Blame doesn’t solve problems

There’s an underlying notion about psychotherapy that the client is supposed to, or encouraged, to blame everything their past-or parents, for the way they and their lives have turned out. And, to a degree, this is valid; beliefs, concepts and, in many cases, relational patterns are formed as a result of one’s earliest influences, and thus how one is equipped to encounter, create, and manage their lives. When these things don’t unfold as the client wishes or likes he may choose to seek therapy. In this regard, the therapist’s job is to help the client bring these beliefs or concepts into relief, understand their patterns, either objectively, or what they mean to the client, and then assist the client to change, overcome, or assimilate these. But the notion of blame-It’s my parents’ fault, if anything, is only starting point, an initial means to present the players, circumstances, and the significant emotional experiences the client is working from. Eventually they will need to recognize their responsibility for these circumstances in order to effectually take action. Thus, therapy’s relatively simple aim is to define the problem, why it’s become a problem, how to solve the problem, and how to live a healthier, happy life. Still individuals have a difficult time–not so much in resolving their problems, but with the way in which they frame their problems often creates an even greater difficulty than the initial problem.

The use of blame

An individual frames a problem through blame when he assigns responsibility to another, like a parent or a partner for his circumstances. With simple blame, an individual will assign responsibility for the effects of a mistake or wrongful action another has caused them-a waitress spilling coffee on a new white shirt, ruining it, before a big presentation. Pretty cut and dry. The waitress or the restaurant offers to pay for the shirt, and the individual may choose to incorporate the experience into his presentation. But with more complex, life altering circumstances it isn’t so cut and dry. The individual might become more focused on the nature of the loss and it’s resulting circumstances than on resolving these, and instead remain in a state of overwhelm. The individual will then actively blame the other because they feel fearful, find themselves losing control, or feel unable to deal with the particular challenge of the consequences resulting from the other’s mistake or wrongful actions. This fear produces a powerfully conflicted belief that the individual feels can only be managed through blaming the other. In this regard, blame is not only used as an intentional means to vent or express reactions and feeling, but serves a duel purpose for the individual to contextualize and assign responsibility for the problem.

Blame allows one to avoid responsibility

Take a common, causal belief; I’m messed up because I came from a dysfunctional family. Coming from a dysfunctional family, the individual is either still possibly dysfunctional, or has barely escaped the jaws of their family’s dysfunction. Even if the individual maintains a geographical distance from his dysfunctional family, by continuing to blame them for being messed up, he remains bonded in emotional proximity. While the statement may be broadly true, it may actually be more damaging than the experiences the individual had with their dysfunctional family because it preserves an identification with dysfunction and being dysfunctional. It sets the individual apart from other presumed functional individuals who, because they came from functional families, possess an ease in the areas of life the one coming from a dysfunctional family might not. By framing his identity through blame, the individual has reason to remain outside the mainstream and absolved from responsibility, yet still maintains the bond with his dysfunctional family.

Take a more blatant example, My mother screwed me up. She ruined my life. The mother might’ve done many things that negatively affected the individual, but by assigning the larger blame–for screwing the individual and his life up, the individual remains in emotional, if not psychic proximity to the mother, her faults, and failings as a parent right up into the present. The mother becomes a continuing active agent in the circumstances of the individual’s life. When things go wrong the individual can in turn assign blame to his mother, and when things go well, it’s proof that her previous failures didn’t affect him. Yet, in either case, the mother remains a present participant (though if only in belief) in the individual’s life. He remains locked in a struggle, and consequently a relationship, with her, without her awareness or actual participation. Thus, it is the blame that keeps the mother present and bonds the individual to her with an abject consistency.

How the nature of blame tricks one into blaming

Although the individual doesn’t necessarily, or openly, elect this dynamic, he may use it at particular times and within particular experiences. If the blame serves a function, the individual may have difficulty recognizing how its function subtly keeps him connected, stuck and bonded. When one blames another he assigns the other the role of causal-agent for a hurt, injustice, or wrong doing. They caused the original wrong, and this wrong has not only initial consequences for the individual, but a perceived trajectory and, depending on magnitude of the wrong and its consequences, a change of one’s life course. As one looks back on the pre-wrong course of events, these can look potentially better, when in reality they may’ve gone in any direction. It is the aftermath of the wronging that remains in focus, but it is couched in blame. If it’s a challenge it isn’t one brought on by the individual experiencing it, but by the wrong doer. The individual may resent being placed in circumstances beyond their control, because their weaknesses or inabilities in meeting the resulting challenges are exposed. Instead they continue to hold on to the belief that without this wrong they may be in a far better place. Whether or not this is true doesn’t matter, so much as the individual believes it. This belief strengthens the bond because it relieves the individual of much, if not all, of the responsibility for the circumstances. Never mind resolving these things! The individual may even take something bordering on a divine delight in the injustice, similar to believing in fate; that a force other than the individual is acting upon them consequences that aren’t in their control.

How blame reinforces one’s bond with another

In literature, Fate is often anthropomorphized, having the quality of an independent, or antagonistic character that attempts to thwart a hero’s often times divine goals. Unlike fate though, there is something attractive for the individual’s selecting to blame another because it relieves them of responsibility, and thus resolution. For example: I might’ve been able to do this, if that hadn’t happened; or If she hadn’t done that to me I would be better off. This is especially relevant to an individual who blames their present circumstances on a partner who left them. The individual may even begin to wear the original wrong like a badge: I’ve been wronged, which somehow justifies their hurt above all else, becoming a touchstone that validates the causal quality of the consequences of their current circumstances or emotional state. If grieving at the same time this becomes stronger, for when grieving, individuals tend to fixate or perseverate over particular events or experiences. This only intensifies and reinforces the blame. My partner coldly left me without a chance and just look where I am! This, in turn, can function as a reason for not accomplishing what one wishes or needs to, or to meet the challenge inherent in the perceived wrong and move on. For example this wrong might be seen as reason enough not seek or get into a new relationship: I was left. I’m not ready to risk another relationship. In addition, the individual may be afraid to admit that they share the responsibility for the partner’s need to end the relationship and instead feel more comfortable when their partner is solely at fault. It also relieves them of the risk of seeking a new relationship and recognizing their own patterns of harmful behavior within another, similar, context. Further, the individual may have difficulty taking certain responsibilities for themselves, their home, or children as a result of the relationship ending, and sees this as a direct cause of the spouse’s leaving rather than facing their own feelings of inadequacy.

Similarly, the act of blaming others can be a cry of pain, or request for support. The individual might blame the other, in a sense calling in the debt owed, in order to get them to take actions on the individual’s behalf. This kind of blame can sometimes be so subtle and convincing as to not be recognized, and yet so powerful and effective that the person who receives the blame might feel that they are wrong even if they were right.

At a deeper level, this dynamic also serves another purpose. Avoiding to look at one’s own part in the relationship and keeping the focus locked on the ex-partner stifles any movement or shift in the dynamic towards resolution. Any potential for personal growth for both parties is thwarted, because any potential motion is locked. While the benefit of owning and taking responsibility for one’s part is that it actually frees the individual from the other, it also threatens to unhinge them from a viable though impractical attachment to the ex-spouse. This dynamic further serves two purposes: It allows the individual feel an ill-will with conviction, rather than any loss involving vulnerability, and the just-cause to continue to blame the other. With casual or circumstantial relationships it’s certainly easier to free oneself of the attachment without owning one’s part, but with longer term relationships it isn’t so easy, or in some cases, even possible. This only adds to the conflicted nature of the individual’s blame. The dynamic is continually played out, frustrating the individual because it neither elicits the desired reaction nor improves the circumstances . All the while the circumstances, are evolving beyond the individual and his control, causing him to retract all the more. His prior, discreetly coveted attachment may be retained, but it is significantly tainted, perverted, if not disfigured from its original form.

Without the other, the individual would have to face and accept the reality that he needs to take responsibility for resolving his own fate or circumstances. Though the individual is outwardly in an opposition towards the other, inwardly he is strongly drawn to the them, maintaining a bond similar to that of love.

How blame develops in childhood

Children tend to blame others because they haven’t yet learned how to be responsible for their own actions. For example, a child may blame a teddy bear for spilling his milk instead of taking responsibility himself. This is developmentally appropriate for young children. But in circumstances of abuse or neglect a child’s natural default is to blame himself because it is better for him to be “bad” than his caregivers. That way he can at least “pretend” his world is safe. Even in “lesser” circumstances, for example when a parent is depressed, or going through a separation or divorce, the child will take on or somehow blame himself for the parent’s emotional state for the similar reasons: they couldn’t survive if they had a depressed or under-functioning parent. If they can blame or take on the responsibility themselves, the child can in a sense raise their parents up, taking a one-down position, or relieve them of responsibility for the abilities they are lacking. Again, they can at least “pretend” to have a parent who appears to be at a higher functioning level than themselves. In reality though, these parents are not functioning, not present, not parenting their children in a way that acknowledges accepting responsibility for oneself, which in turn would model this behavior for their children. While this dynamic works-in the ways dysfunction serves-in the dysfunctional home, mis-assigning blame and responsibility outside the home doesn’t, and in the absence of recognizing and distinguishing appropriate blame and responsibility, these children run into problems socially and academically with teachers and other school authorities. Children who go on to inappropriately blame others usually suffer from a sense of worthlessness, or low self esteem, and continue using blaming as a learned means to compensate for their own feelings of inadequacy and inability to take responsibility. This may be further modeled by a negligent, or directly blaming parent, whereby the child was never able to establish a sense of self value or importance through taking appropriate responsibility. This is often the case with Narcissistic or Borderline parents. Such parents have difficulty helping children develop an adequate sense of self. Taking cues from their parents, these children operate from a place of deprivation, seeking something, or someone to relieve their feeling a lack of self efficacy in the face of taking actions to address their circumstances. Eventually these individuals can negatively impact others because they remain bitter and unaccountable, all the while brooding with an anger they can’t articulate and which they express through passive-aggressive behaviors. In their refusal to be held accountable, they develop a selfishness that denies others the chance to grow. Many times they, in turn, pass on this behavior to their children who often become replicas, possibly Narcissistic or Borderline themselves and continue the cycle.

The effects of the bond of blame

When one insists on placing responsibility on factors beyond their control, or refuse to take responsibility for themselves, they are choosing to react from “the role of victim,”. One who takes on the role of victim is someone who behaves as if they are being victimized in situations where they actually have reasonable opportunities to effect the situation and its outcome. Individuals who employ manipulation often play the victim role in order to gain pity or sympathy and to evoke compassion, thereby getting something from another, rather than getting it for themselves. Caring and conscientious people cannot stand to see anyone suffering, and the manipulator often finds it easy and rewarding to play on sympathy to get cooperation. Alcoholics often play the role of the victim as an attention seeking strategy to elicit rescue, or enabling behavior.

How to stop blaming others

As with anything, awareness is the key first step; being aware of one’s tendency to blame others. Only by accepting personal responsibility for one’s choices and actions can one enable himself to feel effective and more in control of his life. Taking responsibility doesn’t mean that one has total control over their destiny. In reality everyone is affected by events beyond their control such as their genetic endowments, and a host of other, random factors. Blaming others is usually an indication that one lacks ability to accept and cope with situations that occur outside of their control. The person who blames others believes he is in the weak position and he tries to gain some power over the situation by blaming other people. Learning how to accept circumstances and situations that are out of one’s control, to assume control and responsibility for managing their life, and facing different life problems will help lesson the tendency to blame others.

By letting one’s thoughts start to blame others to justify why it’s not their responsibility, ones make themselves a victim. It’s important then to be able to separate what is reality from what is being generated by one’s thoughts. When one is aware that one’s thinking is twisting the event, they will be better able to focus on the current situation without having to deal with any added emotional pain. Ask if the perpetrator is independently responsible for the situation, circumstances or the consequences of the wrong doing? Are these circumstances or consequences being personalized and thus misinterpreted as having particular intent? If so, this is using up more mental and emotional energy than simply approaching the situation and dealing with the consequences. How would one go about resolving things if blame wasn’t present or even an option?

Be careful not to blame someone for doing what they thought was right. It isn’t often people intentionally do things knowing they are wrong. If they do, there is usually a secondary reason for it. For example, if someone intentionally tells another’s secret, knowing it will hurt them, perhaps they have done so to create a false intimacy with another, exclusive of you.

Consider that blame and credit are opposite interpretations of the same phenomenon. If one is willing to blame others for their misfortunes or problems, perhaps instead they should also consider giving credit to the those they may’ve blamed for the opportunity to demonstrate the responsibility and self expression with which they face and take on the circumstances in their life that are beyond their control. Sometimes these circumstances provide further opportunities for personal growth and change.

How blaming backfires

If others feel they’ve been blamed unfairly, they will resent the one blaming, and may even come to hate them. People instinctively hate injustice. People who blame get emotional satisfaction from talking about how awful the ones they blame are. But research has found that when one talks negatively to a friend about how awful another is, the listening friend is more likely to associate the negativity to them rather than to the person they’re talking badly about. Thus, rethink bad-mouthing because it may backfire and expose one’s inability to accept responsibility.

It takes a big person to accept outwardly and inwardly that they screwed up. That’s not to say one should never blame other people. Sometimes others are at fault and they need to know it in order to take responsibility. But being able to accept responsibility when it’s one’s own fault actually means becoming less helpless and passive. There is absolutely no shame in being able to admit to oneself or others that you’ve made a mistake. Quite the opposite; it demonstrates real strength of character. Very clever people make ‘stupid’ mistakes -it is part of being human. The only genuine way not to make mistakes is not to be in the world.

Forgiveness

Letting go of blame is often understood as being synonymous with forgiveness, which is defined as the renunciation or cessation of resentment as a result of a perceived offense, or mistake, or as well, ceasing to demand punishment or restitution. In this light, one can easily see the divine quality often attributed to forgiveness in that it isn’t simply an act of granting another freedom from a perceived offense, but also implies an authority to do so. Apart from any a concept of a preceding divinity, who or what can claim to have such authority, save for one who assumes they are entitled to it?. Although the concept of forgiveness is more positive than blame, it possesses a similar dynamic in that one assumes an entitlement to judge the person or event they hold responsible for the perceived offense. Forgiveness addresses neither the function nor the process the individual went through to realize his relationship to the blame. Rather it continues to focus on the other, through an imbalance in which the one initially wronged potentially enjoys a higher status, where in forgiveness he assumes a divine quality by relinquishing restitution, and in blame an entitled quality having restitution rightfully owed. Further, while forgiveness allows the offended individual to sever his relationship to the offender, more so than the offence, blame requires him to do the opposite. Both responses involve an exchange, but both overlook the transaction involved in the exchange, and in doing so foreclose on an opportunity for the initially wronged to examine themselves. Perhaps then true forgiveness can only be achieved not merely through ownership and responsibility, but by one’s recognition of the means, or process it took. In other words for the initially wronged to say, “I own my circumstances and I take responsibility for their resolve, therefore I relinquish you from restitution emotionally or otherwise”. Ownership and responsibility require participation in the circumstances, and constitute both admitting having a part, and a vulnerability to potentially failing to resolve the issue. This is especially true in relationships-if one can own and accept responsibility for their part, both how it affected, as well as was due to, the other, they can reconstruct and recognize the preceding dynamic more honestly and without bias so that they can accept and transfer responsibility to themselves.

Owning one’s part

Knowing that one can accept responsibility when things go wrong means one can also accept credit when things go well. Believing one has an effect on one’s life and circumstances is an empowering belief. At the same time, one needs to develop the capacity to be objective enough about themselves to avoid assuming they could never possibly have created problems one their own. They also need to distinguish between accepting responsibility and unduly punishing themselves.

Again, if something doesn’t work out, it’s easy for an individual to get creative and find some reason why it’s someone else’s fault. Instead, they need to learn to relax with not actually knowing for a while why something worked out the way it did. By tolerating the temporary uncertainty of not knowing, one gets a wider perspective on their present circumstances.

One can grow only by accepting the truth about oneself

Being able to see objectively where one went wrong is how one improves and develops. One doesn’t progress as a human being just by ‘learning to love themselves’ unconditionally. They need to develop the capacity to respond to the feedback life gives them about themselves free of both the distorting effects of low self-esteem or conceit and arrogance. Don’t immediately start casting about to identify someone to blame for the problem and begin working out a string of epithets to fling at others before clearly establishing what exactly has happened.

Forget blame and focus on where to go from here

If others have made mistakes, they deserve to know what lead to those mistakes and how to do things better in the future. But calling someone an idiot or telling them they “always do everything wrong!” is not feedback; it’s just abuse. This kind of emotional incontinence may make people jump to attention or service, but it will never promote respect because it only displays the emotionality of the one giving the feedback, not their responsibility to participate in resolving the mistake.

All responses, though professionally based, are intended as opinions, and are not a substitute for working with a therapist professionally.