How to Break the Cycle of Self-Blame as an HSP

An HSP deep in thought as she deals with self blame.

Have you ever been working on a group project and, when a mistake or problem surfaced, you automatically assumed you were to blame?

Or, when a person you know looks at you grumpily, do you assume they’re mad at you for some yet-to-be-discovered reason?

Assuming responsibility for mistakes that may not be yours can be emotionally exhausting and lead to problems, especially if it’s an automatic or “knee-jerk” reaction. As a result, you might feel emotionally off-balance — overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed.

Especially if you’re sensitive. Highly sensitive people (HSPs) may be more prone to immediately taking responsibility for problems and mistakes, given our conscientiousness and how strongly we react to emotions and conflict. Not only do we often “beat ourselves up” over a mistake, we can end up blaming ourselves for things even if we didn’t make a mistake — yes, even if it was someone else’s mistake.

Here’s why self-blame is so destructive, and how you can break the cycle.

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Why Do HSPs Blame Themselves?

To be clear, this kind of behavior isn’t restricted to HSPs — but I do think it’s a pitfall for us. Partly, this is just because we hate letting others down, and we’re very aware when other people are disappointed. We also tend to pick up on the emotions of others and react very strongly to criticism. That means that any sign that others are upset feels, to us, like a punch from a heavyweight.

And the line between “I want to make it better” and “it must be my fault” is a thin one.

But self-blame comes with consequences (whether it’s for a mistake that’s really ours or one that’s not). Over time, this tendency contributes to feelings of shame, anxiousness, insecurity, and a spiral of negative self-talk, leaving us vulnerable to depression and low self-worth. That’s unhealthy on its own, but it can also hurt us at work or in social situations, when we avoid taking an opportunity in order to minimize the chance of a mistake.

HSPs are also vulnerable to high levels of stress — and we can even feel that stress physically. We may experience stomach problems, headaches, sleep problems, or fatigue, making it harder to focus and do our best. As a result, we may have a harder time coping with mistakes, causing us to become further entangled in a self-blaming cycle.

3 Ways to Turn Off the ‘Blame Machine’ as an HSP

1. Take the panic out of it

When you catch yourself in the spiral of self-blame, it’s a good idea to treat it much like any other unhelpful emotion: take the panic out of it. One effective way to do that is by taking several deep breaths. Deep breathing helps reduce stress, including calming your heart rate, helping your body relax, and giving your mind the calm it needs to think.

Personally, I like to add a calming word or short phrase while I breathe deeply. This helps prevent the blaming thoughts from repeating over and over. I personally use “I’m okay,” but it can be anything soothing — it simply needs to have meaning to you (the word “peace” or simply counting will work just fine). While you’re breathing deeply, repeat the phrase quietly in your mind — you don’t need to say it out loud unless you want to.

Repeat this three or four times (or longer if you prefer), and only turn your attention back to the blame issue once you feel calmer.

2. Look at the situation objectively

Feelings of blame aren’t always about the issue itself. Often, they come from surprising places: whether we feel well-liked, who’s in charge, or how recently we’ve made other, unrelated mistakes. So it helps to get real about what happened.

Start by taking a moment to explore what your level of responsibility might be — before you make any conclusions. To be objective about it, try to step back by pretending you’re giving advice to a friend – not yourself. What really happened and why? What was your role here, and what actions did you take (not not take)?

If during this process you discover, yes — that was my responsibility — then own up to it, help problem-solve the situation, and learn from it to prevent future miscommunications. Remember that what really matters to others involved is whether they feel it’s been fixed, and that’s something you still have control over.

However, if you discover it was not your responsibility, remind yourself of that too. Don’t automatically take responsibility and don’t beat yourself up. If you can want to help problem-solve and come up with a solution, great. Just don’t take the blame.

3. Increase your self-compassion

A lot of times when we talk about compassion, it’s about how we treat others. But how kind you are to yourself matters, too (all the time — not just during the blame game!).

Dr. Kirstin Neff conducted research on self-compassion after becoming interested in Buddhism. She’s found that self-compassion can make it easier to handle and cope with mistakes. It also makes you more emotionally resilient in general, especially when it comes to painful emotions like fear, anger, or betrayal.

Dr. Neff recommends several practices that can help increase self-compassion:

  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can help you overcome your inner critic, be more present in your everyday life, and learn to observe and not judge your thoughts and feelings.  
  • Keep a journal. Journaling is a safe place to take note of situations where you thought harshly of yourself, judged yourself, or automatically took the blame. And it can help you change your viewpoint. For example: Would a friend treat you the same way you treated yourself? What would a friend say to you? If your friend had experienced this difficulty, what would you tell them? You can also use your journal to write down a kinder response that you can say to yourself — which can help put the brakes on self-blame.  
  • Remind yourself that you are not the only person to feel this way. This reduces the feeling of “woe is me” and helps connect you to the world and avoid feelings of isolation.

Dear HSP, Love Yourself

Everyone makes mistakes. And it’s healthy to be honest about them when they happen. But, automatically assuming you’re responsible is emotionally exhausting and leads to problems.

As an HSP, you provide a variety of qualities that others value: a strong work ethic, loyalty, and empathy, to name a few. Never assume you are the problem. By taking the time to implement and practice these strategies, you will minimize future occurrences of automatic self-blaming and strengthen your feelings of self-acceptance. This will allow you to evaluate mistakes honestly, taking ownership when appropriate — but without the burden of self-blame.

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