Community College of Rhode Island

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Blame

One Painful Way of Defeating Yourself


BLAME is the concept. Notice I didn't say "responsibility." Think for a few seconds about the two words. Perhaps use them in a sentence.

Blame is an affect laden word. Responsibility, on the other hand, does not tend to have the same level of affective (emotional) weighting. Usually, when we think of somebody as being to blame for an event we are judging both their behavior and that person. We are also often involved in assigning or determining guilt (he/she's to blame for the car breaking- down). It may have been the person's responsibility to maintain the car in sound working order but the implication of blame involves, to some degree, causation (he/she caused the car to breakdown). In the examples, blame implies causation and guilt.

In our heritage, establishment of guilt is followed by some form of punishment. The punishments vary from standing in a corner for five minutes to saying several extra prayers to a jail term or, in rare instances, the death penalty. Our entire culture revolves around the concept of rules (both written and un-written) that are supposed to guide or regulate our behavior. When we break the rules one or more persons judge us guilty, announce a punishment (which is to be imposed) and inform us when the punishment is to be ended (or when we are absolved of the guilt).

We grow up in the culture learning this type of system of blame, guilt, punishment and absolution and apply it with regularity to others and to ourselves. We do this most frequently through our self-talk. We expend vast amounts of energy determining who is to blame for a particular event or phenomena. (Who spilled the milk? Now, come on, 'fess up, who spilled the milk? Wait 'till your father/mother gets home. He/she will find out who spilled the milk and then you'll get it.) The determination of blame (guilt) always seems to carry with it some implied or explicit suggestion of punishment (then you'll get it). Small wonder the responsible party is unwilling to step forward.

In most day-to-day situations where people set about the task of establishing blame the activity is of little actual importance. In the example of the spilled milk, the blame establisher probably is concerned that (1) the milk is spilled (and may need to be cleaned up), and (2) the responsible party be aware that the spilling of milk is something to be avoided (and is to be mopped up).

When we seek to establish blame for an event, we send a message. The message tends to be one that implies some terrible consequence following the establishment of blame. We are, of course, attempting to establish a punishment for the wrongful event. But punishment is not always an effective means of changing behavior, feelings, and thoughts. You have probably learned in psychology that a punishment or a reward is associated with the behavior that most immediately preceded the administration of the reward or punishment. That's essentially true! But wait a minute -- which behavior immediately preceded the punishment?

Those of you who have (or have had) dogs may recall that when the dog did something wrong, you called the dog and spanked the dog for the transgression. The first time you did this the dog came right away, the next time the dog was slower to respond and eventually the dog would not come when called. The dog would not come when called because it learned that it would get spanked when it responded to your call. You have trained the dog to not come when you call as opposed to training the dog to not dig in the garden. Humans, though certainly very different than dogs, respond to learning situations in a very similar way.

What gets lost in the process of blame establishment is most often the fundamental reason for initiating the process at the outset. That is, a person has exhibited a behavior (done something) that has had an effect on our lives that we do not like. We do not want them to do the same thing again, particularly if the same consequence on our life may result. The objective is for that person (and we may be that person) to change his or her behavior in such a way that the new behavior will likely result in our experiencing a more favorable consequence (we want them to not spill milk so we will not have to spend our energy cleaning a floor with milk on it).

By seeking to establish blame we focus on establishment of guilt rather than on changing or modifying milk handling behavior. We punish "fessing up" (or coming when called) rather than teaching new, more productive, methods of handling milk to the people with responsibility for the handling of milk. We get angry when they don't respond and when the milk is spilled again. This seems like a rather unproductive group of activities.

How might we change our blame establishing behavior? -- Not by punishing ourselves for doing it, but by seeking to replace the behavior pattern with one that may get us closer to our overall objective. When we notice ourselves saying, either out loud or internally, things like: Who's to blame, who's at fault, who did this or that, and other similar phrases and we are feeling a strong emotion like anger -- STOP -- maybe even say out- loud the word stop -- and then ask the following questions: What difference does establishing blame make? Will establishing blame change anything that is happening or has happened? Will establishing blame change the behavior of the responsible person?

As you review your responses to the questions you will probably note your emotional response has less intensity and that your self talk will start to move into the problem solving mode (O.K. -- now how can I correct the problem). Once in the problem solving mode you can then start determining your immediate and long range objectives (seeing to it that the milk is mopped from the floor and teaching people how to not spill milk) and the action steps involved (getting the mop for yourself or another person and teaching the responsible person how to more effectively hold a milk carton and pour milk).

As you make a habit of taking charge of situations rather than establishing blame you will most likely find that you have much more energy available to invest in more productive activities.

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Last Updated: 10/31/13