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Self-Compassion Instead of Self-Blame

Emily Arnott
SRE Fundamentals

The tech industry is competitive and not without challenges. People are always growing and improving by pushing their limits. Innovation comes in many forms. In order to foster a healthy culture while allowing people to flourish, organizations must carefully enact policies. Growth should be encouraged while discouraging competition and comparison. One of the core policies organizations implement to achieve these goals is blamelessness.

Every company can benefit from a blameless culture, and it is necessary for true accountability. However, even when an organization espouses a blameless culture, individuals may hold themselves to impossible standards and blame themselves when things go wrong. They may believe:

  • Blaming themselves counts as blamelessness because they aren’t blaming others
  • Self-blame is best for the organization because it doesn’t impact the team
  • Holding themselves responsible is the best way to improve their skills and reliability.

Although these values are admirable, self-blame is precisely the wrong approach to bettering the organization and improving skills. In this post, we’ll show you how to deal with the urge to self-blame by looking at its downsides and instead focus on how to be self-compassionate.

Downsides to self-blame

People self-blame because they think it is the best way to achieve their goals. The idea is that self-blame forces the onus on oneself to change behavior in order to achieve better future outcomes. However, the downsides to self-blame greatly outweigh the perceived benefits. Let’s look at some examples of how:

Self-blame limits systemic improvement

We’ve discussed how blaming others doesn’t lead to meaningful solutions. Even if an individual made a mistake, punishing that individual won’t prevent the mistake from reoccurring. Instead, you need to find the systemic issues that allowed the mistake to be made.

The same is true when you blame yourself. It’s easy to say “I just won’t make that mistake again,” but it’s insufficient. You need to make the effort to dig into all of the factors that lead you to make that choice.

This process can be frustrating or painful. You might discover fundamental issues with your system that require major overhauls. You could also realize that your understanding of parts of your system is insufficient, and that you need to take the time to ask questions and learn. Just remember that it isn’t your fault: your actions were likely a consequence of the available resources and policies. Analyzing these factors is the only way to reduce the chances of future mistakes.

Self-blame leads to lower productivity in the long term

You may be tempted to self-blame because it looks like the fastest resolution to the situation. You simply resolve to do better and move on. It seems like this is the best way to maintain the momentum and productivity of your team. However, in the long term, self-blame is detrimental to productivity.

By not looking into systemic causes, incidents are more likely to recur. Not only would the causes of these incidents go unchanged, but you’d miss out on learnings that can help you solve new incidents. Self-blame limits your growth, stifling your ability to improve your productivity. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology focusing on studying mindset, describes a self-blaming mindset as “fixed”. If you believe innate traits within yourself caused the incident, you won’t be able to grow. Instead, see your traits and the systems around them as changeable, and you’ll cultivate a growth mindset.

Self-blame also leads to stress and burnout. These factors cannot be ignored; no one is immune. As you internalize the idea that incidents are your fault, you’ll begin to doubt yourself. You’ll be unable to confidently make decisions and move forward with projects. The more responsibility you feel you have for your system, the more heavy your burden will seem. The stress that accumulates undoes any benefits you think may come from self-blame.

Self-blame lowers team solidarity 

Taking on self-blame is isolating. If you believe that an incident was caused solely by deficiency in your work, there’s no way to communicate that to your teammates. Instead, if you share the context of the incident with everyone, the team grows together.

The context of the incident can involve technical aspects of the system you misunderstood, or resources that were unavailable. You’ll likely find that your teammates have struggled with similar problems, and together you can solve them. No one should shame you for not knowing something; instead, you should celebrate an opportunity to strengthen your system.

Personal challenges also provide context for the incident. If you feel stressed, overworked, or disoriented because of any aspect of your life, share how you’re feeling with your team. This isn’t making an excuse for a mistake; instead, it’s giving your team the opportunity to support you better and improve the whole team’s abilities. No one can be expected to operate at 100% all the time, and holding yourself to that standard will lead to problems. Build a resilient team by sharing the load. Open, honest communication will facilitate that end-goal.

How to be self-compassionate

Even if you know that self-blame isn’t helpful, you may still habitually blame yourself. To move past this instinct, you need to replace self-blame with self-compassion. This practice can be transformative in every area of your life, and its many elements and benefits go well beyond the scope of this post. Let’s take a look at a few examples of how it applies to self-blame at work.

Treating yourself as a teammate

You wouldn’t blame a teammate, so why blame yourself? It sounds simple, but this perspective can help you avoid your instinct for self-blame. Maybe you think the explanations you have for why you made a mistake are insufficient, just excuses. It’s easy to be dismissive of your own perspective.

Now imagine a teammate is explaining this context to you. You’d be sympathetic, and work with them to improve the situation, rather than just blame them. If you treat yourself the same way, you’ll be able to move on to a better solution. Berkeley’s Greater Good in Action program has an exercise you can try to help practice this perspective.

Be mindful of your emotions

When something goes wrong, it can be frustrating, humiliating, confusing, disorienting, or otherwise painful. Self-blame can be a response to these feelings. Because you feel bad, you may be inclined to treat yourself badly. You might think that blaming yourself for what happened is a way to control and take ownership of these feelings.

However strong this urge is, remember that self-blame won’t make these feelings go away. Be mindful and observe your feelings and reactions. Don’t try to stop them or control them. Focus instead on how to make the most meaningful improvement to the situation: working as a team to discover systemic issues.

In a paper for Mindfulness and Self-Regulation, authors Kristin D. Neff and Katie A. Dahm break down how mindfulness helps with self-compassion: when we aren’t mindful of negative thoughts and feelings, we can become “overidentified” with them, seeing them as aspects of our self. Believing this inherently leads to self-blame. If instead we recognize passing thoughts and feelings for what they are, we can be compassionate with ourselves when working through them.

Disconnect self-evaluation from self-worth

When you invest yourself into your work, your self-image and self-worth may be affected by your performance. This can be motivating when things are going well - your hard work will translate into capability and confidence . But when something goes wrong, this mindset backfires.

If you feel that good work makes you a good person, then you might think that bad work makes you a bad person. This leads to self-blame, as you attribute the incident to your personal flaws. Rise above this pattern by remembering that your self-worth isn’t dependent on your productivity as an engineer. Being a good engineer isn’t about how fast you work or never making mistakes. Instead, it’s about being collaborative, compassionate, eager to learn, and willing to admit when you don’t know something. Focus on these qualities when things go wrong.

Understanding the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion is key to making this realization. While both self-esteem and self-compassion allow you to feel confident and happy, self-compassion is more resilient to setbacks.

Practicing self-compassion

Becoming self-compassionate isn’t easy. Don’t expect to shift your mentality overnight, and don’t be discouraged if you catch yourself falling into old habits. Like any practice, building self-compassion takes iteration and continued effort. But it’s so worth it. Your productivity, team camaraderie, and incident response patterns will profoundly improve. Plus,you’ll enjoy your work more.

However, blamelessness doesn’t mean that things will be easy and smooth sailing all the time. It also means confronting systemic issues and resolving inadequacies. This can be a painful process, perhaps even more painful than just blaming yourself and moving on. However, it’s a pain that will lead to meaningful improvement. The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford Medicine and the Greater Good Center at Berkeley have great resources for continuing your journey to self-compassion.

How to encourage self-compassion

Management can discourage self-blame and encourage self-compassion with policy and practices. Here are some suggestions for how to cultivate this at your organization:

  • Don’t use comparative feedback of employees - feedback on performance should be given in private and compare only the employee’s performance to established standards, instead of how other employees are performing
  • Create space for sharing challenges at meetings - at standups or other team meetings, encourage employees to share what challenges they’re facing - both system-wide and role-specific obstacles
  • Check in with employees after incidents - after major incidents, check in one-on-one with employees that were involved. Make sure they aren’t blaming themselves for the incident, and that they know they have support.

Achieving blamelessness requires recognizing that multiple factors can lead to a particular incident, and that incidents signal a need for systemic improvement. Blameless’s end-to-end SRE platform helps modern engineering organizations manage and achieve their SLO targets to maintain a reliable end user experience. Find out how by requesting a demo!

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