Blame is one of the least useful things we can go in for. It shuts down conversation, breaks relationships and all too often makes it impossible to come up with any kind of productive resolution. We go in for blame to protect ourselves from feeling bad about our own shortcomings – if we can out the blame squarely on someone else we can hang on to the illusion that we are fine, lovely, good people. Owning mistakes hurts. Equally, when we accept the blame, we can be demoralised, crushed even, by the value-judgements that go alongside being blamed. Worthless. Useless. Failure.
Taking responsibility is a powerful thing. Where blame is usually a blanket, and not very specific, responsibility requires us to unpick things. To take responsibility you have to know where things went awry, and what precisely could have been done that bit better. There’s scope for a learning process that takes you forward, safe in the knowledge that next time there will be new and different mistakes.
Blame cultures breed denial. If the consequence of owning a mistake is that you will be humiliated and shamed, there’s not much incentive to own the errors. In a culture that prizes responsibility, stepping forward to say where things went wrong is an honourable action for which you should be thanked. Most of the time things go wrong because of misjudgements, genuine errors, well meant attempts that were wide of the mark. Most of the time, those can be dealt with well once they are exposed and scrutinised.
Sometimes, there are people who are just mean and unreasonable. There are problems not born of honest mistakes but of a genuine desire to inflict suffering. If you come back with a blame response to one of those, the most likely outcome is that you will escalate things. People who mean to cause pain are not people who will shoulder responsibility for resolving it. What you’ll get instead is a flash of narcissistic rage perhaps, or some defensive lashing out to preserve that person’s sense of worth and dignity. If you think that someone else is genuinely to blame for a problem, the responsible action can simply be to get the hell out of there and reduce the scope for them to do something similar again.
How do you tell if you are the victim or the villain in a blame situation? How do you tell if you are blithely projecting your negativity onto someone else, or defending your crapness by blaming it on another? Look to the blame itself. If your impulse is to blame, and to push responsibility away from you, then regardless of what is going on in a situation, you’ve got issues that need looking at. If your impulse is to unpick problems and work out balances of responsibility with a view to making things better, you’re going the right way. If your inclination is to take the blame and internalise a sense of fault, this is not proof that you are the bad guy, nor is it proof that you are some kind of long suffering saint. What it means is that you have an unhelpful way of thinking about things, and you would be better off ditching it in favour of a more balanced approach.
If you’re faced with people who blame, then it is easy to internalise all the things they refuse to be responsible for. I’ve been there, and I’ve got t-shirts. There is a trap in letting yourself feel noble and self-sacrificing as you absorb someone else’s toxic output. I’ve done that too, and it’s not something I’m proud of, not least because it didn’t solve anything and just left me in a worse state. If there is shared responsibility, you have a strong relationship, a strong community. If there is just blame, it is never going to be good. Sometimes the responsible choice, is to go somewhere else.