Externalizing Responsibility vs. Internalizing Responsibility


Externalizing Responsibility

What an interesting phrase.

Externalizing responsibility is when someone fails to accept responsibility for the messes they make or for the problems they cause.  It is also failing to accept responsibility for the situations they find themselves in.

Internalizing responsibility is personally taking on the responsibility for what happens (in the past, present, or future).  It is accepting the responsibility for personal welfare or for consequences of actions instead of dumping the blame on others.

Do you externalize responsibility?

Do you internalize responsibility?

For dissociative trauma survivors, the issue of when to accept responsibility versus when to deflect responsibility is a very complicated topic.

Most DID survivors have had years of experience internalizing responsibility for the actions of their perpetrators, family members, abusers, etc.  Abusive offenders are some of the world’s best at externalizing blame onto someone else, and most trauma survivors internalize that blame, guilt, shame within themselves.  Purposeful and direct blaming of the victim, especially child victims, typically ends up with the victim feeling responsible for the abuse.

Having this convoluted, complicated history of who is or isn’t responsible makes “accepting responsibility” a very difficult topic for trauma survivors.

Self Blame

Survivors spend years of time blaming themselves for the abuse (internalizing responsibility).  Survivors typically end up feeling like they were bad, or they did something to cause it, or it was because they were too pretty, or too available, or too easy, etc.  Survivors were usually told by their abusers that they deserved the abuse, or they liked the abuse, or they wanted the abuse, or some variation of the sort.

Perpetrators know that if they verbally blame the victim, that victim will be more likely to internalize the responsibility for what happened. Perpetrators typically do not accept responsibility for their actions.  The more the perpetrators push blame and responsibility onto the victim, the more the victim will internalize that responsibility and blame.

Blaming Perpetrators

But typically, survivors are not responsible for being abused.  At least, they are not responsible for what the abuser does.  The abuser is responsible for what the abuser does.

However, it is very difficult for many trauma survivors to put the blame of their abuse back onto their perpetrator.  Trauma survivors will argue with their therapists that their abusive loved ones were not at fault – that they cannot be considered a perpetrator – that they are not to be blamed.

How many of you refuse to believe that your father (or mother) sexually abused you even if other parts in your system have said this clearly?

How many of you refuse to blame your perpetrator, and instead will run in circles protecting your family member from being called a perpetrator?

How many of you will argue that you have no right to be angry with your father – perpetrator?  How many of you will define criminal actions as “not a problem” in order to not assign responsibility to your loved one?


Children are not responsible for being abused.  Adults are responsible anytime they have abused children.  Children will internalize the blame, but they are not responsible for being abused.

What about when the trauma survivor is an adult?  What if the adult survivor is being abused as an adult?  Who’s responsible then?

Adult trauma survivors do get abused.  There are thousands of domestic violence situations where adults are being abused on a regular basis.  Rapes and date rape situations can happen to adult trauma survivors.  Dissociative survivors can still be involved in the sex slave industry or other ongoing abuses even as an adult.  Abuse certainly can happen into adult-hood.

Who is responsible in these situations?

Of course, the abusers are still responsible for their own abusive behavior.  (The topic of recognizing who abusers are will be discussed in a different blog article.)

However, these issues are not simple once the victim is an adult who has to be responsible for their own selves and any dependents. If you are an adult trauma survivor caught in abuse, it is not your fault you are being abused, but it is your responsibility to get yourself out and away from this abuse.

These adult survivor victims are responsible to get the help they need to get out of their abusive situations.  They do not cause the abuser to abuse, but they are responsible to learn how to protect themselves and to protect any children that may be involved in the situation.  It is important to build and utilize enough resources for safety and protection that will make the abuse come to an end as quickly as possible.

Finding the Balance

The difficult part is internalizing the correct portion of the responsibility.  Even adult trauma survivors well experienced in therapy will internalize responsibility that genuinely belongs to the abuser.  Other adult trauma survivors will stay stuck completely in the victim role, refusing to accept responsibility for getting out of the mess they are in.  Sometimes survivors will cause-create-instigate-perpetuate emotional conflicts that are of their own making, and yet, claim to be the victim of their circumstances (more on that topic another time…).

So think about it…

Internalizing responsibility vs. externalizing responsibility.

What really does belong to you?

What really does belong to someone else?

Are you taking on too much?

Are you acting like a victim in situations where you are actually responsible?



Kathy Broady LCSW



17 comments on “Externalizing Responsibility vs. Internalizing Responsibility

  1. i am not a victim, but everything was still my fault. everything.
    EVERYTHING. it had to be.
    if it would have just happened once, or twice, or three times, MAYBE it might not have been my fault.
    but as much as it did… the only common factor is ME.
    my stupid body. my face, me, my personality, everything.
    something about me MAKES men/boys act like that.
    ex boyfriend even said,he couldn’t help it, he couldn’t keep his hands off me.
    if i would get really underweight, he’d leave me alone sometimes. that was the only way to be safe.
    nothing i do to try to protect myself works.
    mostly i just try to hide away from everyone. even people that say they’re not going to hurt you still hurt you.
    i always got told i’m not a victim. so, i’m NOT. that only leads to one other thing: everything is my fault.

  2. This is a subject I have thought long and hard about. And, you are right, it’s not easy. I don’t think it’s so clear cut. I think for many survivors, this is what our healing work is all about at its core… and many may take our whole lives trying to solve this… and may never get there.

    I think where it gets particularly tricky is in self-abusive acts. One can, I think, engage in a myriad of self-abusive behaviors including re-enacting sexual behaviors and still accept responsibility for them (internally). But, doing so doesn’t necessarily solve the problems.

    By the same token, many can also understand that the behaviors have external root causes, connected even from abuses from decades ago… but that doesn’t solve the problem.

    I think the big question is do you intellectually place responsibility, or do you actually “feel it in your gut” so to speak? We can know many things, but fail to make changes on what we know.

    I have met many on both sides of this, and still don’t see any answers… whether one can actually walk that tightrope, for that’s what I think it is, for any sustained period of time, is a question I cannot answer for myself, let alone any others.

    But it’s very interesting you use the word “responsibility”. I love that word.

    I addressed this very topic, from a somewhat different angle back in July, trying to be somewhat delicate with it…




  3. Wow, that’s a hard one for me. I still to this day blame myself and only mayself for all of it – when I was young… as I grew up… – with my mom – and with my ex (domestic violence situation)
    I think for me… in a sense it’s more ‘comfortable’ to say it was all my fault and no one else was to blame for any of it because it devalues my emotions and makes much of it seem ‘blown out of proportion’ – denial I guess lol
    Because if I were to truly and honstly consider that – just maybe- -some of it- wasn’t my fault… then I’m realizing the abuse was out of my control then. – I was powerless – helpless

    With my ex I didn’t -want- to face the fact he was abusive so I kept telling myself that I was just confused. It wasn’t until my son was born and CPS had to intervene that I finally left him. My case worker was really sweet and helped me to realize just what you explained. — I was an adult now. I have a child relying on me now. And If I didn’t leave the abusive situation – then I wasn’t only hurting myself by not “stepping up to the plate and being responsible” (the exact words she used) but I was also hurting him as well. And would be hurting him more-so than myself. As he then would be ‘the helpless one’

    Though I guess it’s also quite contradictory to refer to oneself as an abuse -survivor- but in the same breath say “But it was all my fault” … lol as obvious as it might seem to some… It’s exactly what I’ve been trying to level with in my head lately. lol

  4. Intellectually I blame the perpetrators. I Always do without exception. I can tell any survivor I meet IT WAS NOT YOUR FAULT. I understand totally that it was not there fault. But, when I did an exercise where you visualize the inner child and meet them, I was totally SHOCKED to see myself hitting !! and pushing the child away instantly as fast as I could! While I totally believed I was not putting responsibility on the child, on an inner, subconscious level it was a whole different matter. I was not even aware of my horrible attitude and behavior! I did not want to hear what the child had to say . She caused all these problems. I have never been able to SEE the inner child in a visualization again and get near her to undo the abuse I must of been doling out for years. I feel like I acted like all the people in my family who knowingly stuck up for the perp, looked the other way, and blamed the child. I really learned how to blame the child very very well. I feel terrible and don’t know how to go about getting forgiveness. I don’t forgive those in my family who supported the abusers by silencing the child, beating her and denying the truth, so how could I expect her to forgive me? I guess this would mean I internalized responsibility but pushed that on a younger defenseless part of myself that so needed something so much better from me.
    And yes, at times, the you are a liar, you are just trying to get attention, you are selfish, you are unloveable, you should protect the family, all the reasons I should tolerate the abuse, discount it, and doubt it altogether, and not see it as abuse, push up from my subconsious a lot. Yet, I can march in a Take Back A Night March. I can be totally appalled, and intensely angry when I hear accounts of childabuse on the news. But I don’t know how to be totally appalled by what happened to me. Instead it happened to THAT KID and THAT KID doesn’t deserve the sympathy and care I would give to any other child abuse victim. Somehow she is a special case. The one childabuse victim in the world that doesn’t deserve sympathy and comfort. I don’t know how to treat THAT KID like a human being and acknowledge her feelings. I never learned how and I don’t know if it is possible for her to ever forgive me. I don’t know what to do to regain her trust. If I was her, I would avoid me like the plague, and that is what she is doing. Problem is, this leaves us both stuck, and it is my fault.

  5. Pingback: Article of the Week: Week Three » Confessions of a Serial Insomniac

  6. You can intellectualize that the responsibility belongs on those that actually
    carry out the abusive act.
    If we were able to live our life in a strictly intellectual way, it would be much
    Unfortunately, those silly little *feelings* like to sneak in and create havoc.

    It is possible that we need to learn to intellectualize those feelings. That might be possible if we can realize they need to exist. To take that knowledge of where the blame belongs and apply to ourselves. Feel them,
    let them be. Walk through them. Then at some point we can *feel* it is not
    our fault.

  7. this is very confusing for me. I know I’m not supposed to think it’s my fault, but it is my fault in some ways. what happened went on for so long, and my dad got so upset after we did it that I would comfort him, and then it’s like, I started to feel like I was taking care of him when we were done, like he couldn’t help it, and then and he needed me to put him back together again. That made me feel like I was stronger than him and I needed to help him. And it was good to feel like he needed me to help him, so I didn’t mind all that much, even though he was hurting me pretty badly when we did it. It’s all very confusing.

  8. I once described myself in group as feeling like a “shit ” magnet. If there was a child abuser in our parish, our city, among our friends, in our family, they were drawn to me like iron filings to the magnet in a school physics lab experiement. It was obvious to me that I was the common denominator therefore I was to blame not the perpetrators appetites.

    But I just now had another perspective become clear: each of my perps shared something in common with each other, they were drawn to an innocent, vulnerable, needy, insecure child (and then teen). I was not the cause of their disorder merely the object. My personality and family background made me vulnerable, their psycho-sexual disorders made them responsible. The magnet is just being a magnet; any magnet could elicit the same response.
    So the common denominator, after all, is the perpetrators’ appetites, not me.

    Sadly, I was repeatedly unprotected and my behavior changes ignored. This suggests another probable common denominator: absent or unresponsive and uninvolved parents, probably in denial and self-medicating with alcohol, food or drugs. Possibly victims themselves. Turns out both my parents were victims of sexual assault by a priest, and my father was a victim of repeated physical assault by his father. My father worked six days and seven nights a week and he drank at lunch and throughout the evening. He was a functioning alcoholic.

    So it’s time that I, we all, give back the blame and shame to the abusers. Personally, I feel that a sexual abuser who then turns to his victim for forgivenes and support is merely continuing his abusive in another format: emotional abuse.

    He is robbing the victim of the power of her or his anger. I have still to really feel the strength of my anger other than on my self. It’s time to stop punishing myself for being hurt, for being an innocent.But once we know, once we see the “ight,” we can no longer simply blame the past and blame our perpetratos. If we recognise our patterns of choosing abusive partners and yet do nothing to change and protect ourselves and our own children (internal and physical)THEN we do become part of the problem, and we do share some responsibility. But not til then.

    Sorry if I rambled.


  9. when i had trouble sleeping some nights, around age 8, i can remember daydreaming about being punished by a whole group of people (sorry if that is triggery). this tells me i did indeed internalize the blame for multiple abuses and abusers. my desire to suicide out in my late teens began when the weight of self-blame and self-hate got to heavy to manage.

    it is pretty easy to intellectually assign blame to the adults and older children who harmed me, but in reality i’ve needed to face the fact that i continued to abuse myself the way the abusers did long after they were out of my life and/or dead. i’ve let the anger and pain keep me stuck in life, but in the last 9 months i finally admitted my spouse is emotionally abusive and i chose to marry him and stay the past 29 years – as of march 7, 2010.

    my t is helping all of us in here to recognize what is really going on and then work to heal and change. i am not a doormat; i am no one’s punching bag. we are going to grow a spine – or maybe i should say we are going to re-assemble our spine and learn how to live life in healthy ways. no one can stop me from doing this except me/us. we are growing together inside and we will not stop until we are well.

    none of the abuse was the child leslie’s fault, none was the fault of any alter/split. we did not deserve any bad thing that happened to us and we can heal and become free (even though that idea is pretty big and scary to a number of us inside)

    thanks for another thought provoking essay Kathy.

    Deborah of the Pixies

  10. this reminds me of the movie good will hunting. how his therapist tells him it isn’t his fault and then he is all better.

    i’m always wishing i could believe the things i know. i guess thats a lot of what juliewtf was saying.

  11. my dad told me “this never happened” each time. hard to set blame or feel blame for something that “never happened”. i overheard him threaten his mom once – she was living with us – telling her that if she ever said anything to anyone, including me, he’d kill her and me.

    I used to have recurring nightmares of being trapped on a bluff, encircled by brambles, with a school bus trying to run me over. dad was driving the bus. all i felt was fear – no anger, no hatred. just survival fear as i dodged the tires over and over again.

    It is also hard to blame mom when her abuse was so covert. Almost harder than dad because she is so good at deflecting everything and either turning it back on me or doing the “OOOOH yes EVERYTHING is ALWAYS my fault”. I really never know what reality to believe. I try to believe T’s. Mom even twists that too. Thankfully, i just spent this first week in my new apartment. 😀 I took the cat and i back for a visit to mom tonight – and all my attention was on caring for the cat – seeing how sick he was there, how miserable- not even eating. He was so stressed and sat by the door to go back to OUR PLACE. I took us out of there early. Mom couldn’t understand why and started crying. I told her I had to take care of him.

    On the way home, he had a panic attack; crawled into my lap, hyperventlating. I think I am learning to reparent myselves by parenting him. I pulled off the road and held him until he was calm again.

  12. I really do not like to be the last person posting on things. It makes me feel like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland – late, late, late for my very important date…. But, I guess we all have to start somewhere, right?

    I was excited to see the category of Borderline Personality Disorder but I am not quite sure how this article fits with BPD other than the symptoms, thought process.

    What is the line between thinking this way and not being BPD vs. thinking this way and being LABELED BPD? I was hoping to get more info. on BPD here. Only because that is one of my many “labels” and it is the one I hate the most. Tag me with anything other than BPD because from what I read most therapists will not take on a BPD client. So imagine, me being DID, BPD, PTSD, Anorexic, Major Depression. What therapist is willing to take me on?

    Our system is filled with mostly the ones who believe to the inner core we are the cause of everything . . . for many reasons. Then there are the protectors inside who will blame and blame until someone finally listens.

    Getting out of an abusive situation (taking responsibility) is not just a let’s do it and it is done type of activity. Sometimes taking responsibility is being patient while in an abusive situation because leaving it can be much much so much worse. One of our alters calls living in an abusive situation “on the job training.” She handles it much better than I do and I get really mad at her for being so “okay” about it but the more I think about it the more I agree with her.

    All of that said I still do not know how BPD fits in with all of this and why some DID people are BPD and others are not. Even in our system some are BPD and most are not. Most of the BPD alters in our system carry the anger. Maybe that explains how they became BPD.

    Sorry to go so long. I am having a VERY bad week. I am becoming a fire-breathing anger dragon and I am trying very hard to contain my BPD self. If I can sit and focus long enough then writing/typing helps.

  13. Pingback: Are Newborn Babies Born with Innocence and Purity? How about You? « Discussing Dissociation

  14. Pingback: System responsibility and Dissociative Identity Disorder | Trauma and Dissociation

  15. Pingback: Over-Responsibility and Self-Blame | Trauma and Dissociation

  16. Like so many, I come from a dysfunctional family, which in many ways caused emotionally crippling effects. Well into my thirties, I viewed the inner child part of me (the equivalent of a beautiful bright-eyed 8 year old) as “something” that was wholly unworthy of love. I blamed this part of me, thought she/me was a complete f___ up. I had no respect for her/myself, much less love. It takes time to begin to unlearn what is not real and to learn what is; to take our wounds out of darkness (where we have now become our own emotional abusers) into light so that we can heal. We begin to see ourselves and the world differently, but once we begin to open ourselves to pain, instead of continuously trying to protect ourselves from it, we also begin to open ourselves to self-love. It takes courage for anyone to do that. It is hard and it is painful, but it is so worth it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s