Cui Bono

Human behavior unpacked

Don't Blame Yourself (or Others)

The pointlessness of blaming.

Person getting blamed by two others
I've been curious for a long time about blaming—what it is, what it accomplishes, and what is the most useful attitude to have about it. I'm sure that moral philosophers have written extensively on the subject, but for some reason I have stubbornly refused to read whatever literature exists on the subject. I know that psychologists have studied blame, because a quick search on APA PsycNET shows 870 results for publications with blame in the title. Still, I chose not to read any of these studies. Instead, I decided to reflect on my own experience, feelings, and intuitions about blame and write about the result of those reflections here. Perhaps you think that I really should read the existing literature, formulate some ideas, and test them empirically before writing on this topic. But don't bother blaming me for simply sharing my musings. You'll see why.

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My desire to reflect and write about blame was triggered by some experiences shared by another person in an Al-Anon meeting last week. This person expressed dismay about being blamed for the drinking of an alcoholic in her life. She has been in Al-Anon for a long time and is well-acquainted with the Three C's motto, "I didn't cause it, I can't control it, and I can't cure it." Even though she believed the Three C's intellectually, she found that she could not help feeling guilty after being blamed. There was a disconnect between her head and heart. By the time the sharing had moved around the circle to me, I had formulated the following thoughts about blame.

First, it seemed to me that when someone blames me for something, three conditions are present:

1. The person perceived my behavior to cause something to happen.

2. The person didn't like whatever they thought my behavior caused.

3. The person saw my behavior as intentional and that I could have behaved differently.

The first condition seems obvious; why would someone blame me for something if I was not at least partially responsible for bringing it about? The second point notes that a person is not going to blame me for everything I cause—only those things he or she does not like. If I cause some water to boil by putting a pan of water on a stove that I turn on, and the person doesn't dislike what I did, he or she is not going to say, "I blame you for causing that water to boil!" On the other hand, if I boil the water on the stove and then intentionally throw the hot water on that person, he or she would certainly be in a position to blame me for the burns I inflicted.

The third condition is a little more complicated. If I had put a pan of water on the stove and then accidentally bumped it while moving another pan, spilling the hot water and burning someone, would I be as blameworthy as the previous example where I picked up the pan and intentionally flung the hot water on the person? I don't think so. Whether the person would say "I blame you for the burn" might depend on his or her personality. A judgmental, critical, impetuous person might indeed say "I blame you." I think that a more merciful, compassionate, patient person would not blame me for the burn I caused, saying something like, "I don't blame you; it was an accident and you didn't mean to spill the hot water on me."

Two women blaming each other
What is the purpose of blaming? Blaming appears to me to be an attempt to persuade someone that he or she has done something wrong and now needs to make amends for the wrong. If I accept someone's blame, this means that I agree that I intentionally caused some kind of inappropriate harm, that I could have avoided behaving inappropriately, and that now I am obligated to make up for the harm in some way—and/or willingly accept a punishment for my mistake. If I do agree that I am blameworthy, I feel guilty or ashamed, and these moral emotions motivate me to make amends and/or accept my punishment.

All of us who are not sociopaths usually take the process of blaming and responding to blame for granted. Shouldn't people who commit wrongs be blamed, feel guilty, and pay for their mistakes? Well, I think yes and no. I do think it is good for relationships to make amends when you agree that you did something wrong. But I still have some questions about the blaming process. First, how am I supposed to deal with unfair blame, when someone angrily accuses me of a problem that I believe is not my fault? How about unnecessary self-blame, when I feel ashamed or guilty about something that is not my fault? Finally, why do I have to feel those awful emotions of shame and guilt even when I agree that I did something wrong? Why can't I just make amends without the emotional suffering? Let me return to the Al-Anon meeting to try to answer those questions.

Al-Anon Meeting
We are taught in Al-Anon that we are not to blame for someone else's drinking. The first of the Three C's says that we did not cause the alcoholic's drinking; this means the first condition of blame is not met. If you could really internalize the Three C's to the point that you truly believed that you had nothing to do with that person's drinking, that you played no role whatsoever, that in no way, shape or form did any of your behavior facilitate, influence, or cause that person to drink, then there would be no way to feel that you were to blame for that person's drinking. Even if someone else does try to blame you, in your own mind condition one was not met, so you would not feel blameworthy and guilty. Annoyed, perhaps, by false accusations, but not guilty or ashamed. But apparently this cognitive strategy does not work for everybody. It did not work for my friend at the meeting, and it does not work for me. I think I know why.

On the one hand, I believe that the Three C's is a great slogan for helping people who unrealistically blame themselves as being entirely responsible for someone else's drinking. Realistically, nobody can ever be wholly responsible for someone else's behavior. On the other hand, the Three C's cannot completely remove my own feeling that I am at least partially responsible for the course of someone else's addiction. Al-Anon itself teaches us that enabling behaviors are more likely to reinforce patterns of addiction, compared to getting out of the way and letting the person experience the results of his or her substance abuse. At another Al-Anon meeting many months ago, someone shared a chilling story of a group of young men who were greeted by their fathers after successfully completing rehab, and several fathers celebrated with their sons by buying them a beer, citing the Three C's. That's crazy. The Three C's teach me that I am not the sole cause of someone's substance abuse and that I cannot completely control and guarantee the outcome of the person's problem. At the same time, what I do might very well matter, so I choose as best I can not to enable (realizing that this will not guarantee recovery for that person).

Three hands pointing blame
So, I cannot prevent feelings of being at least partially to blame with the Three C's, and I suspect that this was the case for the person at the meeting who was feeling guilty and many other friends and family members of alcoholics. I don't like to feel guilt and shame from blame, so is there any hope relief from those awful feelings for me? Can't I just make amends without feeling terrible?

Yes, I think that perhaps relief is possible by denying part of the third condition, "that I could have behaved differently." It seems to me that at any moment in which I intentionally choose to behave a certain way, there is no way in which I could have chosen to behave differently. I act on my knowledge and desires at that point in time, doing what I believe will bring about the results I desire. I can't press pause, step outside of myself, gather more knowledge or change what I desire, and then return to make a different choice. I have to go with what I've got at that point, doing the best I can at that moment. My best might not be good enough to make everything turn out perfectly, but I cannot do better than my best. This might sound like lack of free will, but I have never had any use for the concept of free will anyway. I am quite content to accept that each person, including myself, is doing the best that he or she can at any moment, and could not have behaved any differently at that moment.

Accepting that I naturally do my best all the time (because I cannot do better than my best) absolves me from self-blame. Others may blame me, but I do not take their words personally. Their words do not affect me because I know that I could not have acted any differently. I can still make amends for mistakes, but without self-flagellation. Furthermore, I don't blame others for blaming, because they could not have acted any differently. Neither do I blame others for harm they cause me, because they could not have acted differently. I simply take steps to avoid further harm. In my world there is no blame—and therefore much less pain.

John A. Johnson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University.

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