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



Cats and Dogs and Trauma Survivors



Pets are very important to trauma survivors for a variety of reasons:

A place to express love, affection, and tenderness

Many abuse survivors have difficulties with attachment issues due their extensive histories of trauma, abuse, and neglect.  Because people were the perpetrators, trauma survivors frequently find it difficult and complicated to express caring and affection to other people.  And yet, many survivors can still feel loving connections, and they have the desire to appropriately express that.  Animals and pets feel safer for bonding than people, and because of that added safety, animals can become the positive target audience for the survivor’s feelings of love, affection, and tenderness.  Sometimes it just feels good to be able to hug a cat!


An acceptable substitution for maternal instincts

Many trauma survivors do not have children, or are not with their children, or do not want to have children, or cannot have children, are not ready for children, etc.  However, being away from children does not eliminate maternal feelings and maternal instincts (or paternal feelings and paternal instincts).  Many survivors purposefully choose to have a variety of pets and animals as an appropriate substitution for children.  Some survivors will purposefully get pets to learn how to nurture and care for others prior to having children.  If you can’t manage taking care of animals, you won’t be able to tend properly to children.

One step at a time.... (Photo by Morning Call photographer, Kevin Mingora)

One step at a time….
(Photo by Morning Call photographer, Kevin Mingora)

An exercise companion

Trauma survivors, like any other group in the population, have difficulties getting proper exercise.   Plus, having significantly increased levels of depression, fatigue, social anxiety, fears, phobias, obesity, body image issues, etc. can make it even more difficult for trauma survivors to exercise.  Having a dog to walk or a horse to ride can make exercising less stressful, less scary, and much more fun.

Assistance with safety and security

Some pets can provide safety in the obvious ways, such as trained dogs helping to guard the home.  For trauma survivors who frequently live in chronic fear of abusers, the assistance of a guard dog can be very comforting.  In addition, animals can help to provide a sense of daily grounding from internal fears, dreams, flashbacks, etc.  If the cats are still sleeping peacefully, the confused survivor can be more assured that the emotional disturbance was internal, not external.  Feeling safe and secure is fundamentally important for trauma survivors, and pets can play a monumental role on this level.

Assistance with social situations

Social service dogs and horses are trained companions for social situations with anxious trauma survivors.  These animals are excellent assistants, and have been found very helpful for many people.  The service animal helps the survivor to have the confidence needed to venture out into the world and not be excessively housebound.  Regular pets can serve that same function on a smaller scope, even if these uncertified pets are not qualified to go into stores, in public buildings, on planes, etc.

Puppy in the grass

Puppy in the grass (Photo credit: justmakeit)

Being out in the world with a cute puppy provides:

  • an immediate distraction and interest for other people (putting the focus more on the puppy than the survivor)
  • a comfortable starting place for conversation (many people will ask about the puppy first)
  • a physical barrier between the survivor and other people, creating more physical distance and a greater sense of emotional safety (when the puppy stands or sits in front of the survivor)
  • a valid, less questioned excuse for the survivor to leave uncomfortable social situations (ie: stating the puppy needs to go outside now).

Companionship, friendship, someone to talk to

Many trauma survivors live alone, or feel very alone even when they live amongst others.  Most dissociative survivors have an extensive history of strained or unhealthy or abusive social relationships.  Making and keeping friends is not easy, especially for survivors with issues such as borderline personality disorder and chronic self-injury issues.  Having their own pet provides that special someone they can talk to, even if it is difficult to talk to people.  Dogs and cats can be the very best friends, and their companionship is invaluable.  They help survivors to not feel alone, and to not be alone.  How can survivors feel alone when a puppy follows them all around the house, from room to room to room?

Finding gentle comfort, solace, and support when hurting is a key element to your healing.

Finding gentle comfort, solace, and support when hurting is a key element to your healing.

Entertainment and Humor

Laughter is the best medicine, and most pets provide a variety of humorous situations to lighten even the darkest of moods.  Who can resist smiling and laughing at the antics of an energetic kitten rolling around tangled up in string or a puppy flopping around after a bouncy ball?  Pets very much have their own personality – the more survivors enjoy the liveliness of their pets, the better.  Smiles and spontaneous laughter adds to the quality of life for anyone.

Learning how to bond, connect, attach

Dissociative trauma survivors with severe abuse histories often find it extremely difficult to attach to other people.  In survivors’ experiences, most people have been abusive, neglectful, or uninterested in them.  Trauma makes it very hard to bond, and many DID survivors did not bond with anyone for years of their life.  Or sometimes, the only bond felt is a damaging trauma bond with a perpetrator.  Having a pet can be the first experience in positive unconditional bonding with a loved one.  Experiencing affection and warm connection from a pet can have great meaning to an isolated, lonely trauma survivor.

What 'cha gonna do with your dinner, Emma?

What ‘cha gonna do with your dinner, Emma?

Learning how to take care of someone outside of themselves

Some trauma survivors have experienced such damage from their abusive, neglectful childhood upbringing that they genuinely lack the skills in tending to others.  Especially in homes where neglect was prominent, basic living skills would have been overlooked.  Having a pet can be the first experience in learning how to tend to the needs of the self and others.  Also, for survivors that are excessively self-involved and self-absorbed, having a pet can teach them to look beyond their own needs.

Provide a variety of medical benefits

Research has shown that pets have a positive impact on medical health, mental health, and reducing stress.  Pets help to lower cholesterol and triglycerides, reduce blood pressure, increase life expectancy after heart attacks, reduce the need for prescription medications, reduce the number of medical appointments, etc.  Pets can be trained to help with seizures, help with Parkinson’s Disease, diagnose cancer, and watch for low blood sugar.  People with pets have improved health!

Oliver the pug

Help with depression and low self-esteem

Pets help to fight depression and low self-esteem.  Pets help survivors to feel important and to be recognized as valuable, worthy people.  Walking in the door to a pet that is really genuinely happy to see you makes for a corrective emotional experience for many trauma survivors who have felt ignored, unimportant, unnoticed, unworthy, etc.

Provide joy and happiness

Chronic emotional pain is intense for dissociative trauma survivors.  Heartbreak, anguish, grief, profound sadness, and emptiness are frequent feelings.  Pets can bring a sense of joy and happiness into the survivor’s life, helping to lift depression, and actually letting the survivors experience moments of joy and happiness.

To feel loved, accepted, cared for

All too many trauma survivors have grown up feeling unloved, unwanted, uncared for, unappreciated, etc.  This leaves a hole in the heart that just doesn’t go away.  Pets help survivors to have the emotional experience of being loved and unconditionally cared for.  Pets don’t leave just because their survivors are down, depressed, messy, messing up, or dysfunctional.  Pets stay loyal to their survivors, and continue to express long-term, loving devotion even through difficult times when people are not be willing to be there.

To feel understood

Pets can listen with their hearts.  They can read the emotional state of their survivors with an uncanny ability.  They know when their survivors are hurting, or angry, or afraid.  Pets can respond in natural ways to these emotions, and provide a level of understanding that doesn’t require words.  Pets can tell when dissociative trauma survivors switch from one part to the other.  There are many reasons why they say “dogs are man’s best friend”.

Pets are wonderful.
I hope you enjoy yours as much as I enjoy mine.

Pinky, the puppy in the videos, loves to climb trees. Isn't she beautiful?!

Pinky, the puppy in the videos, loves to climb trees. Isn’t she beautiful?!



Kathy Broady LCSW

Copyright © 2008-2015 Kathy Broady MSW and Discussing Dissociation