“A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” John Burroughs
We all wish everything would go right all of the time. Of course, that doesn’t happen, and it’s when something goes wrong that we have to make a choice: are we going to blame someone or something else, are we going to find fault in others or ourselves, or are we going to take responsibility for our own actions?
When our focus is on blame, it is all about finding someone to point the finger at. Finger pointing is often a symptom of shame. From shame comes blame, followed by hurt, denial, anger and even retaliation. Blame turns the focus away from what went wrong and how to keep it from going wrong again. It is judgmental and vindictive.
Blame is often used to divert attention away from ourselves. But the blame game shows a lack of understanding of what responsibility really is. Responsibility cannot be assigned after the fact, even though many attempt to do so. We are 100% responsible for any action we take and play a role in any incident that we experience. When we start to realize this, we stop blaming others and begin focusing on our own role.
A simple example is potholes on the roads. I hit several deep ones each week (in fact, I had a tire blow out this week) and each time I hear the thud or crack, I have to make a choice: Do I blame our government for not taking care of the roads or do I accept responsibility for my own actions? I could get angry and blame the government. Why aren’t my tax dollars being spent correctly?! What did they do with my taxes? Because it sure didn’t go toward improving the roads! “They” should pay for my new tires or alignment! Ever have similar thoughts? Or, I can accept my responsibility in the situation. Is someone making me drive on the specific roads I’m traveling? Do I really know where my tax dollars go and if not, isn’t it incumbent on me to take responsibility for that? Did I even vote for tax increases that could improve my streets? Maybe, maybe not. The point is, I am a participant in one way or another in this situation. Getting angry and blaming others is doing nothing healthy or effective.
More complex is an example involving people instead of pavement. If I’m waiting on a report from someone else so that I can complete my own report and they fail to deliver, do I blame them for my report being late? I certainly could. It’s not my fault. “They” were late. But what does that accomplish? Now I look undependable, I’ve made “them” look undependable, whoever I was supposed to give the report to is now late in the upward chain of reporting, and I’ve probably diminished trust both up and down that chain. The alternative is that I could have reminded “them” that the report was coming due, I could have checked to see if “they” needed help, I could have alerted the person I report to that there could be a problem and that we were all working on it, etc. And if it was still late, I could accept responsibility alongside my fellow reporters so that I am building trust, identifying what caused the delay so that we can correct it before the next report is due, and ensuring that we all stay focused on the goal: to produce the reports on time.
The focus of blame is to find fault, period. It’s also important not to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re not blaming, but “holding someone accountable." (Sound familiar?) To hold someone responsible is just a stand-in for finding fault. We also sometimes make another critical error - replacing blaming others with blaming ourselves. This turns into self-recrimination or self-judgment. Blaming ourselves is not the same thing as taking responsibility. Finding yourself guilty is not going to change anything, fix anything or improve anything.
According to Kenneth Vogt, taking responsibility has a superior objective. He goes on to say,
“it is all about accountability. It is an assignment, not a verdict. When something is assigned to us, we take care to manage it, protect it, and make it successful, so in circumstances where many go from blame to self-blame, we can see the higher path of focusing on assignment. Whatever happened is now a provider of new and useful information, rather than a distraction from the objective like blame can be.”
Brene’ Brown explains that blame “is simply the discharging of pain and discomfort. We blame when we’re uncomfortable and experience pain – when we’re vulnerable, angry, hurt, in shame, grieving. There’s nothing productive about blame, and it often involves shaming someone or just being mean.”
"Blame is simply the discharging of pain and discomfort. We blame when we’re uncomfortable and experience pain – when we’re vulnerable, angry, hurt, in shame, grieving. There’s nothing productive about blame, and it often involves shaming someone or just being mean.” ~ Brene' Brown
In line with that, there’s sometimes a strong reaction from the person playing the blame game. The most consequential to everyone involved is the “it’s easier to do it myself than to rely on others” syndrome. This most typically occurs with people with self-esteem or confidence issues – and as Brene’ Brown describes, they are in pain. Something has gone wrong, the person feels as though they now look bad, and once they’ve blamed the other party, they take control going forward so that it never happens again. Which of course is a fantasy. They’ve simply shifted the possibility of blaming others to land squarely on them – and will self-blame in the future when something goes wrong. Of course, that’s uncomfortable, so they still blame others...but from the perspective of having to do everything themselves because "everyone else is too incompetent."
Folks suffering from these conditions relate anything being less than perfect as a reflection on them personally, not on the company or the situation. Because their self-esteem is at stake, they first must find who to blame (or risk making their own self-esteem even lower), and then attempt to take control of the task/project/client in order to salvage their own reputation.
This unfortunately results in a ton of stress on these persons who think they can avoid mistakes themselves, which usually makes them even more difficult to deal with. In a relationship, trust breaks. In an office, it kills morale to the point that people quit. And it creates an atmosphere, whether at work or home, where people become overly cautious as to not trigger that reaction again from the blamer. Which pretty much means that even when people can help, they won’t in order to protect themselves. That doesn’t help, in any way, the people suffering from low self-esteem. They just end up overwhelmed, not to mention confused as to why no one is willing to support or help them.
Another common example of the blame game is in divorces. Each party blames the other which ruptures relationships, harms any children involved, escalates attorney fees and results in what exactly? When a divorce or any other type of relationship rupture occurs, it is rarely, if ever, one person’s fault. It takes two, as they say, and if both would simply accept responsibility for their role, life would be so much simpler and harmonious. If a relationship ends, it’s because the parties involved didn’t fully understand each other, perhaps they didn’t communicate well, perhaps one or the other had unmet needs. Maybe one outgrew the other. But instead of owning up to our contribution to the problem, we frequently set up the unrealistic scenario that one was angelic and the other a devil. It’s simply not realistic. And it makes no one feel better in the long run.
The blame game also profoundly impacts children. If the most important focus is on who is to blame, it encourages kids to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. In fact, in most cases, it encourages lying. Just lie and say you didn’t do it! And naturally, they grow up to be blamers themselves, which just perpetuates the whole cycle. Why go through all that drama?
Take a few moments to think about whether or not you are a blamer. Frequently, it’s simply a habit that you may have learned as a child and you may not even be conscious of what you are doing now. Do you say things like, “who did this?” instead of “what happened?” Or, “who is responsible for this happening?” instead of “who has an idea of what we can do to correct this?” What about your attitude toward coworkers or staff? Do you see yourself as having to do everything yourself because they can’t be trusted to do it right? If so, you might have the blame game imbedded in your subconscious. The result is that everyone will let you down continuously because that’s what you’re looking for, perhaps without even being aware of it. What about children? Do you put them on the spot, demanding which one did something in front the others? Think about the shame you might be inflicting and of course, how that shame manifests later as blame.
We’re human beings. We’re messy. We make a ton of mistakes. But when we screw something up, we can own up to it. The sky won’t fall.
We’re human beings. We’re messy. We make a ton of mistakes. But when we screw something up, we can own up to it. The sky won’t fall. We simply take responsibility for whatever we did and work on making it right. If someone else screws something up, we can find out what we can do to help make it right. The biggest point here is that we all mess up from time to time. But inserting blame into the situation only makes it drastically worse and sets the stage for it to recur.
Take mindful responsibility and stay away from blame. If you do, you will find clarity in the situation, enhance your own integrity and build trust in your relationships. When you find yourself in the position to choose between blame, fault and accepting responsibility, take a moment to think about what your intention is in that situation. Choose accepting responsibility and let the blame go. You and everyone else involved will come out healthier, happier and more productive.
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