Are You a Blame Absorber?

Everything in the world is not your fault, even if it feels that way.

A red haired woman hiding the bottom half of her face with a sweater.
A red haired woman hiding the bottom half of her face with a sweater.
Photo by JJ Jordan on Unsplash

tend to absorb all the blame, all the time, like a sponge. As a highly sensitive person, a woman and a trauma survivor, I’m especially susceptible to the default mode of ‘Blame Absorber’.

Blame Absorber is a common feedback profile where we over-accept blame in conflict or criticism. For Blame Absorbers, “when things go wrong, you point the finger at yourself, now and forever,” write Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone in Thanks for the Feedback: the Art and Science of Receiving Feedback Well.

How to Know if You’re a Blame Absorber

You order delivery food. It arrives two hours past the expected delivery time. You apologize to both your partner and the delivery driver.

An employee calls you a “bitch” in your performance review. They do not give any constructive criticism, only name-calling. You assume you are just a bad, unlikable manager.

Your article isn’t published. You assume you are not a good writer.

Your partner cheats on you. You assume you must not have been attractive, attentive, or interesting enough.

You bump into a chair. You then apologize to the chair.

It’s raining. Must have been something you said.

If this sounds like you… You might be a Blame Absorber.

Try not to blame yourself for being a Blame Absorber.

Be aware of this pattern, but don’t add more to your “This is all my fault” list. There are many reasons people learn to be Blame Absorbers.

You are not alone, especially if you are a sensitive person or if you identify as a woman. Research suggests that not only do women apologize more, they perceive more offenses to apologize for than men.

Maybe women apologize more because we are socialized to be overly accommodating and absorb the blame. Or maybe women just see more blame to absorb when living our lives and taking up enough space to occasionally bump into a chair.

I learned to be a Blame Absorber when I was in an abusive relationship. I survived by engaging in as little conflict as possible through absorbing all the blame. If this is you, there’s no shame in how you survived. I see you.

We are a product of our choices but also of our lived experiences, environment, and identities. You may have adopted blame absorbing in response to societal pressure, to cope or survive, but it does not serve you or others in the long run.

Absorbing Blame seems noble, but there are consequences.

While it may seem like you’re being nice by absorbing all the blame, it hinders learning just like rejecting responsibility outright. You are powerful but you aren’t so powerful that everything in the world is 100% your fault.

“Absorbers tend to see their contribution to the problem and stop there.” — Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone

Accountability is accepting responsibility for the role you played in conflict, decision, or outcome and ideally followed by meaningful action.

Absorbing blame is a bad coping strategy that ignores other factors at play such as context, environment, the actions of others, and society.

Whether you are protecting your feelings or the feelings of others, it is hard to take meaningful action without considering all the factors at play. Your employee may have called you a “bitch,” but what is going on in their home life? What is going on in your home life? Did your company recently deliver news of pay cuts or impending layoffs?

Your next step depends on this important context. Feedback and failure are for nothing if you can’t craft meaningful action to follow.

It is even worse if you’re absorbing blame for trivial things beyond your control, like the late delivery or the weather. This is seriously draining and not good for your self-esteem.

The good news is that this is a learned behavior, not destiny, and your friendly neighborhood Blame Absorber is here to help.

Photo by Martin Péchy on Unsplash

Learn the difference between haters and elevators.

I recently wrote a piece on white privilege and masculinity that got a lot of negative attention. One particularly angry commenter even wrote:

If you believe this, you need counseling.

Yes, I do need (and regularly attend) counseling. I am an avid supporter of my mental health.

However, that comment was definitely not coming from a place of concern or constructive criticism.

Haters rely on personal attacks or blanket statements. This “feedback” is often the hardest to hear because it is hurtful and isn’t even helpful. Depending upon the identities you hold, this can also be rooted in -isms (for example: racism, sexism, ableism) which beyond being hurtful, can be scary and traumatic.

For the employee who engaged in name-calling, they might be a hater. But in a working relationship, there is also an opportunity to have a follow-up conversation, dig deeper, and set new boundaries on how to communicate disagreement.

For a random person online like counseling comment guy, there usually isn’t an opportunity for productive dialogue. Like the trivial things out of your control such as the weather, it is in your best interest to let this go.

Being a woman on the internet is scary and the anger my words provoked in a few people was hard to detach from my self-worth and my writing.

But as Carrie Wynn recently wrote:

“Being emotionally detached isn’t good in all aspects of life, but in these situations, it can prevent you from having expending unnecessary emotional energy into a situation that you cannot change.”

We shouldn’t absorb the blame for triggering the hate in someone else.

“If you soak up all the responsibility, you let others off the hook.” — Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone

Elevators, on the other hand, provide feedback that’s valuable to you. It may bring you down for a moment, but this feedback can ultimately lift you up to be better.

Elevators can be specific feedback from a person in your life or an event that leads to learning. This could be an award for your efforts, a comment from an editor on why your piece wasn’t selected, or a failed team project.

In taking the time to step into our elevators, there is opportunity to rise.

I’ve found that the Two List Activity helps.

The Two List Activity from Thanks for the Feedback has changed my life. It is simple and allows me to process feedback more fairly.

In the first column, I write the feedback, event, or outcome. Then, two lists: what’s wrong with the feedback or what the giver of the feedback doesn’t know and reflect on what might be right or what I can learn from the feedback.

See an example Two List Activity below:

Screenshot and Examples by Ashley Cleland

This activity helps me shift from absorbing all the blame to accepting responsibility for the role I played and what I can do better.

The instinct is still there to absorb all the blame, all the time. But when the socialization and survival strategy kicks in, I pause and take a breath. Then I mentally do my list. I filter out the haters, the stuff way out of my control, and I let my elevators bring me to a new level.

I used to spend so much mental energy blaming myself for everything. Imagine what we could do if spent less time blaming ourselves and more time and energy on our hopes and dreams.

To all my fellow Blame Absorbers, let’s be brave enough to imagine a world where everything is not all our fault. Where we can be a part of fixing the world, but share the burden. Where we all accept the role we play and try to do better.

Let’s absorb less blame and make more change.

Thoughts and opinions expressed in this piece are my own.

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Fearless She Wrote

This is a space to empower differences, tell our stories…

Ashley Cleland, M.Ed.

Written by

Educator & Writer. Empowered Career Coach. Passionate about feminist leadership & trauma-informed practice. Let’s chat → *Views my own*

Fearless She Wrote

This is a space to empower differences, tell our stories, and share our lives together. We will not be silenced. We will be fearless. And we will write.

Ashley Cleland, M.Ed.

Written by

Educator & Writer. Empowered Career Coach. Passionate about feminist leadership & trauma-informed practice. Let’s chat → *Views my own*

Fearless She Wrote

This is a space to empower differences, tell our stories, and share our lives together. We will not be silenced. We will be fearless. And we will write.

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