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A Culture Obsessed With Blame

How does this help us?

Blame is rampant in modern society. When something goes wrong, the first response for many is to assign blame. A much better first response would be to address the problem and make effective corrections. Why do some individuals seek to blame others while others seek constructive solutions?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Blaming others fixes nothing. It just makes them feel bad.
Source: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The role of blame as an obstacle to a constructive solution is illustrated in the conversation below. Arnold and Joan were on their way to a wedding when they got a flat tire.

Joan: Why did the tire blow?

Arnold: How would I know?

Joan: Don’t you check the tires on the car?

Arnold: Yes. But you were the one that took the car for service. Didn’t you know that you are supposed to have the tires checked?

Joan: Of course, I know that. But why didn’t you check the tires when you got gas this morning?

While Joan and Arnold are busily engaged in blame-shifting, no progress is being made getting to the wedding. What is required is that either Joan or Arnold stop the blame and focus on the fix. It might sound like this:

Joan: Let’s see if we have a usable spare tire.

Arnold: Great. I think there is a jack in the trunk.

Joan: OK. If that doesn’t work, I will call AAA from my cellphone.

With a single sentence, Joan refocused the conversation from a competitive effort to blame one another to a cooperative effort to get back on the road and attend the wedding. Why do some people prefer to blame?

Blame and Personal Responsibility

Blame is the act of assigning responsibility but they are not the same thing. In addition to assigning responsibility, blaming is designed to find fault. The prototypical statement of blame is “this is your fault." A fault is a defect. Blaming others is accusing them of being defective, whereas taking responsibility is not a sign of defect, but rather a virtue.

People do not like to be blamed. It tends to make others feel attacked and is often met with defensiveness. If blamed publicly, they may feel humiliated and lash out or withdraw. This is destructive to relationships and causes alienation rather than unity.

Healthy individuals accept responsibility for their choices and behaviors. They do not need to be blamed or made to feel guilty. They acknowledge when they make errors and they make reparations when appropriate. They take responsibility for themselves because it empowers them, which increases their control over themselves and their environment. Unhealthy individuals blame others. They resist taking responsibility for their choices and behaviors. In doing so they represent that they do not have control over their lives: others are responsible.

Individuals with an unstable sense of self, such as those that suffer from symptoms of borderline or narcissistic personality disorders, see making an error as a sign of weakness or defect. It is for this reason that they make consistent efforts to shift the blame onto others. They feel that taking responsibility for themselves is an admission of a defect or weakness and they are threatened by this. This is illustrated in the dialogue below. Sean borrowed his father’s car and brought it back with a dent.

Dad: Sean do you know what happened to the car?

Sean: What do you mean?

Dad: I noticed a dent this morning.

Sean: I didn’t do it.

Dad: I did not see it this afternoon before you took the car.

Sean: I didn’t do it.

Dad: Did you leave the car anywhere to go into a store?

Sean: Do you think I am incompetent? That I can’t take care of a car for a few hours?

Dad: I didn’t say that.

Sean: You think I don’t know what I am doing. Like a dummy or something.

In the above dialogue, Sean cannot even tolerate discussing what might have happened with his father because he thinks that it is an admission of incompetence or being a dummy. If Sean were more confident with his good judgment and competence, then he would be able to take responsibility and work cooperatively with his father to get the car repaired. It is his lack of self-confidence that prevents him from taking responsibility for his choices and behaviors. This inhibits constructive solutions and also alienates others with blame-shifting.

A consistent effort to be conscientious is consistent reassurance that you are competent and allows you to see errors as opportunities for improvement rather than evidence of personal defect, or flaw. The ability to accept responsibility will facilitate cooperation in relationships rather than competition and increase the opportunity for intimacy and mutual respect.

More from Daniel S. Lobel Ph.D.
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