This is the third blog in a series on blame. I wrote the first two blogs to help those who feel consistently blamed, while this installment is 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 behavior.
Let me say first that in some situations blaming is helpful and healthy -- it's not always a dysfunctional reaction. Assigning blame where it is appropriate can empower and protect you, and stop harm in its tracks. But the kind of blaming that I am addressing here is the unhealthy and chronic kind. It is the habitual and reactive sort that blocks your personal growth, damages your relationships, and gets in the way of your own well-being.
Try 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 relationships with friends and family, do you often find yourself pointing the finger? Do you tell others how and why they are wrong, using phrases such as You did it, or, It's your fault?
When you confront 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 any one of these questions, you are a blamer. If you answered yes to multiple questions, then your blaming behavior may very well be compromising your relationships, your well-being, and your personal evolution. That said, keep reading: Blaming is a habit and awareness is the first step toward breaking it.
First, I want to congratulate you on your willingness to look honestly at your behavior, and to address what may not be working in your life. It's hard to investigate the parts of yourself that need improvement; such 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 -- just by continuing to read, you are doing something remarkable.
Your blaming, when it began, was probably an innocent defense mechanism meant 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, causing 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 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 #1: "Jon"
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 related 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, he was in fact experiencing many emotions. He felt sad and guilty about not being able to get her to the meet on time. He felt 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, reliving it in a new way, we replaced Jon's blaming script with acknowledgment and expression. He revealed all the juicy feelings that he had not allowed toward his daughter or even in his awareness. Together, we invited in Jon's actual truth. We re-framed the traffic jam as an opportunity not to determine blame or rightness, but rather to connect, create intimacy, and meet the truth of the moment. With the need to assign blame set aside, there was an opportunity for Jon to touch his actual experience. He could feel the depth of his vulnerability and love, which, thankfully, he was later able to share with his daughter.
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. Someone or something else is to blame. This 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. You pour your attention 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 #2: "Maggie"
Maggie (not her name) had been in a relationship with Phil for a dozen years. For 10 of those years, she had been talking about how and why he was to blame for what was not working in their marriage. She focused her attention perpetually outward, on changing him: He was to blame, so she needed to fix him. And when she fixed him, she would be happy in the marriage. She believed that blaming and fixing would set her free. 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 also from honestly addressing what needed to happen because of it. If this was the state of the marriage, what then? Thankfully, 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 then 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 two deep breaths. Then, make a different choice.
Remember, however, that 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 okay. 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 ideally respond in a new way 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 Final 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. 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.