Outgrow the Impulse to Blame

Blame may be the most self-defeating coping mechanism.

Posted Jul 12, 2020

I recently received some interesting questions about blame from a journalist. Here are the questions and answers.

Interviewer: What is the function of blame and why do we do it?

The primary function of blame is to transfer vulnerable emotional states to someone else. Vulnerable feelings — sadness, guilt, shame, anxiety — create self-doubt and make us feel powerless. They can be alleviated with adrenaline if we can blame someone. The adrenaline that powers blame provides temporary feelings of energy and confidence.

The social function of blame is to control other people’s behavior by invoking guilt or shame in them. Blamers are almost always complainers; they want others to join their assignment of guilt and shame on those they blame, in a kind of common-enemy bonding.  

Blame is a natural coping mechanism that begins in toddlerhood. If you go into a room to find a toddler alone with a broken lamp and ask what happened, you’ll hear, “He/she did it,” even if he or she is an imaginary friend. Blaming is a function of the toddler brain — the part that’s fully developed on a structural level by age 3. If you wouldn’t drive in a car designed by a toddler, don’t use a coping mechanism designed by a toddler.

Interviewer: If it’s so natural to blame, what’s wrong with it?

For one thing, it makes the other person defensive. When people are defensive, they can’t listen. More important, blame renders you powerless over how you feel. As long as your vulnerable emotions are attributed to others, they cannot motivate you to make positive changes in your behavior. Improvement is sacrificed to the impulse to punish. The road to psychological ruin begins with blame.

Interviewer: What’s the difference between blame and responsibility?

Blame is about causes. It carries a punishment impulse. Responsibility is about solutions. It carries an impulse to cooperate. Blame is focused largely on what the blamer cannot control. Responsibility is focused on possible improvement.

Interviewer: Is blame the same as criticism?

There’s a big overlap. Criticism can be constructive if it’s respectful and focuses on how to do things right, rather than how they were done wrong. If it’s respectful and focuses on improvement in the present and future, criticism is more teaching or guiding than blaming.

Interviewer: You’ve written that “blame puts you in the wrong time dimension, the wrong part of your brain, and the wrong part of your heart.” What do you mean by that?

Blame’s about past causes of problems. Solutions must be in the present and future.

Blame comes from the assessment part of the prefrontal cortex, which tries to discern how bad things are and how much damage has been done. Solutions come from the more advanced “improve” part of the prefrontal cortex – making things better. As long as you’re stuck in how bad things are, you can’t make things better.

Blame comes from the vengeful part of the heart. Most of what we blame on our loved ones must be addressed from the compassion and kindness part of our hearts.

Interviewer: Why are we more likely to blame our partners for things that we would not blame on our friends or coworkers?

We carry more guilt and shame concerning those we love. Where loved ones are concerned, simple disappointment feels like rejection. That creates a tendency to transfer guilt and shame by blaming. Of course, blaming loved ones only creates more guilt and shame – it’s a coping mechanism designed by a toddler, after all.

Interviewer: You’ve written about blame junkies. What does that mean?

Blame requires a certain amount of adrenaline — you’re violating your more humane values by devaluing someone. If you don’t feel energetic or confident without adrenaline, your brain will look for things to blame to get the energy shot. Adrenaline is the addiction, blame is just an easy way to get it. When blame becomes automatic, it’s achieved the status of habit.

Interviewer: If blame is a habit, how do you break it?

The only way to change a habit is to condition a new habit that is incompatible with the one you want to change. Practice acts of improvement, compassion, or kindness each time you have the impulse to blame, and you’ll build a better habit. Improvement, compassion, and kindness usually produce endorphins, which calm anxiety and facilitate well-being. The brain tends to give up adrenaline when endorphins are available.

Begin with focusing on how you want to feel rather than how you do feel. That moves you out of the past and into future improvement. The habit of blame can’t function in the future.

Interviewer: I know a lot of people who blame themselves for everything, is that just as bad as blaming others?

It is, for the same reasons. Blame of self or others cuts you off from solutions and your ability to create value and meaning in your life.

Interviewer: What do you say to couples who get trapped in the blame game?

I work with them to develop binocular vision – the ability to see your partner’s perspective alongside your own and to see yourself through your partner’s eyes. It’s the ability to look beneath toddler coping mechanisms – blame, denial, avoidance — to the vulnerability that we all have in love relationships.

What most couples really long for in their blame game is not to be shown that they’re right, but that they are loved and lovable. When they focus on being loving, instead of blaming, they feel more lovable and are more likely to get love in return.