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Shame and the Pendulum of Blame

When things go wrong who is to blame?

The following guest post was written by my colleague, Mark Zaslav, Ph.D.

When things feel wrong, who is to blame? The very question, particularly when it seems to dominate mental life, indicates a special vulnerability to feeling judged. As I have stated elsewhere (Zaslav, 1998), along with envy, the tendency to affix blame is often associated with defenses against feeling shame.

At the heart of the feeling of shame is a wordless, private awareness that one is deficient, fundamentally “bad” or unworthy. This feeling is so painful that it can be experienced as an implosion of self-esteem, accompanied by fantasies of disappearing altogether or not even deserving to exist. When feeling ashamed, we instinctively turn away or hide from other people.

Clinical psychologists credit modern psychological research for the emerging understanding of shame and its connection to blaming. But the impulse to blame in response to shame is well documented in history and literature. For example, the Genesis account in the Old Testament, written thousands of years ago, explicitly notes that the fundamental human responses to shame are to hide and direct blame.

The familiar Genesis story, in which Adam and Eve were warned against eating from the Tree of Knowledge (knowledge of what is wrong) can be viewed as a brilliant allegory for the installation and demonstration of the human capacity for shame.

After eating of the tree, and newly vulnerable to shameful self-awareness, Adam and Eve initially hid from God in response to their sense of nakedness. When confronted for having defied God’s instructions, Adam immediately blamed Eve for tempting him, while Eve blamed the serpent. Only a few pages later, their son Cain kills his brother Abel in a state of envious narcissistic rage, blaming his brother for having deprived him of appropriate acknowledgment for his offering to God. This focus on shame is virtually the first, and presumably most important aspect of human nature described in the Old Testament. The characteristic human responses to shame management were well understood in ancient wisdom.

Consciously or unconsciously, if you struggle with chronic shame, you tend to experience misfortune as a negative verdict on your very sense of self. Often your default thinking may be couched in the language of accusation and blame. But in my therapy work, I have learned that it is more useful to focus on the nature of the impulses that give rise to blaming rather than the specifics of who or what is blamed.

Research in neuroscience and moral psychology suggests that emotional, morally judging brain systems operate swiftly and out of conscious awareness. The specific story or narrative that we tell ourselves or others about our moral judgments is the product of “interpreter” modules in the left hemisphere of our brains (Gazzaniga, 2011). Plausible sounding blame narratives are produced after our emotional brain systems have already lodged the judgment. In a similar vein, Dr. Jonathon Haidt (2012) has likened discourse about moral “reasoning” to a rider on the back of an elephant. The conscious, verbally facile rider has only limited control of the moral elephant but generates convincing, elaborate rationalizations to defend powerful, instantaneous, deep-seated moral intuitions. In short, the impulse to assign blame originates as an emotional and moral intuition; the particular expressed locus of blame is often the result of a downstream imposition of narrative by our interpreter modules. Whether lashing out at tormentors or flagellating the self, blame often dislocates a warded-off sense of shame. When we blame, a sense of wrongness is being elaborated, attributed, and projected in a plausible account. But my interest as a psychologist is in providing the patient a safe space to discuss the sense of wrongness itself.

Blaming can be internalized or externalized. People who tend to self-blame may attribute virtually any negative outcome to a lurking sense of badness or deficiency. Cognitive psychologists (Abramson, et. al, 1999) have coined the term “depressogenic attributional style” to refer to the tendency to interpret all negative events as evidence of personal failure or toxicity. On the other hand, we are all aware of people (narcissists, for example) who externalize blame. Victims, other actors or forces beyond control may be targets for blame. In the process, externalizing personalities regulate and project shameful feelings that would otherwise attach to a sense of responsibility for the shameful quality. This also preempts the feeling of guilt for harmful actions.

Guilt, in contrast to shame, is seen by social psychologists as a separate emotion in which there is regret at an action that has caused suffering to another person. Guilt involves an empathic response to the one harmed. When guilty, people express regret for having caused injury. An ability to identify with the sufferer is essential to guilt. Research has associated guilt-proneness (as opposed to shame-proneness) with psychological benefits, leading the guilty individual to reach out in expressing regret or making amends. These have been referred to as “affiliative social scripts.”

Obviously, shame and guilt are frequently experienced together. For example, it is not uncommon for a guilty individual to blame herself for having hurt someone’s feelings. But the primary focus in the guilty emotion is on the real or imagined suffering of the person harmed, shame being secondary. For example, the statement, “I blame myself for hurting Fred’s feelings with callous words” is evidence of guilty consideration of actions that harmed Fred. The shameful issue for the guilty person is an awareness of responsibility for having acted harmfully.

On the other hand, people who are extremely preoccupied with shame and its management actually exhibit less guilt than “normal” people lacking this shame sensitivity. It appears that the preoccupation with shame hijacks the ability for the individual to own actions of the self, to empathize with others hurt by those actions, and experience the impulse to make amends. In short, people who are shame-prone tend to be relatively immune to mature, prosocial guilt. They blame themselves not for their behavior but for who they are; blame pivots not on injury to others but who is fundamentally good or bad. For such people, casting blame dislocates undesirable attributes to others, obscuring any focus on the suffering caused by harmful acts they have committed.

The Genesis story suggests that when it comes to self-conscious moral evaluation, the human mind is wired to embrace immediate rationalization at the expense of honest reflection. Adam and Eve virtually blurted out their self-serving blaming narratives in response to their new sense of wrongness in the presence of an accusing God. If you are prone to a miscalibrated sense of shame, you may find yourself constantly jumping either to self-condemnation or feeling judged by others. Often, our targets of blame are determined primarily by our states of mind rather than any objective reality. When depressed, we might blame ourselves for things out of our control or unrelated to our actions. When feeling unappreciated or victimized, we might be more vulnerable to self-destructive fixation on imagined slights or grievances, leading to spirals of self-pity and anger.

Childhood neglect or abuse can damage the development of a secure, cohesive, positive sense of self. Without the guidance and support of a parent attuned to our needs or emotional states, we become vulnerable to internalizing a deep sense of shameful worthlessness that can drive many self-destructive habits of mind and behavior. Predisposition to addictions, depression, and eating disorders are some of the observable behaviors that we see clinically, but the compulsive need to affix blame is a more subtle manifestation of chronic shame. If this is the case for you or someone you know, cognitive therapy can help provide tools to become aware that the flood of continual, fleeting mental verdicts (self or other) are not objective “truths,” but signals of an underlying difficulty feeling whole or essentially deserving to exist. As you focus on these emotional states and their manifestations in therapy, defensive escape routes such as affixing blame will become less compelling, allowing you to be more open and compassionate with yourself and others. With the support of an experienced therapist, you will learn to notice and accept your own inner states, developing a greater sense of worthiness.

Dr. Mark Zaslav is a clinical psychologist in Marin County, California with psychotherapy and forensic psychological consulting practices. He can be contacted at


Abramson, LY, et al. (1999). Cognitive vulnerability to depression: Theory and Evidence. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 13(1), 5-20.

Gazzaniga, M. (2011). Who’s In Charge? New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind. New York, NY: Pantheon.

Zaslav, MR. (1998). Shame-related states of mind in psychotherapy. Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, 7(2), 154-166.