From time to time, we all blame others for our problems. With several billion people sharing the same planet, it would be surprising if there were not differences of attribution when things go wrong. To add to the complexity, one person’s ‘right’ is another person’s ‘wrong’, and we can end up locked in constant battles to enforce our version of ‘right’ against other people’s.
It is less common for humans to blame themselves for their problems. (It makes people feel bad to realise the part they play in their own issues.) But some anxious or depressed people do collapse into self-blame when they lack self-esteem, or the reassurance of others.
A toxic combination is when a chronic other-blamer partners up with a chronic self-blamer. Imagine a marriage in which one person cannot face their own part in their problems, and so projects those problems onto their spouse, getting angry all the time. The spouse does not have the strength to push back, and, through low self-esteem takes all the criticism in, adding it to self-criticism, and ending up even more anxious and depressed.
What’s your usual attitude when things go wrong? Do you immediately look outwards for someone else to blame? Or do you immediately look inwards, and feel guilty?
BLAME V ACCOUNTABILITY
Maybe we can think of blame as the attribution of fault, whereas accountability is the encouragement of responsibility. When I blame others, I am finding fault with them. When I hold others accountable, I am openly encouraging them to take responsibility.
A bad boss may always be blaming their staff. In other words, they avoid feeling bad themselves by projecting any fault away from themselves, and on to others who depend on them and cannot answer back. A better boss may hold themselves and their staff accountable. In other words, they openly (and hopefully by consent) cultivate an expectation that each person in the team will be responsible for playing their own part to the best of their ability.
In the same way, a bad parent may always be blaming their children – giving them a bad feeling about themselves, and making them feel inherently bad. This may leave them, in adulthood, with a legacy of low self-esteem and pervasive guilt. A better parent may hold themselves and their children accountable, cultivating an expectation that each member of the family plays their part responsibly, to the best of their ability.
BREAKING THE BLAMING HABIT
When working with therapeutic clients, I often find that the road to healing involves moving from blame to accountability.
Blame is toxic. Self-blame gives bad feeling, but doesn’t really connect to any good action. Blaming others creates a bad social atmosphere, but, again, doesn’t really connect to any good collaborative action.
Accountability is healing. Self-accountability gives cause for good action. Holding others accountable, and as long as it is empathic and adaptive, and as long as self-accountability comes first, can provide cause for constructive collaboration.
Try to catch yourself blaming yourself or others. Usually, self-blame will give you a sinking, helpless feeling, and blaming others will give you an angry, irritable feeling.
When you observe this, try to identify an action you can take to make things better. Is there a small change you can make yourself? Or is there something simple you can ask others to do, politely?
Notice the difference in feeling when you take accountability. It should feel more uplifting and comfortable, and feelings of irritability or sinking should subside.
Blaming others is very common. Blaming yourself is also fairly common, especially among the anxious and depressed. Blame is toxic, because it merely attributes fault, without offering a way forward. Mental health can suffer.
Holding self and others accountable, in contrast, is more healing. It operates by consent, leads by example, and strengthens through expectation.
If we can learn to stop blaming ourselves and others, we can find a channel to improved mental health. Furthermore, if we can learn to hold ourselves accountable, and to create an atmosphere in which others are encouraged to hold themselves accountable too, then our relationships with ourselves and others are likely to improve.