The Blame Game

The English word blame comes to us from the Latin verb blasphemare, meaning to curse or rebuke God. When we blame we invest ourselves with a godlike authority to condemn others. Recent neuroimaging studies have located blaming in the amygdala, the older, emotional part of the brain. Approval, on the other hand, involves the neocortex, the newer, rational part of the brain. At this point in its evolution the human brain seems hardwired to prefer blame to approval. Perhaps nature has selected for this preference, seeing our survival as more dependent on recognizing bad people or actions than good ones.

Blaming takes place in three venues. First, we can blame ourselves. Doing so is very common in depression, where we judge ourselves as “bad” and remind ourselves that try as we may we’ll never be as worthwhile as others. A study published this month in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology found that women with PTSD were significantly more likely to experience negative words such as “bad” as referring to themselves than were women in a control group without PTSD.

Second, we can blame family and friends, telling ourselves and perhaps them that they are wrong and we are right. Finally, we see blame taking place between racial and ethnic groups and entire nation states. History contains too many examples of wars and progroms breaking out on the basis of one group blaming another for something that has gone wrong.

When we blame someone there’s always a “should” statement in the equation. We tell ourselves that other person “should” be different than they are. When others blame us they are telling themselves the same thing: we are not who we are supposed to be. Should statements are an essential cognitive component of blame.

The emotions these statements produce will likely be anger, hostility and an experience of being victimized by others. For some people feeling angry and hostile is highly rewarding. These feelings might help such people feel powerful, important and self-righteous. We might see the blame game as working for them, creating the kind of relationship to others they want.

Many of my patients experience blame differently. They find the anger and resentment, the conflict and fighting blame brings too high a price to pay for whatever benefit they receive. My colleague David Burns has said that blame is the starting point for all relational conflict. Differences of opinion come with the relational territory:  we are not, after all, clones of each other. Our differences and contrasts bring interest and texture to our relational lives. It’s only when blame enters the picture that we set ourselves up for conflict, argument and the negative emotion these produce.

Cognitive behavioral therapy puts tools in the hands of those who would like to exit the blame game. Many of these tools target the “should” statements that tempt us to set ourselves up in high judgment of others. When we relinquish this judgment seat we’ll find ourselves back at the human level, no longer looking down on others from on high, but instead seeing eye-to-eye with everyone around us.

The word human also comes to us from the Latin. Humus denotes earth and soil. It also gives us the English words humble and humane. When we stop blaming we come back down to earth, a pretty good place to be most days, and the only place in which we can experience authentic relationship and true intimacy with others.

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