Thursday, January 27, 2011

It is not my fault! Playing the Blame Game

When certain themes reoccur in multiple therapy sessions, sometimes it helps me to write about them and shake the cobwebs off my thinking. Today's theme is : Blame.

Assigning Blame. Finding fault. Pointing fingers. Whatever term we use, it is about accusation. Although, on the surface, assigning blame seems to be about holding someone responsible, in reality, it is often used to justify one's own feelings or behavior. It is a little ironic that a person may really think they are doing the right thing by holding someone accountable, but when we use 'blame' to do it, we are going about it the wrong way.

Dictionaries and common usage often equate 'blame' and 'responsibility'. The two terms are often used interchangeably. However, if you take a look at synonyms, we can begin to see the negativity associated with 'blame': criticize, censure, condemn, denounce, dispraise, fault, knock, pan, reprehend. By contrast, look at the definition of 'responsible': able to answer for one's conduct and obligations : trustworthy : able to choose for oneself between right and wrong. I won't argue that it is possible to read the other dictionary entries and conclude that even the dictionary includes the idea that the two concepts are interchangeable. I will contend that most people use the two in the negative sense.

Is it wrong to hold someone accountable or to uncover responsibility? No. However, there is a categorical difference between the two ideas: Blame and Responsibility. Blame accuses and invites defensiveness. Blame is connected to shame and guilt. Blame is usually also connected to anger and bitterness. Responsibility, on the other hand, is about growth. Being responsible allows a person to be proud of him or herself. Being responsible means owning one's own actions and feelings, good or bad, and allows a person to have integrity.

So, even in those rare occasions when it is socially acceptable to blame, I expect it is not very helpful. Blame is usually more about making the blamer feel justified in being angry, hurt or bitter than it is about helping the blamed accept responsibility. Can you not hear it? Listen to this conversation (paraphrased and slightly embellished):

Me: What it is about your parent's separation that hurts you the most?
Client: Well, it is my fault that they split up. I just want them to stop fighting and be a family again.
Me: Whoa... what makes you think that it was your fault?
Client: Well, my mom told me that she blames me for their decision to separate... and she's right. The last big fight they had was because of my stupid decision to disobey the rules of my being grounded.

Here, we see the client accepting the blame that the mother asserts. Now, while it is true that the client broke the family rules about being grounded, the conflict between the parents predates the youth's behavior. The youth's behavior influenced the parents' feelings and actions, but did not cause the separation. The parents had plenty of actions they could have taken, but for various reasons, they chose to separate. At a later date, the mom is hurt and angry and in order to feel better about being angry, she blames her decision on the youth. In this case, the blame did not invite the youth to be defensive. Instead, in accepting the blame, the youth also accepted undue guilt and shame. Should the youth feel bad about the behavior that the youth is responsible for? Sure. Should the youth feel the burden of the parents' decision? No.

Of course, there are other details I am not sharing about this situation. I have cleaned up and sterilized the messiness of the relationships involved in order to highlight my point. Blame, even when you can make a case for it, is never helpful. It is hurtful. Blame is about accusation and justification. Blame invites defensiveness, shame and guilt. Blame seeks to allow the blamer to put off the responsibility for his/her own emotions on another person. "You make me so angry!" and "If you hadn't ******, then I wouldn't blah, blah, blah."Can you hear the accuser, the blamer, divesting himself of emotional responsibility? Even if the blamer can make a good case for blaming, the end result is that the blamed feels defensive, accused, ashamed, and either defiant or broken. None of those feelings is conducive to healing, restoration or emotional health.

So, what is the alternative? Is it possible to assign responsibility without resorting to the accusing nature of blaming? How does one go about inviting another to accept responsibility without heaping shame and guilt upon them? What does it look like to act, in love and respect toward the responsible party, and firmly and with assertiveness allow them to own their fault? On the other side of the coin, how does a person avoid accepting unfair blame while still being responsible for one's own feelings and actions? Can it even be done?

I do not have definitive answers for the questions in the last paragraph, but I do know that I am done playing the blame game. It is tiring sometimes, because others constantly invite me to see others in an accusing way, to see others through their eyes of hurt and blame. I have a secret, though. I have another who invites me to see others through His eyes. He has a point of view that is unique in all creation. Instead of a lens of blame, He sees through a lens of grace, of undeserved mercy. Every day, I have the choice to accept the invitation of the hurt, broken souls that I serve to see others as blameworthy. Ironically, we are all blameworthy. Instead, I strive to choose what is helpful and healing, which is to see everyone through the eyes of a merciful, gracious God. The Great Physician has some wonderful insight into how to begin the healing process for the souls of men.

And now, may you have the courage to offer grace instead of blame. It is not an easy task, but it is a way of reflecting the image of a gracious God instead of the Great Accuser.


No comments: