in two important areas of the brain causes depressed people to wallow in self-blame. The good news is that neuroplasticity or the brain has the capacity to rewire itself. What’s more, the connection between these two areas of the brain (anterior temporal and subgenual cortices)
is influenced by learning. This also validates cognitive behaviour therapy that helps a person to substitute unhealthy patterns of thinking with constructive and productive ones.
The learning mindset
A growth mindset or a learning mindset is about taking on challenges and learning from them. It refers to the belief that intelligence can be developed as opposed to the ‘fixed mindset’ which prescribes the idea that our abilities are static. The learning mindset sees failure as the springboard of growth. According to Psychology Today, ‘self-criticism is the habit that ascribes every mistake, misstep, setback, or failure to fixed aspects of character or personality that can’t be changed, rather than seeing what went wrong in a larger, less personal context.’
Some of the ways to deal with self-blame include making a distinction between self-criticism and taking responsibility for ones actions, having a curious conversation with the self-critic in your mind and offering evidence against what it is saying, not reducing yourself to a flaw and looking at yourself with a holistic lens.
Breaking out the shame cycle
In Uncovering Happiness I share a very personal story where in my twenties I was incredibly destructive to my mind and body. I would be constantly caught in a web of blaming myself for the things I would do – only to do them again.
This kept me stuck in a shame cycle.
As the years progressed, I’ve come to understand that even though I thought I knew better at the time, with the experience I had and in the place I was in, I was doing the best I could, it could never have been any other way.
I learned along the way what I needed to do in order to get unstuck. I began to gain clarity on my values and took steps to begin walking alongside them. In doing this I experienced how self-compassion and purpose are natural anti-depressants or natural sources of resilience and confidence in life.
After becoming a psychologist and in more recent years, I was thrilled to see how the neuroscience backed this up. Consider what you might be blaming yourself for. What does the voice inside your head blame you for? Is it critical about your parenting, work, relationships, exercise, diet, sexuality or life in general? Or maybe your mind says that you’re not good at dealing with your stress, anxiety, depression, trauma or addictive behaviors? Or maybe it says you’re not trying hard enough to be mindful or compassionate?
The fact is that forgiveness is the quickest shortcut to beginning again and refocusing on what matters. This doesn’t mean we let ourselves off the hook. We learn from it and release the burden.
So take an inventory. What do you blame yourself for? Can you understand that at all times you are doing the best you can with what you know? Instead of blaming yourself for your history, learn from it, take the lessons and bring them into this present moment to begin again. This learning mindset is central to uncovering happiness.