Academic journal article Health and Social Work

Does Apologizing Help? the Role of Self-Blame and Making Amends in Recovery from Bereavement

Academic journal article Health and Social Work

Does Apologizing Help? the Role of Self-Blame and Making Amends in Recovery from Bereavement

Article excerpt

It is well documented that emotional traumas can affect physical as well as mental health (Lazarus, 1982; Monat & Lazarus, 1985). Moreover, there is elaborate empirical support for the mediating role of cognitive processes in recovery from trauma (Janoff-Bulman, 1992; Taylor, 1989). However, the way in which cognitions associated with self-blame or guilt influence adaptation to distressing events remains obscure (Tennen & Affleck, 1990).

This article presents the results of an investigation into the relationship between attributions of self-blame for adverse experiences and subsequent psychological recovery from these experiences. It explores whether self-blaming is accompanied by acts of reparation or making amends. Earlier research on self-blame and adaptation to trauma has generally ignored the amends-making reaction to self-blame. This study began with the hypothesis that making amends is a crucial component of the process because it potentially facilitates recovery.

The issue of self-blame, making amends, and adjustment was investigated using a sample of individuals who had experienced the death of a loved one. Adjustment to the death of a loved one was selected because this type of loss is associated with substantial hazards to physical and mental health. Bereavement is correlated with an increased risk of mortality (Helsing & Szklo, 1981; Jones, 1987; Osterweis, Solomon, & Green, 1984; Parkes, 1986; Stroebe & Stroebe, 1987) and an increased incidence of mental health problems of clinical magnitude (Carey, 1977; Clayton & Darvish, 1979; Glick, Weiss, & Parkes, 1974; Gove, 1972; Parkes & Weiss, 1983).


Just-World Theory

There are conflicting views on the role of self-blame in coping with negative experiences. Proponents of the just-world theory see self-blame as adaptive, whereas self-esteem theorists view it as maladaptive. According to the just-world theory (Lerner, 1980), people often assume that the world is fair and responsive to their actions. Good deeds are rewarded and evil deeds are punished. These are comforting beliefs that people wish to maintain (Tuan, 1979). Personal tragedies prompt people to question their control over environmental outcomes (Janoff-Bulman, 1992; Parkes & Weiss, 1983).

To avoid giving up notions of a just world when distressing events occur, individuals engage in behaviors that reassert their control (Heider, 1958; Kelley, 1967). One response that accomplishes this is self-blame. Self-blame is viewed as adaptive because it defends against the conclusion that tragic events are random and uncontrollable. It reinstates a feeling of control and a sense of well-being (Janoff-Bulman, 1992; Taylor, 1989). This conceptualization of self-blame as constructive is supported by evidence that self-blame is positively related to recovery for rape victims (Janoff-Bulman, 1979), accident patients (Bulman & Wortman, 1977), cancer patients (Timko & Janoff-Bulman, 1985), mothers of acutely ill infants (Affleck, McGrade, Allen, & McQueeney, 1985), and children with diabetes (Tennen, Affleck, Allen, McGrade, & Ratzan, 1984).

Self-Esteem Theory

In opposition to the just-world theory, self-esteem theorists postulate that self-blame is harmful and leads to maladaptive outcomes because it undermines feelings of worth and leads to depression (Beck, 1967). The reformulated learned helplessness model (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978) posits that attributing the cause of bad outcomes to external forces helps people buffer their self-esteem. Congruent with these hypotheses, self-blame has been associated with poorer adjustment to the death of a loved one (Marris, 1958; Parkes, 1970), to physical injuries (Frey, Rogner, Schuler, & Korte, 1985), and to rape (Meyer & Taylor, 1986).

Characterological and Behavioral Self-Blame

To reconcile these inconsistent research findings, Janoff-Bulman (1992) speculated that people use two types of blame. …

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