In his book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David Burns, a cognitive behavioral therapist whose book helped popularize the theory, identifies several cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are patterns of thinking that are false or inaccurate and have the potential to cause psychological distress. One of the distortions that Burns discussed was personalization - the act of blaming ourselves for something that is not within our control. The flip side of this distortion is blaming other people for what happens in our lives. For example, if the barista had made my coffee faster, I wouldn’t have been late to my meeting.
Do you find yourself blaming others when events don’t unfold in the ways in which you want them to? Once you blame someone, do you then think they deserve to be treated or thought of poorly? Do you notice this pattern repeating often in your life? If so, it’s probably because you are engaged in the blame game. This blog will primarily focus on our choice to blame other people, reasons we do it, and ways to overcome this distortion.
Blame is defined as assigning responsibility for a fault or wrong. We blame others for a number of events: so and so made us late, she made me feel guilty, they pressured me to make a decision, he made me explode with rage. Blaming others leads to several unhelpful emotions like resentment, anger, and hatred. We blame others for our behaviors, our thoughts, and our feelings that are negative. I have yet to meet anyone who blames people for the good things that happen in our lives.
Blame is an incredibly easy and effortless tactic to use when feeling defensive. If you don’t hold yourself accountable for the consequences of your ways of behaving, thinking, and feeling, you get to continue living life thinking you don’t have any flaws or areas for improvement. Blame is often used by those of us who have a desire or need to be perfect. More often that not, when discussing blame with clients, I find that clients who blame more than others do, have the irrational demand “I must/should/ought to be perfect and if I’m not then I’m unworthy/unloveable/a failure/etc.” Holding ourselves accountable for our actions usually puts us in a vulnerable position.
When we blame others, we refuse responsibility for our contributions to the problem. Blaming other people is an easy out, and an easy way for us to continue our behaviors which may or may not be the source of the problem we’re hoping to put on someone else. This denial of responsibility also denies us of control of a given situation. Once I blame the MTA employee, the barista who makes my coffee at a snail’s pace, my partner, my upbringing, my therapist, I can no longer change my circumstances because I’m thinking “Well, I didn’t do anything to cause my problem; This was all her fault.” Blaming others keeps us from seeing ways we can alter our behavior to achieve a desired outcome, it leaves us powerless, and it stunts our personal growth.
How can you work against this habit?
1. Stop reinforcing your unhelpful thinking patterns. After a scenario arises in which you find yourself blaming someone, it is likely you’ll want to pick up the phone and tell a friend about how stupidly this person behaved, complain to your coworkers about this person, or vent to anyone who wants to listen. However, when we blame others and repeatedly recount the story to others, we reinforce the blame and our emotions that result from it. The next time you blame someone, try to not recount the story at all to anyone, and see if anything for you emotionally, mentally, or physically.
2. Change the ways in which you view mistakes. Instead of viewing errors as failures to be blamed on others, try to see them as opportunities for self-improvement. By acknowledging your responsibility, you are more able to learn from your mistakes and gain greater control of your life.
3. See a therapist. As stated earlier in this blog, people who blame often have a fragile sense of self-worth. They believe they can’t make a mistake, as doing so would mean they are flawed. Seeing a therapist will help you work towards accepting your human fallibility and capacity for error without degrading yourself or actively avoiding holding yourself accountable.