Who’s to Blame? The Real Downside of the Blame Game

How blaming yourself or someone else can stop you from doing what you want to.

Posted Apr 22, 2017

Mattie* was a tiny, fragile, angelic-looking child who lived in a residential facility for children with psychological problems. When she was upset, she would let loose with a string of curse words that many of the staff who worked with her had never heard before. The rough language was so incongruous coming out of her mouth that we had a hard time not laughing out loud. But since laughing not only encouraged her, but also gave the other children license to join in, we quickly learned to restrain ourselves and set limits on Mattie as soon as she started shouting.

Reminded of the rules about cursing, she repeated regularly, “I can’t help it. It’s the way my mother made me.”

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Mattie's life experience and a severe psychological illness had burdened her with an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. She had no sense of personal agency, an important psychological capacity that my PT colleague Mary Lamia has described as the “ability to take action, be effective, influence your own life, and assume responsibility for your behavior.”  Not just because she was a child, but also because of her illness, she had no sense that she could impact the people around her or change her environment. Her primary sense of herself was, at best, one of helpless victim.

It has been many years since I last saw Mattie; but in my work as a psychotherapist, I often see a similar feeling of helplessness in clients, even adults who have a lot of power and responsibility in their jobs and in their personal lives, and who have many, many more internal strengths and external successes than Mattie. Yet like Mattie, they often look for someone to blame when things go badly. And when they can’t find someone else to focus on, they blame themselves.

Psychoanalysts have long regarded the sense of personal agency as an important component of mental health. Daniel Stern, a psychiatrist who worked with infants and their parents, tells us that a sense that we can impact others and get what we need for ourselves is crucial to emotional and psychological health at all ages. And psychoanalyst and philosopher Robert Stolorow writes that helping clients develop   personal agency is one of the primary focuses of psychotherapy.

Blaming someone or something else is often an attempt to gain a sense of agency. “It’s not my fault. I would have done it differently if only he/she/it had not forced me to do it this way.”

Blaming ourselves is, interestingly, also a way of giving ourselves a sense of agency. “I should have been able to do it differently. It’s no one else’s fault, just my own.” Essentially, failure to do what we know we should have done comforts us in a backhanded way. It’s as though we’re saying to ourselves and the world “I could have done it. I’m capable of doing it.”

Paradoxically, both blaming someone else and blaming ourselves can make us feel better about ourselves when we feel bad about our situation. But the blame game, whether it’s toward yourself or toward someone else can also create problems.

When you feel that you are being forced into a particular behavior by someone else, whether it is your partner, spouse, parent, boss, colleague, child, or someone or something in the larger world – the medical system, the school system, the political system, or even the weather or the cycle of the moon – blaming someone else can make you feel as though there is nothing you can do about it, even when there might be something you could do to change a situation.

And blaming yourself can make you feel so bad that you can’t take steps to change, even though you can see them.

That’s how it was for Liana*, for instance. She worked in a large company where she was getting consistent positive feedback for her contribution. She was pretty sure that she was in line for a promotion. But she was working horribly long hours and often much of the weekend. Her eating was bad, her sleeping worse. And she never exercised.

Her boyfriend encouraged her to at least get out of the office and take a walk everyday, and Liana said she knew it was a good idea. She also knew she could do it. “There’s time to at least take a fifteen minute walk,” she said. “But I just don’t do it. I’m just too lazy.”

Liana was anything but lazy, but this self-blame was how she explained and avoided taking a small step that seemed ridiculously simple to accomplish, yet was impossible for her to take.

There are many different reasons that we can’t move forward on our goals, however big or small they might be. But if you’re having difficulty, take a close look at your own personal blame game. It might be a silent one, or it might be out loud and shared by others, who complain about a given situation or a particular boss or leader as much as or even more than you do. But the blame game, as satisfying as it feels, might also be contributing to your difficulty doing anything to change your situation.

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Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Whose fault do I think this is?
  • Why?
  • If I shared the blame more equally, who else would I look at?
  • If I didn’t blame anyone, how would I explain the situation?

These last two questions might help you begin to think differently not only about the problem itself, but about how you are responding to it. When Liana began to ask herself these questions, she realized that she actually didn’t go out for a walk because she was afraid that something important would happen while she was away from her desk. “That’s so silly,” she said. “Things do happen fast at my office, but I’ll have my phone with me, so I will get any messages that I need to respond to immediately.”

When she stopped looking for someone to blame, Liana was able to better understand the anxiety underneath her inability to take a fifteen-minute break. Understanding what was keeping her from taking a step that she knew would make her feel better freed her up to actually take that step.

So the next time you start blaming someone – you or someone else – for a difficult situation, step back, ask yourself the four questions above, and see if not blaming anyone makes it easier to take some kind of healthy action to improve things.

 *names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

Copyright @fdbarth 2017

Follow me on Twitter https://twitter.com/fdbarthlcsw


Schafer, R. (1983), The Analytic Attitude. New York: Basic Books. 

Stern, D. N. (1985), The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic Books. 

Stolorow, R. (1985), Toward a pure psychology of inner conflict. In: Progress in Self Psychology, ed. A. Goldberg. New York: Guilford Press, 1:194-220.

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