Putting Aside Blame

“To understand anything, what is essential? A quiet mind, is it not? So long as the mind is in conflict, blaming, resisting, condemning, there can be no understanding.”

J. Krishnamurti The First and Last Freedom

As we have seen in previous essays, suffering seems to be an inevitable part of being human. And of course suffering comes in many forms. I suffer because I have cancer. I suffer almost as much because I think I might have cancer. I suffer because my child is injured. I suffer because I think my spouse has been unfaithful. If I am very partisan, I suffer when my team loses the final or when the political party I support does poorly in the election. I suffer because I am aging and my greatest aspirations are unfulfilled. I suffer when my child does not live up to my expectations. I suffer when I don’t get the job promotion I believe I deserved.

And unfortunately our suffering is intensified by the thought that things might somehow have been otherwise and as a result we ask ourselves a lot of pointless questions. If only I had gone to the doctor when that little lump first appeared? If only I had been more attentive when my spouse started coming home later? If only I had sought tuition for my child when she first seemed to struggle with her maths?

Before long we begin to start to seek to apportion blame for our suffering. That’s natural isn’t it – when something goes wrong surely someone must be to blame? Not only that, if someone is to blame surely it is rightful to exact retribution?

My husband was inveigled into his alcoholism by those reprobates who encouraged him to have a drink every afternoon on the way home from work. Shouldn’t they be held responsible?

I only became obese after my friends insisted we have coffee and cake three days a week. Surely they should be held accountable?

I only lost my job because my boss had unreasonable expectations about how much business I should generate as a salesman. It’s his fault I am unemployed.

Johnny was such a good boy until he got in with the wrong crowd! It’s their fault he’s in jail.

When it comes to ourselves, and often our loved ones, our egos don’t allow us to believe that our failings are our own doing. We become victims and abrogate any sense of personal responsibility. When we do well, however, we are quick to accept responsibility even when it is not deserved; but when we fail we cast around for others to blame.

This subterfuge greatly diminishes our freedom. Not only that but it prevents us from coming to know ourselves. We have seen previously that our sense of well-being is dependent on our self-knowledge and subsequently our self-acceptance. We all have our weaknesses and our failings. Facing up to that, rather than denying it, actually empowers us. In 1967 Thomas Harris wrote I’m OK – You’re OK. The book rapidly became a best-seller and was one of the first self-help pop psychology books to gain such wide recognition. It introduced a general audience to the notion of Transactional Analysis. The Jesuit spiritual teacher, Anthony De Mello famously said, “If I were to write such a book I’d call it I’m an Ass – You’re an Ass.” He suggested the sooner we learnt that lesson the better off we’d be!

And of course the corollary to blame is victimhood. When our ego prevails we convert our wounded nature into our identity – the identity of a victim. As Greg Stone wrote:

“We no longer seek to heal our wounds but rather to display them as symbols of ‘who we are’ – a victim. We invite the world to see our wounds and to know us by our wounds.”

And more than this it helps our act of self-deception if we exaggerate our wounds as well!

Of course we know that victimhood is just another manifestation of learnt suffering – one of our techniques in our behavioural repertoire of “getting our way”. John Narciso and David Burkett outlined such behaviour in their little book Declare Yourself (subsequently republished as Relating Redefined). This is a very wise and perceptive little book and essential reading for anyone who really wants to understand human behaviour.

Narciso and Burkett propose that we learn behaviours that are successful at manipulating others to to get our way. One such behaviour is suffering. Victimhood is an obvious example of suffering. They write:

“When I tell you that you have hurt my feelings, what is it that I want to happen? I want an apology probably. But I want something more than just words that say ‘sorry’. I also want a change in your behaviour. I want you to act differently – more to my expectations. Once you change whatever you are doing that I don’t like, then I don’t have to hurt anymore. As a matter of fact if you comply, you have just agreed to let me control you with my ‘feelings’.”

When I resort to suffering and victimhood I am abrogating self-responsibility. Robert Draper came to this conclusion. Writing in his thought-provoking book Silence is the Answer: To All the Noise of Doubt he tells how he came to the conclusion that he was personally responsible for any negative feeling he might hold. He recounted,

“This doesn’t mean that my mind never again presented a memory of the problem, or that there was never again the pull of negative emotion about it, but only that I no longer believed that someone else was responsible for choosing what was going on within me.”

So let us put aside blame and victimhood. Let us learn the lesson that we choose what meaning to give to what goes on in our outer world and that choice is a large determinant of the state of our inner world. Accepting personal responsibility for our negative feelings is an important step towards inner well-being and serenity.

Psychologists will tell us that our attempts to attribute blame to others result from our tendency to project our own inadequacies onto others. But when we come to accept ourselves, warts and all, we are no longer motivated to blame others. In this way we can deal with the world more objectively and largely avoid the necessity to deal with negative emotions.

Let me finish then with a final quote from Robert Draper.

“To summarize, it is never about the other person when we are upset or reasonable, but only about the often unrecognised decision we make to be in one frame of mind or another. And while we may fall again and again into the trap of believing that we feel as we do because of a person or event external to us, the truth is that the feelings we experience are a result of our choice, coming to us not really because but regardless.”

6 Replies to “Putting Aside Blame”

  1. As I reflect on being made “redundant” some eleven years ago I think, it continues to amaze me the number of people who continue to blame the “fat lady” who refused to speak to me and accused me of deliberately withholding information and not telling the truth. I think we need to maintain perspectives, and not only think things through by oneself, but also think it through with others. I know I had much relief from talking to yourself as well as Phil Harker. It was also good to hear my wife talking to the neighbour on what is he going to do now. He answer was “he will just pick himself up dust himself off and away he will go again” I loved that faith showed in me. I know there were others that wanted to get at the “fat lady” who was to blame, but we all now know that one must live with oneself. I will not compromise my integrity for anybody, no matter how much the offer of money or career. Life is good and I enjoy life.

  2. I am skeptical of psychology as a profession. I think it should be called the “dismal science” (Carlyle on economics). As asserted in previous blogs, we can never know what it’s like to be in another’s shoes. As Micheal Walzer notes, we do not step into someones head when we step into their shoes, “to think that we do is a characteristic mistake of philosophers who believe that heads have no histories. We don’t, because we can’t, reproduce other people’s ideas; instead we reiterate our own. But the recognition that others have experiences and ideas similar to ours is already a significant moral achievement.”

    I cannot accept the ideas, in full, of the many authors who invalidate victims. I think it is a serious error that is made by some that are in luck of not actually experiencing genuine harm caused by another. It seems that such invalidation is made through the lenses of particular world views, as in a someone who has not had children writing a book about parenthood. There are genuine victims the world, and many of them. The last thing they need is to be invalidated.

  3. Ted, I have developed a “Maturity Model” for decision-making. Elements of the model are choice, responsibility and expectation. A mature person makes choices and accepts responsibility. Expectations – either implicit or explicit – inform choice on the way to maturity. Varying expectations to suit individual failures, as in the example in point, are dishonest and lead to immaturity in all parties (the judge, public and favoured proponent). The social and economic costs are high.
    My Maturity Model aims to encourage more confident decision-making, even in a negative social context. It is a core component of a manuscript nearing completion.

  4. Well good heavens! I have managed to pull Des Covey out of his closet. Good to hear from you Des. And I can attest that far from wallowing in blame and victimhood you went out and made a successful career after your redundancy. More power to you!

    Matt I expect you have misinterpreted the message I was trying to convey. There are people out there who, from no fault of their own, have been faced with great suffering. I am sure we should all have empathy for their unfortunate circumstances. I guess the good Dr Phil succinctly summarises the theme I was trying to convey.He says, “When you go through trauma, make sure you come out better and not bitter!” Of course there are those whose circumstances are far more unfortunate than most of us. And good people have bad things happen to them. But I would submit that their own personal well-being is not advanced in the least by assuming the status of victimhood and trying to apportion blame for the poor hand that fate has dealt them. Many of the people I most admire have had difficult life circumstances and yet have maintained their equanimity and are still able to engage with life in a positive way.

    And Paula, your model sounds very interesting. I would be pleased if you would share it with me. From my recollection you have been doing very positive work in a difficult area for some decades now. I admire your persistence!

  5. Since first hearing of the concept that, we control our own feelings…. they are not controlled from outside ourselves, I have always agreed with it. It seemed logical to me and I have witnessed many examples of people behaving badly with one audience and then quickly snapping out of it when the audience changes (the boss walks in etc.). This all validates the concept to me. Then recently I had an ultrasound guided cortisone injection. About 3 days after the injection I spent the next 5 days on a knife edge of rage. It took the greatest of effort to control the rage and at times I did not control it. The words to my wife were something like “I am angry, I don’t know why but I want to kill something, so stay away from me”. It was my son who investigated side effects of cortisone and found numerous reports of serious problems identical to mine. Some even included criminal convictions for people who were at least allegedly very passive folk. After experiencing this first hand I can understand how this could happen.

    This experience has changed my view about the concept that we control our own emotions from within ourselves. I always still had some control but it was damn tough and I could not maintain control all the time. My mechanism for managing my emotions was to not do anything much. While I just lay about and read a book I was fine. My brain chemistry was altered to what it normally was but what’s to say that is not normal brain chemistry for someone else or that someone’s brain chemistry is not altered by what they eat or other medical conditions. I am now much more understanding towards people who do not control their emotions well. I also now believe that the ability to control our emotions is a genetic trait that I suspect is a marker in what society would call successful people. Some of us are much better at it than others. I am not saying that it is not commendable to seek to control our emotions but we should certainly not be too tough on ourselves or on anyone else who does not do it well.

  6. I accept your idea within a normal banding I.e. The lucky fortunate person paradigm. A paradigm that possibly only exists within our society framework of blame, punishment, justice and compassion. And yes victim mentality is a problem, but it’s a side effect. I took the idea outside of this banding to imagine it applied to real tragedy and suffering, in which case it doesn’t work. Maybe it’s not intended for that application.

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