“If she didn’t say that I wouldn’t have hit her.” “If he didn’t cut me off I would never have chased after him!” “My father is to blame for my problems with anger.”
These are just a few examples of comments I’ve heard over the years, made by individuals who blamed others in order to justify their anger and how they expressed it. In the first, a 32-year-old husband, married for just two years, assaulted his wife while under the influence of alcohol. He hit his wife after she threatened to divorce him and make sure that he would suffer financially. His aggression was a reaction to his anger—rage that masked his feelings of powerlessness, hurt, and anticipated loss. In spite of arguments that had escalated in the previous year, he was unable to honestly acknowledge that he and his wife were incompatible.
The second example was a driver’s reaction to being cut off by another driver. He experienced this event as a personal attack. The action triggered intense feelings of insult, feelings that were already in place long before the incident occurred—feeling devalued and disrespected—made to feel “less than” and invisible.
The third comment is one I’ve heard from individuals who blame their parents for how they manage their anger as an adult. They might site the modeling they observed or experienced first-hand. At times, they suggest that their quickness to anger and even how they manage anger were inherited.
In each scenario, these individuals deny their responsibility for their behavior. They portray themselves as powerless in their actions and, often, incapable of change. The details of how they blamed others for their anger is different. However, in each situation, these individuals failed to recognize that their tendency to blame others only strengthened their perceived powerlessness and–in turn– their likelihood of blaming others.
It is one thing to suggest that an event contributed to triggering our anger. It is an entirely different issue to suggest that others are responsible for our feelings, their intensity and how we manage them.
Origins of Blaming Others
Like many of our habits, the tendency to blame others can be traced to our early development. Some of us may have learned this strategy by observing parents who modeled it. Others may have been intensely shamed or punished when admitting responsibility for something that went wrong or for making mistakes. Perhaps we’ve never developed the capacity for self-soothing to deal with our feelings, especially the powerful impact of shame–regarding our feelings or our behavior.
Blaming others for our anger, whether as individuals or countries, can be traced back in history. It may stem in part from our need to see ourselves as better than we truly are and as not being flawed. It can help us to justify actions based on feelings that we judge as weak, impulsive or inappropriate. As individuals or countries, we can then justify our actions as we avoid awareness of our flaws.
Function of Blaming Others
As with destructive anger in general, blaming others for how we manage anger is a defensive strategy that helps us to avoid recognizing and experiencing difficult and challenging feelings such as shame, guilt, hurt, disappointment, sadness, and feelings of inadequacy or powerlessness. Blaming is like other formal defense mechanisms–a strategy of deception that we use to help preserve our self-esteem. It encompasses an attempt to disown feelings that we judge to be too uncomfortable or part of ourselves that create within us a sense of shame. Blame, especially with regard to anger, also further reflects disowning our responsibility for our own behavior.
Blaming others can be considered “blame avoidance” and, like all defense mechanisms, can be considered another form of “emotional avoidance”, evading the experience of powerful, uncomfortable feelings. Additionally, the payoff for blaming others for how we express anger is the enhancement of our sense of being “right”, “perfect” or “justified” in our actions.
For many individuals with chronic anger, blame is all too often used, not only with regard to how they express anger but also in other areas of their lives. Blaming others can help them save face when they experience themselves as having weaknesses, flaws or mistakes.
Consequences of Blaming Others for How We Manage Anger
1. Blaming others for how we manage anger ultimately interferes with experiencing true self-worth and genuine empowerment. Each time we blame others for our actions, we diminish our power and enhance our sense of victimhood. And when we perceive ourselves as a victim we unwittingly foster feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and pessimism—all of which may increase our proneness for anger arousal.
Blaming others denies our autonomy, our free agency to make choices. In the process, we experience diminished freedom. In this manner we blaming leads to a cultivation of victimhood that increases the likelihood for anger.
2. Blaming others can also be viewed as deriving from as well as contributing to dependency. Taking responsibility for ourselves is not always easy. Taking responsibility for ourselves can inherently arouse anxiety. It may heighten our sense of feeling alone as well as confused regarding the choices we make in our lives. It is the kind of anxiety that moves many of us to seek a distraction–including blaming others for how we live our lives.
3. Blaming others distracts us from the constructive but difficult task of self-reflection. This makes sense. However, while self-reflection can be uncomfortable, it is an essential component of taking responsibility for ourselves. Blaming others constricts our sense of choice while self-reflection expands it. Through self-reflection, we more clearly define our desires and how to constructively satisfy them. We develop connection with ourselves that informs the choices we make regarding our lives.
4. By itself, and through diminishing the openness for reflection, blaming others contributes to feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. This can lead not only to anger, but to depression as well. In recent years, adult anger, especially that of men, has been increasingly recognized as a sign of their depression. As such, while blaming others may be, in part, derived from depression, it only further exacerbates those feelings of helplessness and powerlessness associated with depression.
5. Blaming others may reflect global thinking. This is the case when individuals angrily blame an entire group of people–targeting individuals by their ethnicity, religion, race or sexuality–for all of the major difficulties in their lives. Such scapegoating reflects a global perspective that further increases our reactivity and sense of powerlessness. It fosters a massive renunciation of responsibility that may further fuel a justification for aggression. Additionally, it engenders a demonization of others that supports dehumanizing them.
6. Blaming others for our anger and how we manage it robs us of the opportunity to develop resilience to better handle life’s challenges. Each moment we blame others for how we manage anger, we make it that much more difficult to examine the ways in which we get in our own way. And, in the process, we move further away from actually satisfying our key desires. Each time we blame others for our anger miss out on an opportunity for personal growth.
7. Blaming leads to blaming. Brain research increasingly emphasizes that the more frequently we have certain thoughts and behaviors, the more strongly they become embedded in the neuronal pathways of our brain. Consequently, regarding anger-provoking situations for example, the more frequently we blame others for how we react, the more likely we will continue to do so. And the more we respond aggressively, the more such aggression becomes the “go-to” reaction.
Cultivating Compassion as an Antidote to Blame
Life is challenging and all of us experience some degree of suffering. We have weaknesses and flaws and we make mistakes. This is what it means to be human. As such cultivating self-compassion offers an antidote to blaming others. It encompasses learning to fully accept our humanity. Self-compassion helps us to acknowledge and accept our thoughts and feelings with curiosity rather than judgment. It supports our capacity to respond to sit with and acknowledge our pain rather than minimize, deny or suppress it. It helps us accept all parts of ourselves rather than act in ways to disown them.
Additionally, cultivating compassion entails evoking our wisdom to be mindful to identify what is in our best interest. It helps us to engage in self-reflection that is essential for more deeply connecting with ourselves–an essential task that helps us identify who we are and who we wish to become. It consists of turning inward, especially during suffering, to ask and define what we can do to help ourselves, in a way that is most constructive for us. Such compassion further supports our capacity to engage in solitude, a state of being that allows for reflection increasing our self-awareness.
Steps to Reduce Your Tendency to Blame Others
1. Recognize it when it occurs.
2. Reflect on the purpose it serves you. What feelings are you trying to avoid?
3. Cultivate increased self-compassion to recognize that being human involves making mistakes, having flaws and weaknesses.
4 Recognize how your tendency for global thinking contributes to blaming.
5. Look for your contribution to your suffering.
6. Identify what you could do to more constructively address your suffering.
7. Experiment with being vulnerable.
8. Cultivate assertive communication that emphasizes how you were impacted by an action rather than how someone caused you to feel.
9. Be aware of any negative self-talk or criticism you experience reading these suggestions. Determine how certain fears may contribute to this reaction.
Decreasing your tendency to blame others for how you manage anger may have provided you protection from some very uncomfortable feelings. As such, it may be a long-term predisposition, reflecting a habit in your thinking, feeling, and behavior. These habits can be changed. However, having mixed motivations and feelings about such change is a part of letting go of any protective defenses. Since these tendencies are established habits, you may need some professional help to address it.
Reducing our tendency to blame can be invigorating. The process helps us to take back the mental energy that would be expended in trying to flee from recognizing our internal landscape. But by engaging in the process we live a life that allows for increased choice and agency as we develop the resilience for dealing with life’s most difficult challenges–whether in our relationships, in daily activities or with our past.