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by Sally Forman


Why do we blame, how does it sabotage relationships and why move beyond it?

Have you ever found yourself blaming? Perhaps you’ve been upset about something that’s happened in a relationship and then blame the other person for your upset. Blame can be compelling. We all do it. But it often backfires. Blame alienates others from us. It can evoke a counter complaint and frequently spirals into a battle to prove who’s wrong. Blame is destructive. It doesn’t enhance communication. And yet we blame.

What makes blame so compelling?

Blame discharges discomfort and pain. When we blame we look for whose fault something is and don’t have to be accountable for our own experiences. Accountability is a vulnerable process and blame protects us from being vulnerable. Blame is a way of having the moral high ground. And when we have the moral high ground we think we can extract things from, e.g. a colleague or a partner that they wouldn’t normally be willing to give. They may feel guilty, “I did do that so…” The hope is that the other person will admit their guilt and rectify the situation.

Blame is a way of asking for something without being vulnerable when you ask. It’s indirect. For example, rather than saying, “Will you pay attention to me?” or, “Will you help me wash the dishes?” you say, “You never pay attention to me” or “You never help me wash the dishes.” And blame’s self-fulfilling, because when someone is being blamed they’re not going to want to pay attention to you or help you.

Blame is a way of having power, over the other person. Blame gives us the power of victimization. ‘I now have the right to get you to do what I want you to do’. Blame makes us feel in control and strong; giving us a sense of power internally so we don’t feel weak or crushed. The anger of blame gives us a sense of agency; it’s active and masks feelings of powerlessness. It’s like having an ally.
Blame also takes away our sense of ‘badness’. The other person is bad, you’re not.  When you blame you don’t have to be responsible for your contribution.

Blame is a reaction, rather than a response. It’s a reaction from our reptilian brain, to a perceived threat. In blame our prefrontal cortex, our thinking brain, that allows us to choose how we respond, is off-line.


What’s the antidote to blame?

Noticing, becoming aware that we are reacting, that our reptilian brain is on fire, allows us to slow down and step back. That pause allows our prefrontal cortex to come back on-line again. Then we can be at choice; to continue being adversarial or to choose collaboration. Having the courage to hold people, and ourselves, to accountability. The more we are able to notice our underlying feelings and needs and then communicate them, directly, by asking and showing our vulnerability, the more collaborative communication becomes. This can be challenging, it exposes you to risk, and it can be a more satisfying, kinder and generous way of communicating in relationships.

Blame, is a short animation, from researcher and storyteller Brené Brown, in which she considers why we blame and why it would support us to give it up.



Brené Brown on Blame, 3 Feb 2015.

Article posted 14 November 2016
Sally Forman 2012-150
Sally Forman is a Registered Psychotherapist, Certified Life Coach and Speaking Circles Facilitator with a private practice in Wellington
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