This is the third blog in a series on the topic of blame. The first two blogs were written to help those who feel consistently blamed while this installment in for those who do the blaming. It was not my original intention to write a piece for blamers, but I was inundated with (and inspired by) emails from readers who self-identified as blamers and asked for help in stopping their blaming behavior. I have thus decided to add this piece to the series.
Let me say first that in some situations blaming is helpful and healthy, and not always a dysfunctional reaction. Assigning blame where it is appropriate can help empower and protect you, to stop harm in its tracks. But the kind of blaming that I am addressing here is the unhealthy and chronic kind, the habitual and reactive sort that blocks personal growth, damages relationships and gets in the way of your own wellbeing.
To find out if you are a blamer, take the following test:
- Would it be normal for you to respond to someone with a problem by telling him why he is to blame for his problem?
- In relationship with friends and family, do you often find yourself pointing the finger, telling others how and why they are wrong, using phrases like you did it, it’s your fault!
- When confronted with life’s difficulties or inconveniences, is it common for you to identify and ruminate over who or what is to blame?
- When you are upset or in a difficult situation, do you frequently blame someone for making you feel the way you do?
If you answered yes to one of these questions, you are a blamer. If you answered yes to two or more questions, your blaming behavior is most probably compromising your relationships, wellbeing and personal evolution. That said, keep reading; blaming is a habit and awareness is the first step towards breaking it.
First, I want to congratulate you on the willingness to look honestly at your blaming behavior, and address what is not working in your life. It’s hard to investigate the parts of yourself that need improvement; awareness takes courage. In addition, I congratulate you on the aspiration to grow and improve, which comes from your highest self. The intention to evolve is already evolved. That said, just by continuing to read, you are doing something remarkable.
Your blaming, when it began, was probably an innocent defense mechanism designed to protect you from harm. If your sister was to blame for eating the cookies then she would be punished—not you. But sometimes blaming takes a turn toward the dysfunctional, when blaming becomes your default reaction to life, which then causes harm to you and others.
Blaming, when dysfunctional, is a way to avoid and deny feeling what you are feeling. While it may not be conscious, blaming is something you do to get away from the feelings you do not want to feel. But I feel lots of things when I blame, you might argue. And it is true that you do feel when immersed in blaming, but you feel something other than what you would if you could not blame. In this way, blaming conceals and distorts your real truth; you replace your feelings about what you are experiencing with feelings about who caused it. At its core, blaming is a form of self-abandonment and self-betrayal.
Case In Point
Jon (not his real name) is driving his teenage daughter to a gymnastics meet. Traffic is dreadful and they are going to be late for this important event in her life. Jon goes to his default response, blame, accusing his daughter of dilly-dallying before getting in the car and other such crimes. He spends the entire trip angry; berating her, explaining why it’s her fault that she is not going to make her meet on time. Later, as I unpacked the event with Jon, it became evident that underneath the blame, there were in fact many emotions happening inside him. He felt sad and guilty about not being able to get her there on time, and powerless that as her dad, he couldn’t take care of her, which is what he really wanted to do. He felt anxious because he thought there might be a better route to take, but he couldn’t figure out what it was. He felt heartbroken because he knew what the meet meant to her, and how hard she had worked for it.
Under all of the blame was actually love and pride for his daughter. As Jon and I re-scripted the event, re-lived it in a new way; we replaced Jon’s blaming script with an acknowledgment and expression of all the juicy feelings that had not been allowed a seat at the table with his daughter or even in Jon’s awareness. Together, we invited in Jon’s actual truth, and re-framed the traffic jam as an opportunity not to determine blame or rightness, but rather to connect, create intimacy and empathy, and meet the truth of the moment. With the need to assign blame set aside, there was an opportunity for Jon to touch into his actual experience and feel the depth of his vulnerability and love, which thankfully, he was later able to share with his daughter.
Furthermore, blaming is a way to uphold your self-image and protect your self-esteem. Your partner is the cause of your relationship problems, your boss is why you are not successful, the government is to blame for your lot in life, and on it goes. Someone/something else is to blame, which then allows you to avoid having to look at your own participation, and potentially, aspects of yourself that conflict with your self-image. Blaming keeps you safe from having to look at the gap between who you believe yourself to be and who you are. But in so doing, blaming also prevents you from being able to grow and change. Pointing the finger is a way to avoid responsibility, which ultimately keeps you stuck at the place from which you point.
Blaming is also a strategy (albeit usually unconscious) to keep from having to make changes or address your actual reality. As long as the problem is someone else’s fault, you can stay busy and focused on trying to correct the blame, that is, fix that person or situation that is at fault. Your attention is poured into what you have determined to be the source of that fault. As a result, you turn your back not only on your actual experience of the situation, but what you might need to do—given that the situation is the way it is.
Case in Point
Maggie (not her name) had been in a relationship with Phil for a dozen years and for ten of those years she had been talking about how and why he was to blame for what was not working in the marriage. Her attention was perpetually focused outward, on changing him; he was to blame so he needed be fixed (which was her job). When he was fixed, then she would be happy in the marriage. She believed that blaming and fixing would set her free but in fact, it was paralyzing her and keeping her stuck, with her life balanced on a potential future that didn’t exist.
After much suffering, Maggie became aware of how the blaming was prohibiting her not only from directly experiencing her unhappiness, but from honestly addressing what needed to happen because of it. If this was the state of the marriage, what then? Thankfully, when she was finally willing to stop the cycle of blame, turn her attention away from Phil and his faults, and focus it back on her own heart, she was able to see and take the next right step.
Recovery: how to break the blaming habit?
Step 1: Set an intention (make a decision) to stop your blaming behavior. Identify what it is you want and hope to experience as a result of moving out of blaming (better relationships, more peace, freedom from anger, less time ruminating etc.). Write down (or tell a friend) about this decision. If possible, begin a journal dedicated to your evolution from blaming.
Step 2: Start paying attention! Make a conscious effort to become more mindful of your blaming behavior. When you are able to catch the impulse to blame (before it happens), create a pause, be silent and take 2 deep breaths. Then, make a different choice.
Remember however, breaking the blaming habit is a process that takes time. You will not be able to catch yourself before you blame on every occasion; it may be quite a while before you can catch yourself at all. That’s ok. It is a huge step just to notice your habitual reaction to blame, even if it is after the fact. But the more you practice, the more you will be able to interrupt the process before it happens (and blessedly) respond in a new way and from a different place.
Step 3: At whatever stage you notice your blaming impulse (before or after), ask yourself the following questions (and journal on what you uncover):
- If I couldn’t blame in this situation, what would I have to feel?
- What about that feeling is hard to feel?
Step 4: Honor yourself for making the commitment and doing the work that emotionally and spiritually evolving requires.
A last note: be gentle with yourself. This is not an opportunity to blame yourself for not getting yet another thing right. Practice these steps and when you forget to practice them, remember and start again. Practicing is the path to change. If you commit to making this effort, you will grow in ways you can’t yet know, and so will your relationships and your life!
To read more on the topic, visit my Psychology Today Blog:
- What to DO About the People that Blame You for Everything
- When You’re in Relationship with a Blamer
- The #1 Most Important Relationship Skill and How to Learn It
- How to Heal Defensiveness in Close Relationships
- “And” Not “But”: The Secret to Healthy Relationships
Copyright 2016 Nancy Colier