When things go wrong, we love having someone to blame. It’s a seductive game that makes us think that blaming others will give us control, but in reality, as long as we play the blame game–whether serving or being served–we have no power to change anything. We may manage to convince ourselves that nothing is our fault, but it also means that we won’t be able to do anything to respond to our problems because taking action would be akin to taking back the blame.
Blame is an early fruit of Original Sin. In the Garden of Eden, when God sees Adam eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam responds that “the woman made me do it!” and in turn, Eve exclaims, “the serpent made me do it” (Gen 3:12-14). In this exchange we see the alienation and the powerless that comes from blame as well as how blame sacrifices love on the altar of pride. Rather than loving each other and working for each other’s good as they did before the Fall, our post-lapsarian parents can hardly wait for buses to be invented so that they can throw each other under one!
Love, and Responsibility
A running theme in Pope St. John Paul the Great’s Theology of the Body is that the keys to authentic happiness and healthy relationships are love and responsibility. Love is the commitment to working for the good of others while responsibility represents “the ability to respond” effectively to the challenges we face. Blame undermines love by making us treat persons as problems–things to be fixed, not people to be loved and helped to grow. Simultaneously, blame undermines responsibility by paralyzing us. We tell ourselves we didn’t do it, so we “shouldn’t” have to do anything about it. But if the people we want to blame don’t accept that blame, we’re left staring at the mess feeling self-righteous…and stuck. The more addicted to blame we are, the more we surrender our ability to be authentically loving and effectively responsible which, ultimately, steals our capacity for both joy and happiness.
Accepting responsibility is not the same thing as accepting blame. Many of my clients struggle with this idea, but the truth is that having the power to respond to a problem says nothing about who caused it. When we embrace love and responsibility instead of blame, we stop worrying who caused the problem and begin focusing on what can be done to solve the problem.
5 Steps to Reclaiming Your Power
So, if blame disempowers us, how can we reclaim our power over the challenges and problems we face?
1. Identify the problem to be solved.
Stop asking who caused the mess. Even if you could solve this mystery, the mess would still remain. In fact, while you are arguing about who’s at fault, the mess is just running all over the floor and getting harder to clean up–so to speak. Instead, simply state the nature of the mess that has to be addressed.
2. Brainstorm solutions.
Ask what needs to be done to solve the problem. Collaborate with the people around you to identify the steps that would need to be taken to address the issue.
3. Take the Lead
Don’t wait for others to respond. Begin gathering the resources necessary to solve the problem and roll up your sleeves to address it. Don’t worry if “it’s not fair.” You’ll feel more powerful if you “do” instead of “debate.”
While its good to take the lead, don’t let others off the hook. You might not be concerned with who is at fault, but you need to be deeply concerned with asserting that everyone has the ability to help you respond to the issue. Insist that everyone who is touched by the problem join you in responding to the problem.
5. Set Limits As Necessary
If someone who is affected by the problem refuses to join you in responding to it and attempts to leave you holding the bag, consider what boundaries you might need to set on the relationship or consequence you might need to apply to prevent yourself from being taken advantage of by that person in the future. Charity may require you to bear this current offence patiently, but it doesn’t require you to commit to living the life of a doormat. The “personalisitic norm” (i.e. the moral principle stating that human beings are persons–not objects– who have a God-given right to be treated with love and never used) tells us that we have a right to limit our relationships to people who are committed to working for our good and who want us to work for theirs.
Aiding and Abetting?
But doesn’t this approach just let people off the hook? How will guilty parties ever learn if we don’t force them to accept their rightful blame?
The 5 Step Process to Beating Blame I’ve outlined above allows the guilty person to experience their faults as a call to love and responsibility. Think of all the times Jesus confronted the sinner with the words, “I do not condemn you” (John 8:10). By following Jesus’ example, we enable the person who caused the problem to feel supported not shamed and because of this, we increase the likelihood that they will willingly join in cleaning up the mess and learn from their mistakes. Those who refuse to respond to this call to love and responsibility will either be compelled to change or will alienate themselves from their relationship with us because of the boundaries and consequences we impose after-the-fact. People with good hearts will respond generously and gratefully to this approach. By contrast, people who are intent on habitually finding other people to clean up their messes for them will eventually be sidelined, their impact on our lives mitigated by the limits we set to protect ourselves from their attempts to use us. Chronic offenders will either learn or be let go, but they won’t ever be let off the hook.
The next time you’re tempted to play the blame game, focus on applying these 5 Steps to Beating Blame and enjoy the increasing sense of competence and confidence you feel as a result. To learn more about leaving behind the blame game and setting effective boundaries with the users in your life, check out God Help Me, These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace with Difficult People. or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute to learn how our telecounseling practice can help you stop being taken advantage of.