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The Arbitrariness of Blame (Part 1 of 3)

Accusing others makes them your adversaries.

Does Blaming Work?

To err is human, to blame the next guy even more so. (Unknown)

There can be no doubt that the average man blames much more than he praises. His instinct is to blame. If he is satisfied he says nothing. (Arnold Bennett)

Blaming others. It can be terribly tempting. And convenient, too. When somebody says or does something that leads you to feel frustrated, disappointed, or not listened to, blaming them can instantly relieve some of your distress. In that moment of self-righteous finger-pointing you simply feel better than you did the moment before. After all, it's they who are wrong or bad, not you. In terms of your relationship with that person, blaming them usually achieves nothing--certainly nothing positive. But telling them that they're at fault can yet be inherently satisfying and reassuring.

The circumstance that, whether intentionally or not, making another person feel bad should somehow be internally rewarding is probably one of the least flattering aspects of human nature. Yet this seems to be how the human psyche operates. That is, if someone irritates you or causes you anxiety, your automatic reaction is to return the favor. And although my primary purpose in this three-part post isn't to elaborate on how blaming others is almost never productive (and just about the worst way to deal with relationship problems), I'll be illustrating that this is typically the case. My broader objective, however, is to show that the very act of blaming others is arbitrary. And that if you can overcome this almost universal tendency and replace negative judging, censoring, and fault-finding with understanding, empathy, and compassion, then you (and everybody else) will be the happier for it.

It should be obvious that when you go into accusing mode, your conscious motive is to prompt the other person to reconsider--and ideally, "correct"--their bothersome behavior. Realistically, though, what are the odds that putting a person down will increase the probability that they'll respond to you positively? Much more likely, their knee-jerk reaction will be to defend themselves--and rather strenuously at that. Feeling berated and needing to protect their now vulnerable ego, they'll probably offer excuses, explanations, or rationalizations contrived to defend themselves from what they can't help but experience as threatening.

Or , should they believe their best defense is a good offense, they'll go on the attack, looking to find fault with something you said or did. That's why communication reacted to as criticism so often begets counter -criticism. Needless to say, whether they defend themselves directly, or defensively attack you for attacking them, neither reaction is likely to promote a mutually satisfying resolution to the original provocation. Moreover, should they respond by tuning you out--in effect, seeking to "nullify" your criticism by turning a deaf ear to it--you'll also be left frustrated (and probably more so than you were in the first place).

Yet it's you who--through the totally understandable, but nonetheless ill-advised, act of blaming--have brought on all this unpleasantness. Inadvertent or not, by expressing your frustrations aggressively, you've left the other person feeling trapped and thereby desperate to extricate themselves from the untenable place to which they now find themselves relegated.

But what, you might ask, if the person is undoubtedly at fault, and so absolutely deserves to be confronted? I'd respond by saying that unless your principle objective is to make the other person uncomfortable, blaming them for their errors or abuses is routinely the least effective way of getting through to them. From any pragmatic perspective, it simply doesn't make much sense to so directly share your frustrations with another. There are far more effective ways of communicating your grievances (see, e.g., my earlier post, "Criticism vs. Feedback--Which One Wins Hands Down?"--Parts 1 & 2 ).

NOTE : Part 2 , the key section of this piece, will consider when--if ever--blaming is truly justifiable; and Part 3 will go into what you can substitute for blaming whenever someone's actions leave you feeling upset and frustrated.

--- I invite readers to follow my psychological/philosophical musings on Twitter .

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