One of the beliefs that tends to go hand in hand with compulsive habits is some sense of, “I should’ve handled this better.” On some level, we blame ourselves for our bad habits, for our painful or dysfunctional coping strategies.
We can also blame ourselves for the original wounding, trauma, or overwhelm that led to these habits. Feelings of, “It’s all my fault,” or, “If I would’ve responded differently this never would’ve happened” are common.
We may say to ourselves, “It shouldn’t have bothered me so much” or “It wasn’t that big of a deal.”
And then, when we find ourselves stuck in our coping strategies – all the ways we’re trying to minimize or care for our pain – we may criticize ourselves, “Why can’t you get it together? Why can’t you make better choices?”
Ouch – it’s so painful.
Healing the shame of self blame
In a talk on trauma, meditation teacher and therapist Tara Brach spoke about the shame that lives underneath our ‘bad habits.” She said “something happens and we get traumatized, and we are coping as best as we can with these strategies – and then we hate ourselves for it because they don’t look good and feel good.”
I think that’s the core pain of ‘bad habits’ – on some level, we blame ourselves because we’re not coping better, and because they don’t look good, or feel good.
This blame creates a lot of anxiety and frustration, which tends to feed, not heal, our habits. It creates an urgent sense of “I need to fix this.”
So much pressure, so much tension. Such a sense of “I’m doing this wrong” or “I’m failing.”
The tenderness under blame
In many ways, self blame – and all the feelings of “I should be handling this better” – is a cover, a way we’re attempting to protect ourselves. For the feelings that live underneath self blame, frustration, and self criticism are often very, very tender.
It’s a space of vulnerability – where we face the ways we were hurt, we face our wounds, and we face our powerlessness to have responded differently.
Feeling this vulnerability and powerlessness is so tender, and so poignant, that we can paper over this tenderness by blaming ourselves.
The turning point from blame to forgiveness
There’s a turning point with our painful habits when we pause, let go of the self blame, and face our past. We bring soft eyes, and we see: “I couldn’t have made the past any different. I coped as best as I could. It wasn’t in my power to make it different.”
It can be painful to feel this powerlessness – and it’s freeing. For in feeling our powerlessness to change the past, we release ourselves from the power to have made it different, and the accompanying emotions of guilt, blame and criticism.
I think this turning point is self forgiveness.
Moving from self attack to self compassion
In my experience, as we move through this turning point, we begin to approach our ‘bad habits’ differently. There’s more understanding. More reverence and respect. More compassion. More softness.
We move from self attack – “Why can’t you do better?” to self compassion – “This is really hard.” Rather than attacking ourselves, we see the situation for what it is: something that challenges all these typical ways of caring for our hurts, fears and needs.
While the process of habit change may still be uncomfortable, and full of ups and downs, it’s much more doable because we’re not blaming ourselves for it.
With this approach, we have a greater chance of working with these habits to change them, rather than against them.
Self compassion – and this working with, rather than against – opens the door for something new to grow in its place. It feeds the soil that change is possible.
If you’re wrestling with something in your life that’s causing pain, or you’re feeling frustrated about getting caught in a painful habit, you might try pausing and telling yourself, ‘This is really hard.’ See if bringing in more compassion helps you respond differently.
This is so beautifully compassionate Karly. I like the way you go through the layers of feeling, to what is hidden beneath. Thank you.
Thank you for your note. I’m glad you found it helpful to move through all the layers of feeling. Sometimes there are several layers – each their own gem!
Very good advice thank you for your clarity and lucid communication on your site here. Having worked long and hard with my own ‘ungraceful’ reactive traits i have made a little progress but for me it can often be 2 steps forward 1 step back. I personally can see that my most stuborn and deep-seated unskilful traits stem from early formative years (0-10 years) experiences of parental abuse and being bullied. No suprise then i guess that there are some reactive states that i still experience even now into my 50’s that still crop up to sabotage situations- even after years of daily meditation, mindfulness and self help courses! Some off those early years coping programmes are so deeply ingrained i wonder how to ever be free of the pains i sometimes express and share with unfortunate others when i’m under presure?
Where to go next after we have really explored acceptance and self forgiveness? councilling with a Bohdisatva? is it possible to be truely free of problematic programmes? is it unreasonable to want that?
Thank you for writing. What a great question – can we ever be free? And how free can we get?
I can imagine how discouraging and disheartening it can feel when you’ve put so much care, intention and sincerity towards your healing and to not see the fruit that you’d like. Those places can be really tender.
In my experience, when we touch places in our being that are particularly ‘sticky,’ and spiritual practice, mindfulness or meditation are not resolving the pain, we may need additional resourcing. This is where trauma based support can be helpful – for the roots of that suffering may still be living in the body and nervous system.
You may like the work of Irene Lyon, Peter Levine, and Bessel van der Kolk – they do a good job of explaining this difference and the benefits of healing the nervous system.
Finding a therapist with trauma training who can help you move the trauma out of the body might be a very helpful step. Some of the body based therapies that people have found to be very helpful are EMDR and somatic experiencing. If you go to their websites, you can find a therapist who’s had this training in your area.