“The devil made me do it.” Although the blame game began long before this saying became popular, it has been a constant battle since the beginning of time. I’ve heard it said that it began in the garden when Adam blamed his wife for preparing him apple pie for dinner, and his wife blamed the snake!
And songs from every generation tell us who or what to blame.
Eydie Gormè told us to “Blame it on the bossa nova.”
Bob Seger told us to “Blame it on midnight.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd told us to “Blame it on a sad song.“
Patty Loveless told us to “Blame it on your lying, cheating, cold, dead beating, two timing, double dealing, mean, mistreating, loving heart.”
Regardless of who or what you blame, research has shown it to be one of the most common attributes of someone who is character disordered.
The dictionary definition of blame is to “assign responsibility for an error or a wrong.” In psychological research, that definition holds true as well. But it also involves assigning wrong to who a person is, or to create a false image of who another is. And then to operate from that position, regardless of the accuracy.
Living with blame, whether you are being blamed, or you are the blamer, is one of the greatest dysfunctions in relationships.
Research indicates that people who become blamers usually do so because of childhood experiences. They have painful emotions as children that they were not prepared to deal with. For example, the loss of a parent, or parents going through a traumatic divorce.
Placing blame on others is usually a way of deflecting “bad feelings.” We either don’t know how to deal with those feelings, or don’t want to deal with them. Usually these feelings are transferred to someone else. Blame is actually much like projection. The blamer has something in them that they do not want to deal with, so they become the projector and project what they don’t like onto the screen of someone else’s life. They can then see it as something about the other person, and escape the “bad feeling.”
Most people who are “blamers” have two or three of these characteristics:
1. They do not take responsibility for bad events, but require you to do so.
2. They take minor mistakes and inflate them to major indiscretions; while minimizing or justifying their own mistakes.
3. You feel awful after you have spent time with them and often leave an interaction feeling like a lesser person.
4. They are ignorant of how their attitudes and judgment damages relationships.
5. They demand that their needs be met, and pay little attention to, and make only rare attempts at, meeting yours.
6. They escalate quickly if you speak up for yourself and demand that you listen to their monologue about you.
7. If you fail to bow to their view of you, you will be punished with abandonment or silence.
8. Things are “their way or the highway.”
9. They rarely give compliments but are quick to criticize.
10. They are unaware of how they’re blaming damages you and the relationship.
After reading those you might be tempted to say that they are just “bad people.” But I remind you that it is simply hard for them to deal with their feelings. They are either unwilling, but more likely, not equipped to, deal with their feelings. And every blamer needs a scapegoat. If we have been in a long-term relationship with a blamer, we have been willing scapegoats. So let’s take a look at the role of each individual and find out how to end this game of blame in our lives.
Dr. George Simon has done significant research on blame. He says, “By habitually blaming others for their own indiscretions, he/she resist modifying problematic attitudes and behavior problems. Perhaps no behavior is more common than their tendency to blame others when they do something wrong. Confront them on something they did that was insensitive, inappropriate, hurtful, or even harmful, and you’ll find them playing the blame game – putting the fault on someone or something else.”
Because they normally have a willing participant on the other side of the equation, they are able to ascribe things to others that they cannot tolerate in themselves. Evading responsibility is the name of their game. The intention may not be bad, it may simply be to feel exonerated, or to manage other’s impressions of themselves.
They are often difficult to identify because they also play the victim card. They will go away in silence, which is very punishing. At the same time, they portray their actions as nursing their wounds. They feel they can do this, because they have projected what they actually did onto you.
Continuing this pattern is a way of allowing attitudes and/or behavior patterns that are quite damaging.
In these relationships, the part of the brain that assigns blame has been strengthened through the years. Research done at Duke University indicates that our brain is actually wired to react with more intense emotions to “bad things“ that people do. All of us are wired to react strongly to the wrongs of ourselves and others. Interestingly enough, the same research reveals that both blaming and also giving positive feedback, come from two very different parts of our brains. Because of early wounding, the amygdala, the part of the brain that assigns blame, has been strengthened. In the blamer, there has been years of painful experiences they were ill-equipped to deal with,
In my practice, I am aware that I have a blamer when they want to figure out who is right and who is wrong in a situation. A blamer tends to have a greater focus on assigning right and wrong than focusing on finding solutions.
It’s instructive to look at where the term “scapegoat“ came from in the first place. In ancient Jewish tradition, at Yom Kippur, two goats were brought into the arena. The community members voted on which goat should be the one selected to carry the burden of all the wrongs that the community members had committed in the last year. One was released after lots were cast among the people. But the other became the sacrificial goat. The high priest would put his hands on the head of the sacrificial goat, which would symbolically transfer all of the sins of the people onto the goat. Then the goat was driven off of a cliff.
In day-to-day life, an individual that develops into a scapegoat often has negative early experiences. They received harsh words, abandonment (death of a parent, divorced, neglect), or mistreatment as a child. They have become accustomed to having other people’s intense feelings transferred to them.
I remember an incident from childhood that likely contributed to my years of living as a scapegoat. Cinnamon toothpicks were popular in my school at the time, but they were also prohibited. One day I got called to the principal’s office, and I felt that my life was practically over. The rule in our home was that if you ever go to the principal’s office, you will get worse punishment at home.
The principal told me that they had found cinnamon toothpicks in my locker. I swore up-and-down that I had no cinnamon toothpicks and had never even had one. But the call went home to report me to my parents nonetheless.
At the time I had a really pretty black patent leather lunchbox with Barbie on the front of it. The night before the incident, I had received a piece of chalk as a reward for winning a spelling bee. I had put the piece of chalk in my lunchbox, and skipping home from school, the white piece of chalk had left marks and dust on the inside. I had scrubbed the chalk marks out the day before, and had gone outside to use my prize piece of chalk to draw hopscotch on my driveway.
When my dad came home that evening, he put the two events together to infer “why” I had been called to the principal’s office. He assumed I had had cinnamon toothpicks, and had washed out my lunchbox the night before to get the smell out.. And then I got caught the next day.
I swore to my dad that my story was true and I had no cinnamon toothpicks. He spanked me and sent me to my room, and then came in later to give me another chance to tell the truth. I stuck by my story and was spanked many times throughout the evening. I finally decided to tell him what he wanted to hear on his eighth or ninth trip to my room. I told him I had cinnamon toothpicks, and then I got the big spanking.
The next day, my friend who sat behind me had apparently had a change of heart. He went to the teacher and the principal and told them that he had hidden his cinnamon toothpicks in my locker, because he assumed that they would never check mine. (I was such a good girl back then… my how things can change!)
I was more excited than ever to get home and tell my parents about my exoneration. But much to my dismay, I received another spanking for telling the lie at the end of the last evening.
It was years later that I figured out that a traumatic event had occurred in my dad‘s life that day. A union had come in, taking over the job that he had worked for many, many years to get. Looking back, I’m sure that the harshness of that day was more related to his desperation than to the cinnamon toothpicks. But it certainly contributed to my acceptance of the role of being a willing scapegoat through the years. I had been well trained.
Is there a way out of being a blamer or being a scapegoat? (And most of us have a little bit of both in us, but we normally tend to one position or the other).
Yes there is a way out!
Steps to Recovery for the Blamer:
1. Learn to lean into the discomfort of making mistakes or doing something less than ideal. Mistakes are great learning tools, and if you look for lessons, and breathe your way through the discomfort, it is a great growth process.
2. Recognize that you are blaming because you were externalizing pain. Learn to deep breathe, and find the gift in the pain. The gift of pain is hope, learning, and personal growth.
3. Develop the courage to look at yourself and your impact on the people in your life. Recognizing this pattern in yourself, and turning your “projector” in on yourself, you will find that there are many wonderful things about you that balance out your tendency to blame.
4. Be willing to become accountable, and with both words and actions, own up to what you have been doing. Blamers resist this because of the pain they believe it will cause them. However, great warmth and respect develops in others when the blamer begins to recognize his/her patterns and begins to do things differently.
5. When the urge to blame emerges, set aside this blame and focus on looking for solutions. This change of focus is a relationship saver!
6. Stop taking everything personally. Instead of taking things personally, and needing to project them out, be curious about what’s happening, and take the conversation in that direction.
7. Work on genuine self-confidence. When your self-confidence is in the right place, you will have less need to build it by blaming others and exonerating yourself.
8. This may be the most difficult and challenging of all for the blamer: you must learn to empathize. What does that mean? To walk a mile in the other’s shoes. When something goes wrong, regardless of who’s fault it is, rather than focusing on your own feelings and responses, pause and ask yourself how others involved in the situation might feel. This requires great emotional and relational maturity, but for the sake of your relationships… You can do it!
Steps to Recovery for the Scapegoat:
1. When you are blamed, always take the data and put it in your pocket, then examine it later to find any truths about yourself. It is not necessary to go back and take full responsibility if it is not yours. But it would be a great disservice to yourself to not identify and initiate growth opportunities.
2. Get very clear on who you are. Know your heart. Living with or spending lots of time with a blamer will cause you to change the way you view yourself. You can lose your true identity. Know who you are, know your character, know your heart. Although we always want to be open for growth, we must never give up who we are. Only acknowledge growth edges that would make us better.
3. Give up the fight to make others see who you really are. This is hard to hear, but they have a right to their opinion, even if it’s wrong. If they have decided to view you and your heart inaccurately, any attempt to convince them will only be seen as manipulative. They will be driven further into negative beliefs about you. You simply must get to the place where you can say to yourself, “I am so sad that they are unwilling to see who I am, but I will do my best to allow my behavior to speak louder than their thoughts.”
4. Do not allow their story about you to penetrate your truth. If you do, you will find yourself doing exactly what they say you do. Be confident in who you are, make changes that would benefit you, and do not allow the blamer to control your reality about yourself. That is very difficult, especially if you spend a lot of time around them. Perhaps you should expand the time that you spend with people who see you accurately, and are more interested in your growth than in your faults.
5. It is heartbreaking when someone refuses to see your positive contributions, and focuses on your negatives. You may have to grieve the loss of being embraced for who you really are. The only other option would be to give up your positive attributes. That is too great of a price to pay.
So what do you do when you’re being falsely blamed or falsely perceived? Have empathy for the blamer. Do your best to understand what negative emotions they are attempting to avoid by projecting onto you. Have empathy for whatever pain or lack of worth is driving that. And if you have the courage and ability, soothe their pain, or validate their worth.
One final word about blame: whether a blamer or a scapegoat, when things go wrong and we cannot find resolution, we are all prone to blame God. Research says this is true across every religion.
Years ago, I was speaking at a women’s retreat out at Lake Texoma. It was a beautiful conference center, and a stellar group of women had gathered. Through a unique set of circumstances, I had learned while driving out to the retreat center that my husband, who had left on a business trip, was spending the week with a former girlfriend.
The pain was so great I could hardly breathe. I sobbed until I was sick. I completed my drive, unloaded my car, washed my face, and stepped onto the platform to deliver my talk. I was speaking on “Healing for Your Wounded Heart.”
Although I don’t remember a word I said, I know I delivered the message that I had prepared for months.
Many years later, at another conference I ran into one of the women who was at that retreat. She introduced herself and told me that her husband had suddenly passed away just two months before that retreat. She told me that what I had taught had helped her recover over the following two years, and how grateful she was.
I shared briefly with her my story and told her what had happened for me that day. And how grateful I was to know that good came out of me, despite my brokenness. Her next statement took me by surprise. She said, “Weren’t you mad at God about that?” My response was simply this: “God did not leave me. God did not hurt me. Why would I be mad at him?”
Research shows that blaming God in troubling times actually cuts off our source of hope and healing.
Whether you are a blamer or a scapegoat, vow to do better. You deserve better. The people in your life deserve better. Blame is truly a lame game. Honest and open communication is a beautiful game!