Are You An Externalizer Or An Internalizer? 4 Ways Of Handling Blame

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As a psychologist, I have worked with many families, teens, adults, and couples. And in this work, I have noticed a very interesting thing. Every family handles blame differently, and every individual person develops his or her own style of handling blame.

Generally, I have noticed 4 specific styles.

4 Ways Of Handling Blame

  1. Externalizers: These are folks who automatically look for someone or something to blame when things go wrong, and it’s almost never themselves. Externalizers are like Teflon when it comes to blame.
  2. Internalizers: Take too much responsibility for problems when they arise, and turn the blame toward themselves, even when they don’t even remotely deserve it.
  3. Balanced: These people recognize and own their own mistakes, while also taking a realistic and balanced account of the contribution of other people and circumstances.
  4. Inconsistent Internalizers: This involves blaming yourself harshly and often, but also flipping over to the extreme opposite at key times, letting yourself off the hook and failing to hold yourself accountable when you should. There is little in between these two extremes. This style is common in people who grew up with Emotional Neglect.

The best way to become an Externalizer or an Internalizer or an Inconsistent Internalizer is to grow up in a family that handles blame in an unbalanced way. A family’s unbalanced approach to blame sets its children up to be either overly harsh with themselves or to be Teflon. Or to be Category 4, someone who flips.

3 Ways Families Handle Blame

  1. Automatically look for someone to blame when things go wrong and tend toward assigning the blame harshly.
  2. Ignore the concept of blame completely and tend to let each other off the hook for virtually everything. Special Note: most of these families are emotionally neglectful.
  3. Don’t seem to need the concept of blame, and instead hold each other responsible for mistakes while also being kind and reasonable about it.

You may have surmised that Family #3 is the one that handles blame in the healthiest way. But before we get to that, let’s talk about you. How do you deal with blame?

Chances are high that your way of dealing with blame as an adult is rooted in the way your family dealt with it while you were growing up. Even if you wouldn’t classify yourself as a clear Externalizer or Internalizer, you probably have a general tendency to go more in one direction than the other.

As long as your way of dealing with blame is close enough to the balanced Family #3 description above, you will probably manage okay. But if it’s too close to Option 1 or 2, you may be experiencing some negative effects on your life. And since this is the way you grew up, you are probably unaware that it’s a problem.

The Effects

Extreme Externalizers tend to be personality disordered in some way. When you are virtually unable to take responsibility for your mistakes and choices, it is very hard to learn from them. This can lead you to repeat your mistakes and to take paths in your life that continue to harm you.

Extreme Internalizers often find themselves depressed, anxious, or both. You become drained by the internal voice in your head accusing you, blaming you, and perhaps even criticizing you. It’s also easy to become stuck in your life when you are taking too much responsibility for everything that has, is, or may go wrong and direct mistakes, mishaps, and problems harshly against yourself.

Inconsistent Internalizers flip back and forth between the two extremes described above. So you suffer the drain and pain of the harsh self-judgments and self-criticism, but you also have another disadvantage. Since you are busy attacking yourself or letting yourself off the hook, you also have a hard time learning from your mistakes. And you may end up feeling stuck in your life as a result.

The Role of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)

A harsh, un-compassionate, externalizing family is almost definitely emotionally neglectful. But so is the family that skirts responsibility among its members, allowing the children’s errors and poor decisions to go unchecked.

As we have discussed in many other previous blogs, growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect is a recipe for self-blame and shame. And these two types of families do little toward teaching you how to allow yourself to be human, own your mistakes and problems without harshness, and approach them in a balanced way.

How To Teach Your Children — And Yourself — The Balanced Way: Practice Compassionate Responsibility

Practicing Compassionate Responsibility protects you from all of the negative effects of over-externalizing and over-internalizing. It involves these steps:

  • Acknowledging that something went wrong and that you may have made a mistake that’s caused a problem for yourself and perhaps others too.
  • Thinking through how this went wrong. How much was someone else’s contribution? How much was due to external circumstances? And what was my own contribution to this problem?
  • Asking yourself: What can I learn from this? How can I prevent this from happening again in the future?
  • Taking forth some new knowledge or growth from this unfortunate experience. Then putting it behind you.

In Compassionate Responsibility there is freedom. Freedom from attack, freedom from harm, and freedom from getting stuck.

By acknowledging, owning, considering, and learning, you are taking accountability, but also showing yourself compassion. You are treating yourself the way you wish your parents had treated you as a child.

No Emotional Neglect, no harshness. Just you, being human. Making mistakes and learning from them, exactly as we all are meant to do.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible and difficult to remember so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. it’s free.

To learn more about how to raise your children with Compassionate Responsibility, and practice it for yourself, see the book  Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty 


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Andrea - August 19, 2018 Reply

Thank you Dr. W for all that you do! This has been a huge help, giving the knowledge so that one can have the understanding behind so many years spent just questioning “Why”…The pain, anger and frustration can be unbearable. Combine that with lack of support from friends and relationships, (unintentionall) make for a miserable that seems as hard as I practice change, therapy, medications…the feeling seems to make its way back to haunt me….I continue to keep on keeping on…because of people like you who care and have such a positive impact.

    Jonice - August 19, 2018 Reply

    I’m glad you’re keeping on with the work Andrea. Persistence is the greatest ingredient to change. All the best!

J - August 19, 2018 Reply

It is incredible to me that I have no conscious memory of either of my parents ascribing blame or responsibility to me about misdeeds done in my childhood home, but I remember well being spanked. Even though these spankings were not overly harsh, I also remember feeling that they were unjust and I absolutely despised being treated that way and so very angry about them.
All of this tells me how incomplete my childhood memories are and that I didn’t learn the supposed point of the punishment (my responsibility) but did learn the helplessness and grief of being a small child with no recourse but to submit.
My ability to take appropriate responsibility is certainly skewed to this day.

    Jonice - August 19, 2018 Reply

    Dear J, if you can see that your ability to take responsibility is skewed, you can figure out where you are going wrong and start working on this! There is great damage caused by both over-internalizing and over-externalizing. Both affect your ability to learn from your mistakes and both affect your relationships with others. I hope you will take on this problem.

      J - August 19, 2018 Reply

      Thank you for your response to my post.
      The difficulty I have with over- internalizing is part of the essence of the situation: how to decide what part I played in the beginning. It is usually not obvious (to me, at least) that I had no power to have caused the result. My propensity to over-internalize has set me up to believe that I indeed could have had the power to at least contribute to the problem if not caused it in the first place.
      A possibly slightly amusing experience occurred after I had been in therapy a short time. Wanting to deal with guilt and responsibilty, I came in one day to a session with a list of perhaps 20 different situations for which I felt responsibility and consequent guilt. I had no ability to figure out what was rightfully mine and what showed an enormous ego to think that I had that much power to cause some of those situations to occur. Of course, this is the same problem the young child faces when the parent does not emotionally support or respond to them–was it my fault that mommy or daddy went away and what did I do to make them not love me anymore?
      Perhaps some examples of your suggestions might be helpful. Thank you.

        Jonice - August 19, 2018 Reply

        There is no way for most children in that situation to figure out what’s their own fault. It’s probably the reason that I see so many people struggling with this. Thank you for your comments!

Dove - August 19, 2018 Reply

Great article! Yes, I internalize–A LOT. It is very uncomfortable for me to show ANY emotion other than a happy, smiling face. Yes, I wear the social mask so that no one can tell that I’m internalizing everything in my life, past and present, large and small. I blame myself for a lot of things that I intellectually know are not my fault. If the world spun off its axis, I would blame myself. CEN by well-meaning parents created this dysfunction within me. I love reading these articles and they are helpful to the point of understanding, however, I feel the true ‘cure’ for all the trapped feelings and anxiety is a therapist. Talking and crying are much needed here. Being a pinata of old feelings and self-blame is quite a burden to carry when there’s no outlet for them.

    Jonice - August 19, 2018 Reply

    I certainly agree that a therapist is a good idea. But it does need to be a therapist who can not only let you talk and cry, but also teach you what to do with your emotions and help you begin to use your emotions in a healthy way.

Abby - August 19, 2018 Reply

What an excellent article! Thank you! I love the expression “compassionate accountability “. To me it’s a good way to express how I should treat myself and everyone else. I’ve noticed that when I am able to practice this, in any situation, it promotes peace and tends to draw out the best behavior in others.

    Jonice - August 19, 2018 Reply

    Yes, absolutely Abby! It’s conducive to learning from your own mistakes, and will also promote the best behavior in yourself as well.

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