- Blaming someone is a way of attempting to feel better about a loss or other painful, hurtful, or anxiety-provoking experience.
- Taking responsibility is different from blaming and is a surprisingly powerful way to raise self-esteem and improve image with others.
- Combining responsibility, discomfort, and contradiction of mistakes made alone or by others can lead to happier feelings.
Hazel* was talking about her extremely distressing miscarriage. “If only I hadn’t gone swimming that afternoon,” she said, “maybe it wouldn’t have happened.” I reminded her that her doctor had told her that swimming had nothing to do with the miscarriage. “Well, I know she said it, but maybe she was just trying to make me feel better,” Hazel said.
When Marcos* learned that his flight had been canceled because of an approaching hurricane, so that he was not going to be able to attend his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, he was furious–with himself.
“How is this your fault?” I asked him.
“Well, obviously, I can’t control the weather,” he said, “but I should have talked them out of having the party at this time of year. They’re in Florida, and it’s hurricane season.”
I asked if he was at all angry with his parents for not having thought of this themselves, and he said that he couldn’t be mad at them because they were having the anniversary party on the date that they had gotten married. “So how can you be so upset with yourself for the very thing that you aren’t even a little annoyed with them about?” I asked.
Both Hazel and Marcos tend to take the blame whenever anything goes wrong, whether or not it makes logical sense. This position, which can be painful to the person who blames themselves and people who care about them, exists for a reason. Frequently, starting with the words, “if only I had (or had not)…” is a way of trying to control something that has caused unhappiness, loss, disappointment, pain, or anxiety.
But instead of giving you some control, taking responsibility for something you cannot and did not cause can add to your hurt more. As my PT colleague, Michael J. Formica, writes, it can become a form of emotional abuse which “amplifies our perceived inadequacies, whether real or imagined, and paralyzes us before we can even begin to move forward.”
Unfortunately, self-blame is not an attitude that you can decide to stop.
Interestingly, another behavior, which is the exact opposite of self-blame, is caused by the same psychological need. A person who never takes responsibility, who almost always places the blame for any problem on someone else, is also often trying to control feelings of loss, disappointment, hurt, and/or anxiety.
Another PT colleague, Bernard Golden, writes that blaming others can mask “feelings of powerlessness, hurt, and anticipated loss.” But, as Golden explains, blaming others often increases a sense of powerlessness in the long run.
Unfortunately, blaming others, too, is not an attitude that you can easily stop.
It is human nature to want to find a cause for our pain and suffering. The fantasy behind this search is often that if we understand the cause, we can do something about it–we can have what psychotherapists call “agency” over the situation. Thus, if we’re responsible for the problem, we can change our own behaviors or attitudes or thoughts, or feelings to make things better. And if we think that someone else is responsible, then all we have to do is change them, and everything will be fine.
I emphasized the word all because changing someone–ourselves or someone else– is a difficult undertaking. Sometimes, no matter how much you or the other person does change, the situation won’t.
In my many years practicing psychotherapy, I have found that what makes the most difference in painful situations is finding ways to recognize, talk about, and allow oneself to feel the discomfort–whether it’s sadness, unhappiness, disappointment, anxiety, or another pain. As you may have noticed, I left anger off the list because anger is often a more accessible emotion that disguises or eases some of these other, less tolerable feelings. So, I encourage clients to reach for the feelings beneath their anger when possible.
The problem is, making space for these feelings is hard enough by itself. But the next step is to recognize that you probably have mixed feelings. For instance, Marcos was disappointed and sad that he wouldn’t get to his parents’ party. He was also irritated with his parents about their choice to celebrate during hurricane season. He also understood and sympathized with their desire to have the party on the actual date they were married. He said,
I also want to be their good and loving son, which means I don’t want to be angry or irritated with them, and I want to be able to be there with them. I don’t want to be disappointed, left out, or criticized for not getting there.
How do you resolve such contradictions? Contradiction and conflict are part of being human. Shakespeare scholar Bradd Shore wrote that Shakespeare recognized that paradox is part of the human condition. Still, he also understood that accepting paradox is actually part of the solution to the conflict.
Like Stephen Mitchell, Jody Messler Davies, and Jessica Benjamin, contemporary relational psychoanalysts write about paradoxes in much the same way. Psychological and emotional health involves a recognition and acceptance of contradiction.
Marcos could feel bad about not being at the party and be angry at his parents, himself, and the fates. He could also recognize that anyone could do nothing about the situation except express all of their mixed and confusing feelings about it.
There is, however, a difference between blaming yourself and taking appropriate responsibility. When Marcos called his parents to tell them how sad he felt about not being there, they said they were sad as well–and then they said they were sorry that they had not planned the party for another time. “We’re not little kids,” his dad said. “We didn’t have to have it on the exact date.” They were not blaming themselves for the bad weather, but they owned that they made a decision that had not considered the weather.
When Hazel came to grips with the reality that she could not have prevented the miscarriage, she took responsibility for her bad feelings. Acknowledging that she was sad and angry, hurt and disappointed, and badly confused that she had not been able to have that baby, she said, “It’s hard to admit that it’s no one’s fault. I want to blame someone, even if it’s myself. But that doesn’t actually make me feel better.”
And that’s the bottom line. Blaming someone is a way of making yourself feel better about a loss, a painful, hurtful, or anxiety-provoking experience, or some other difficulty in your life. Recognizing that you have a mix of feelings takes responsibility for your emotions, even the bad ones. Finding other ways to manage those feelings can lead to better feelings about yourself and the people in your life. And better self-esteem and a better relationship are both far more powerful tools than blame in the process of finding contentment in your life.
* Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy.