“You make me so angry.” “My life is ruined because of the things he’s done to me.” “If it weren’t for those jerks I’d be fine.”
When we let blame control our thinking, we waste precious time and energy mulling over angry thoughts against others. We dull our awareness of our own choices, robbing ourselves of opportunities to gain deeper insight and choose better options. Worrying about the faults of other people, or as Stephen Covey puts it, “confessing their sins” is a waste of time and energy and pulls us down. Blaming and complaining get us no where, and actually make us feel worse, and add to the stress of those around us
By blaming others we transfer power to “them”, and paralyze ourselves while we wait for “them” to change or release their hold on us. By remaining locked into our victimized explanations, we become helpless to change a situation or attitude, while we pour our energy into complaining and anger, and other misdirected activities that can’t resolve our issues. Helpless thoughts lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and chronic anger.
As victims, instead of taking steps to help ourselves, we lobby against others, looking for supporters to help justify our anger and blame. We harden our hearts against others, making our world more antagonistic and combative. We may also believe that we’ll be better off if bad things happen to the ones we are blaming, as if their misfortune will relieve our anxiety.
Since our problems are caused by other people, we hope they’ll be resolved by other people. We passively wait for a rescuer, in the form of a parent, a lottery ticket, a perfect lover or a discoverer of some kind, who will pull us out of our circumstances and place us in a position where we can get what we deserve. Since we have no control over the rescuer, we remain trapped in our situation, firmly entrenched as helpless victims.
Improve our opportunities
When we begin to see how our habit of blaming has reduced our chances for success and made our world a harsher place to live, we look for more positive options. When we want to create our best opportunities, and live most harmoniously with the people in our world, we need to unlearn the habit of blaming. By giving up blame we make available a range of options: grow, negotiate, move on, or rethink our communication or attitude. We reclaim the power over our own choices, improving our opportunities for change by focusing on our own responsibility, and withdrawing our attention from situations over which we have no control.
Deep Roots, Persistent habits
Unfortunately, these habits of assigning responsibility run deep in our mental model of the world. We rarely can stop blaming just because we want to. What gives our blame so much energy, erupting into antagonism against a perceived enemy? Blame often makes us feel like small children, and it is in the behavior and thoughts of small children that we can find the origins of our habits.
When we were little children, breaking the rules unleashed our parent’s anger. If our parents convinced us they loved us anyway, we were able to tolerate their accusations. On the other hand, if we believed they would no longer love us because of something we did, we became desperate to defend ourselves against the terror that we might lose their love. Sometimes we tried to change the past by simply lying that we didn’t do the thing we were being accused of. When that didn’t work we tried shifting out from under the burden of responsibility by accusing our siblings or playmates. When our parents let us get away with blaming others as an excuse for our behavior we learned to use blame to temporarily relieve the anxiety of the deep terror of losing our parents’ love.
Children also develop ideas about personal responsibility by listening to the way our parents interpret the world. When they blamed others, we soaked up the information that adults, too, may avoid their own responsibility by assigning it to someone else. We may have even heard them relieve themselves of responsibility by angrily attacking a whole group of people, unwittingly planting the seeds of bigotry and hate within us.
When we’ve been blaming others in the world since we were children, we grow up with the belief system that some people cause other people’s problems. Given these beliefs, when we try to understand the cause of events, especially things that happen to us, we automatically look for the person to blame. These habits are built so deeply into the way we understand the world, a world without a culprit seems unfamiliar and strange, and changing our outlook can take persistent hard work.
Flexible approach to cause and effect
One reason blame is so attractive is because we can usually find a kernel of truth in it. This moral justification makes it difficult to let go. We need to see that there is more than one way to look at the same truth. When we look for more effective ways to explain events, we begin to see that the other person’s responsibility in the matter is only a partial picture of reality. When we take in the whole picture, there are many other factors to consider. We learn that the world we want to create for ourselves and our family includes other truths, such as forgiveness, acceptance of others, and choosing to look within ourselves at the “beam in our own eye” rather than focusing too much energy on the “mote” in someone else’s.
Forgiveness was important enough to attract attention from the founders of the world’s great religions. “Love thy neighbor, as thyself.” “Be kind to them that abuse you.” “Put not out the mote in thy neighbor’s eye, when you have yet to put out the beam in thine own.” While we often think of religious teachings as limited to the ethical and moral realms, when we look at the results of forgiveness we recognize its value for personal growth, as well. As we stop blaming and start forgiving, we realize how much we were using blame to protect ourselves from fully embracing our own responsibility. By stopping our habit of blame, we learn more about ourselves, and discover more opportunities to grow and stay mentally and socially healthy.
Some people become confused about forgiveness because it sounds like we’re letting go of all responsibility and allowing others to discard the rules of society. But forgiveness can complement personal responsibility. Forgiveness allows us to let go of the past, while we continue to maintain our best effort and clear thinking about personal responsibility in the present.
Untying the anxiety knot
When we feel vulnerable or fearful, we naturally want to relieve our anxiety. If we use blame to relieve anxiety, we turn against others, or against ourselves, and undermine our own growth and awareness. Rather than using blame to distract us from our fears and anxieties, we can face our feelings directly. We can learn to identify our agitated feelings, and learn how to soothe ourselves, using tools such as muscle relaxation, breathing, prayer, exercise, positive visualization, and positive self-talk.
Learning the value of our choices
Our habit of blaming is part of a vicious circle. We blame others because we feel they have power and we don’t. And yet, we fail to act, keeping ourselves in a position of helplessness, that further justifies our blaming. To break out of this circle, we need to understand all the parts of it, including learning about and healing from the obstacles that block us from choice and action, and learning how to become more active, responsible participants in our own life.
We may fail to act responsibly because of low self-esteem, assuming that others have the power and authority, while we are mere bystanders. When we examine our attitude carefully, we realize that our assumptions about our own ineffectiveness are trapping us into inaction. By improving our sense of empowerment, we can become slower to blame, and quicker to take personal responsibility for resolving the issues that bother us.
We may be averse to acting because we fear failure. If we believe that choices and actions are risky, we’ll naturally prefer that someone else take the action. While we are waiting for others to make the choice, we are doomed to become victims, feeling that our only option is to blame those people who have not yet acted.
To break this cycle, we need to become comfortable with our own choices and accept that risk is part of life. We may tend to avoid risk because we were trained as children to fear rather than trust our choices. Perhaps our parents didn’t give us enough encouragement, or they let us know that they felt their own range of action was small and discouraging. From their training, we may have formed a belief that the universe is a dangerous place, with few second chances. As adults, we can turn these attitudes around, and look at choices not as an opportunity for disaster, but as an opportunity to either achieve our goals or learn about the methods that don’t work. Many successful people look at mistakes as a step along the road to success.
As we explore our actions and their results, we realize that everything we do or don’t do affects the people around us. Once we face the fact that our actions affect the people in our world, we begin to realize that we have personal responsibility to do our best. This sense of responsibility energizes us, and we find ourselves at the opposite extreme from victimization, feeling that our actions have true value in the world.
In Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey teaches empowering ways to approach life. By taking responsibility for the things over which we have control, and learning to spend less time worrying about things outside our control, we use our valuable time in the most effective way.
Passing healthy explanations along to our children
Another way to help unravel the cycle of blame is to pass along to our children a sense of forgiveness and love. Many of us feel that when our children make a mistake, we must drive home the lesson that they’ve done the wrong thing. If our message conveys the possibility that they might lose our love, they learn to shy away from risks, or even from taking responsibility for their own actions. When we let our children know we understand their faults and love them anyway, they can feel more confident that they’ll keep our love even if they make a mistake and they’ll be better equipped to face responsibility throughout life.
Exploring the dimension of blame offers us a life-changing opportunity to determine the guiding principle around which we want to orient our lives. If we focus on blame, we are doomed to seeing ourselves as helpless victims. When we organize our lives around the choices within our circle of influence, the beam in our own eye, the things we can influence, including emotions such as forgiveness, we empower ourselves to solve problems and create success and health.
See also: Anger, Anxiety, Assertiveness, Beliefs, Child within, Decisions, Depression, Faith, Leadership, Self-esteem, Soothing
When Anger Hurts, Quieting the Storm Within by Matthew Mckay, Peter D. Rogers and Judith McKay
Anger, How to Live With and Without It by Albert Ellis
The Anger Workbook by Lorraine Bilodeau
Existential Psychotherapy by Ervin Yalom
Manifest your destiny by Wayne Dyer
Raising an emotionally intelligent child by John Gottman