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How Blaming Others Makes Stress Worse: Own Up -- And Stress Less

When you're taking responsibility for your response to stress, you have the power to change it.
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By Jan Bruce

When problems overwhelm you, it's temptingly easy to nail someone else with the blame. It makes Jean-Paul Sartre seem right on when he famously said, "Hell is other people." If only those people would get it together, you'd be happy as the happiest clam.

Not true. Stress isn't other people. Stress -- the crazy-fast heartbeat, the panicky rage, the mental paralysis, the snapping and the crying and the worry -- is your response to all the good, bad and just plain inconvenient people and things that happen to you.

At meQuilibrium, we have a name for what makes us point fingers for our stress: thinking traps. (Read more about thinking traps and how they keep you stuck.) Our research has shown us that the way you think about and perceive the world around you has far more to do with how you respond to stress -- over and above the lazy coworker, the spouse who can't read your mind, the driver who cut you off, you name it.

In this case, it's an externalizing trap, the tendency to blame others or circumstances when something goes wrong. Here's what externalizing sounds like:

I know it's her fault. She's always messing things up for me.

If he hadn't been taken so many sick days, I wouldn't have missed my deadline.

The way he gets the kids to bed so late drives me so bleeping crazy I could scream (or worse).

This traffic has me so rattled I know I'm going to ruin my client meeting.

Recognize any? These thoughts are the real enemy. They're the reason you're more stressed than you need to be.

Blaming other people for your stress can make it seem as if, when you cast off responsibility, stress will follow suit. But here's the problem: it just keeps coming back. Chop off one head for stressing you out and three more trying people or situations rise up in its place, and you're still stuck thinking everything's all their fault.

Being accountable for your actions won't add to your stress -- quite the opposite. It's a relief. There's a certain learned helplessness that comes from blaming other people all the time, and the sooner you practice being accountable, the faster you see that you have some control over what you do and why. When you're taking responsibility for your response to stress, you have the power to change it.

Change Up the Blame Game
Shifting this painful habit of thought starts with you. Calm your stress by owning up to the part you play in it -- also known as accountability. (Read more about accountability and how to stop playing the blame game.)

Here's how:

Catch yourself. The moment you feel yourself start to finger blame in a moment of stress, pause. What thought is driving you to do that? What are you really afraid of?

See it from above. Imagine separating from what happened -- visualize it as if you're seeing it from above, as objectively as you can. What were all the contributing factors to this stressful situation? Maybe the report was late not just because your coworker didn't give it to you, but because she didn't have the support to cover her other needs.

Understand your role. While you don't "fix" the situation by blaming someone else entirely, you don't address it by shouldering all the blame, either. When you can acknowledge what your role was, you can think about how to address the underlying issue. If your child leaves his books at school again, it may be that he's forgetful, sure, but also because you haven't helped create a system or habit to help him learn to bring them home.

Own up. One the reasons we have chronic stress is because the same issues come up again and again. Keep a difficult situation from repeating itself -- or getting worse -- by owning up to your role. Rather than exacerbate tensions by tussling over who did what to whom, approach the situation with an open mind and with integrity. When you're less worried about protecting your ego than you are in improving the situation, you'll find yourself on far friendlier ground.

Jan Bruce is CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium,, the new digital coaching system for stress, which helps both individuals and corporations achieve measurable results in stress management and wellness.

For more by meQuilibrium, click here.

For more on stress, click here.