Moving Beyond Blame and Shame

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I work with so many children, so many parents, who struggle to feel competent and confident in themselves.  We rarely get to the end of our day with our “To Do” lists done.  Insidiously, this builds up an internal sense that we’ll never catch up, that we’re never enough.

On top of that, despite our best intentions, our children experience negative feedback from adults far more frequently than positive.  Many decades of learning theory and research have shown that humans learn best when they receive feedback with a 4:1 positive to negative ratio.  That’s true with behaviors of any kind (academic, athletic, social-emotional, vocational).

Too often kids hear just the opposite.  “No!” “Stop that.” “Knock it off.”  “No, do it this way.”  “How many times have I told you…”  These problem-focused, negatively-toned corrections happen far more often than positive messages of encouragement and affirmation.  When given authentically, not falsely, positive feedback loops help kids grow into more competent, confident, empathetic, and resilient individuals.  It’s how we all thrive, not just survive.

We experience this negativity bias all our lives, even as adults.  At home, at school, at work.  We begin to internalize this negative self-talk, going from the verb “I messed up” to the noun “I am messed up.”  With more negative experiences, we identify as being more negative, as having less worth.  We feel inadequate and insecure.  At times we may feel utterly flawed and broken, stupid and worthless.

Even many highly successful people suffer from the “imposter syndrome” – somehow believing that their successes are fraudulent or just plain lucky, and someday they’ll be found out.

All of this perpetuates a cycle of running around blaming and being blamed, which ultimately leads to a deep sense of inner shame.

To combat this negativity cycle, I have a saying I’ve developed over years of working with distressed families:

“No one’s to blame; every one’s responsible.”

We’re all a part of the problem; we can all be a part of the solution.  There’s no (constructive) point in finger-pointing – at ourselves or others.  It paralyzes people. It makes them more defensive and likely to counter-attack.  It promotes conflict, rather than cooperation.  It reduces trust, which is critical to productive problem-solving.

When we’re scared to show our true selves, afraid of being blamed and shamed, we live a life of being less than.  Less than we’re capable of.  Less than we’re meant to be.

Yet before we can contribute to more positive communication patterns with our family, friends, and colleagues, we need to do some inner work.  We need to pause and get real with our inner dialogue before trying to improve our outer dialogue.

To help with this, I call again on the wisdom and words of Tara Brach.  (I also highly recommend her newest book, Radical Compassion.).  We can apply her meditative practice of RAIN to help cleanse our spirit and wash away the toxins of negative self-talk.

RAIN is the process of:

  • R – Recognizing – what is here, now
  • A – Allowing – what is here to be here (not agreeing, but accepting “it is what it is”)
  • I – Investigating – what your thoughts, feelings, and sensations are here
  • N – Nurturing – yourself with what you need right now to be whole

I invite you to read and reflect on this guided meditation, adapted from Dr. Brach – or better yet, enjoy her 10-minute video yourself.  As she reminds us:

Our core fears (of inadequacy) grow in the context of feeling separate and disconnected from others.  To heal, we need a sense of belonging.  We need to reconnect – to ourselves and our world.  We need to reconnect in love.

When we feel inferior – or superior – we’ve lost touch with that sense of worth, of goodness.  Our judgement of ourselves – of others too – obscures the gold within each of us.

When we honor our own intrinsic worth, it allows us to honor the sacredness of all living beings.

PAUSE HERE to allow yourself a few full, quiet breaths.

Now, scanning your life, bring to mind an event or relationship that brings up suffering for you.  Some modest struggle you may have – or have recently had – with a partner, family member, friend, or someone at work.

When you’ve identified an experience where you feel hurt or angry or distanced –

Ask yourself, “What am I believing about myself?”

See if you can recognize – are you believing you’re not lovable?  You’re not worthy? Not able to handle things well?  That you’ll be rejected?

What’s your deepest belief about yourself?  Recognizing, as best you can, whatever you’re believing.

Now, for a moment, allow the awareness of this belief to just be here, in this moment.  

Not agreeing with this belief, just noting that it’s here, inside your mind.  Not needing to justify it or deny it or push it away.  Acknowledging and accepting simply that this negative thought, this fear or belief is here.

Shine the light of awareness and acceptance on this belief so you might begin to investigate it.

You might ask yourself, “Is it true?”

Is that true about me?  Is it really true?

See if you can sense the possibility of it being real, but not true.  This belief is real – you feel it – but it’s not necessarily true.

You might ask yourself, “How long have I been believing this about myself?”  There may be some image that comes to mind, some feelings that arise.

And then asking yourself, “What has it been like living with this belief?  This negative, limiting belief?”

How has it affected my relationships, my work, my moments at leisure?

How has it affected my body, my heart?

And now, from the place in you that’s most caring and wise, that’s witnessing all this, you might sense what’s most needed.

What does this part of you most need?  How does it want you to be with it?  How might you allow a nurturing sense of compassion to be here?

What’s the message you might offer it right now?  What might you ask yourself to trust or to remember?

If it helps, you may call on a spiritual figure or a friend or part of the natural world to help you offer care right now to yourself.

Or you might have your hands on your heart right now – perhaps offering care through your hands to your heart.

Now offering care, with the wish or prayer, to trust your goodness.  

To trust love.  To turn towards love.  To take refuge in love.

Take some moments to notice the presence that’s here.

Notice the shift, perhaps, from feeling a self that’s somewhat limited, being filled with negative beliefs about yourself, to noticing just this presence.

There might be just a few degrees of more openness, more tenderness, or profoundly so.

And you might ask yourself, “What would your life be like if you weren’t believing something was wrong with you?”

Perhaps you can feel it in your body – increased freedom.

“Who would you be if you didn’t believe something was wrong with you?”

And to feel in the depth of your heart that longing, that dedication, to waking up to the truth of who you – and we all – are.  To that sacred presence that lives through this life.

When you’re ready, PAUSE HERE to take a few full, quiet breaths.  Slowly open your eyes, and notice what it feels like, to be here, right now.


When we patiently, persistently practice this inner work of healing ourselves, then we can help heal our children.  We can help them, and our entire community, recover a sense of dignity and wholeness that is so desperately needed right now.

No one’s to blame.  Every one’s responsible.