The Blame Game / How we generate condemnation

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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“Blame doesn’t empower you. It keeps you stuck in a place you don’t want to be because you don’t want to make the temporary, but painful decision, to be responsible for the outcome of your own life’s happiness.”
Shannon L. Alder

It’s all your fault! She was asking for it! You made me do it! If you were good I wouldn’t have to hit you! Those damn Republicans/liberals/commies! If not for those Jews…! Russia is evil! All men are rapists! All white people are racist!

Let’s face it. We all, individually and collectively blame. As much as we may know intellectually that staying stuck in blame hinders growth and understanding, that it limits us, it’s very enticing to deflect from the underlying issues and feelings that fuel disparagement. After all, culpability is a complex issue requiring humility and the willingness to expand perception and curtail reflexive self-protective impulses. It’s hard work! It simply feels better to assign fault to a designated culprit than to examine oneself and the intricacies of a given situation.

Like many of the folks I’ve met throughout the three decades I’ve been rendering psychotherapy treatment for trauma and addiction, I reveled in blaming my circumstances on the cards I was dealt. Suffice it to say, like the clients I had plenty of reason to complain. Born into poverty, mental illness and systemic abuse characterized my victimization. There were days it felt impossible to move past my righteous indignation to a place of acceptance and responsibility. My feelings of helplessness and hopelessness were very real.

In hindsight, I suppose it was the pull of hope and the push of despair that nudged me towards analyzing my resentments. This reckoning with myself helped me distinguish being accountable, from aggressively shaming others and rashly discharging grievances. Making this distinction led me to coming to terms with difficult truths. Namely, that life is sometimes simply unfair, the human race is (very) fallible, things go wrong regardless of intention or plan, and there will always be egregious failures to rant about.

Just as significant, I came to understand that while there is generally shared responsibility within the conflict, there are circumstances of victimization, such as calculated cruelty and child abuse, that contradict sharing responsibility.

Hence, discerning what was mine and what belonged to another was a muddled mess. There was much to figure out when it came to the rightful allocation of property.

Before all else, I had to resist the surge of illusory power I derived from blaming and accept how little control I truly had with guilting others to morph into what I demanded. I also needed to understand that in order to cultivate agency I was obliged to redirect the focus on my own behavior and choices. This was particularly difficult for me in the realm of romantic relationships. As long as I was wagging the finger of admonishment, I didn’t have to concern myself with the confusing variability of life and the vast complexity of human nature. Most importantly I didn’t have to look at myself.

According to psychoanalytic theory we rely on defense mechanisms to diminish discomfort. The impulse to blame is associated with a defense mechanism known as projection. Projection is an unconscious means by which we attribute to another that which we don’t want to acknowledge within ourselves. Founder of psychoanalysis Carl Jung expanded on this definition by explaining that projection is also a mechanism in which we are compelled by fear and perceived threat to protect the ego by demonizing that which is viewed as the source of one’s anxiety.

Indeed, when I was but a young woman embarking on a journey of recovery from complex trauma, my pursuit of love left me feeling broken and humiliated. My therapist would try to address how my reckless impulsivity and insatiability set me up for victimization. Unfortunately at that stage of treatment, I was simply too raw and fragile to examine my role in mobilizing destructive dynamics. Instead, I viewed all men like my father; predatory and narcissistic. I vehemently leveled blame on the entire male species.

By rejecting any responsibility for putting myself in dangerous situations I tenaciously held onto defensive posturing. This kept me ensconced in a repetitive one dimensional cycle of blame. Until I faced my underlying shame, humiliation, lack of life skills and desperation I could only see myself as being wronged. I could not see how I played into that narrative.

There are a vast array of defenses that we employ to deflect from the source of our fears and personal motivations. As soon as we partake in defenses such as minimizing, denying, and rationalizing, we have set the stage for externalizing that which we refuse to acknowledge within ourselves.

In my case, I minimized my yearning for connection at any cost, as I was so deeply ashamed of my insatiable needs. I denied the need for interpersonal responsibility, deluded by a romantic mythology that touts love is magical and doesn’t require rules of engagement. Moreover, I rationalized my choices, convincing myself that all these men duped me when often I simply saw what I wanted to see in spite of obvious contrary evidence.

I finally took my head out of the sand and began to see my part when I fully faced how the blaming, deflecting and justifying left me miserable.

The blaming strategy simply didn’t work. Not if I wanted a life of stability and contentment. My feelings of outrage, grief and impotence had to find a new direction.

An Epoch Times article I had the privilege of contributing to, “The Costs and Benefits of Victimhood” examined the psychological underpinnings of a victim mentality, differentiating the reality of victimization from destructive patterns of unceasing blame and disempowerment. Discussing this topic with journalist Conan Milner caused me to reflect on how victimhood and blame were conduits for my rage and identity I could latch on to. It was difficult to relinquish my status as the perennial injured party, as there was so much truth to the pain which underscored that designation. Also, I simply didn’t have any other available way to conceptualize and work through my hardship. I felt broken, outraged, and very afraid. Glorifying my suffering offered me a feeble identity. It was my story. I believed there was nothing else.

Nevertheless, my immersion in years of therapy made it clear that my ongoing recovery required that I take an honest look at how my victim complex fueled my need to blame.

This prompted me to examine how my role as the family scapegoat groomed me to view relational dynamics from a black and white perspective. One was either good or bad, right or wrong, This mindset that dominated my consciousness is known as splitting. By attributing absolutist fault on one side while preserving the embodiment of virtue on the other, I could manage the anxiety brought about by an oppressive indoctrination that denounced those who failed to conform to prescribed overt and complicit demands. I normalized this decree, as rebelling against it clashed with my survival fears. As a result, with no appreciation for extenuating conditions or factors, I blamed myself as much as I blamed others for falling short of established directives. My focus was frighteningly narrow.

Convinced my reality would not be adequately received had me both simmering with internalized outrage while blowing up at the injustices of the world. Instead of dialogue I anticipated being ignored or debated. This kill or be killed posturing set in motion power plays that could never bring about resolution. It was a futile and destructive squandering of energy, but it felt purposeful. I was staking a claim for having survived a pernicious family and a threatening, unjust world. I was a glorified victim turned survivor, and I wore that badge proudly.

Yet my dogged determination to prevail urged me to move beyond survival. I instinctively knew this was not where I was meant to plateau.

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote in Women Who Run with the Wolves, “Being able to say that one is a survivor is an accomplishment. For many, the power is in the name itself. And yet comes a time in the individuation process when the threat or trauma is significantly past. Then is the time to go to the next stage after survivorship to healing and thriving.”

Although I yearned for thriving it was clear that ascribing to fantasies of forgiveness or compensation was not the panacea. Persecution was a reality I had to coexist with, but in a way that didn’t immerse me in idealized factions of virtue opposing one-dimensional factions of badness.

In order to move into a place of thriving, I had to move from blame to a path of acceptance. This meant finding the courage to consciously come to terms with reality as it is and from that place discern what lessons and actions were called for.

For me personally, this meant accepting that those who refused responsibility for how they mistreated me betrayed my trust. It meant refusing to negotiate with that sort of behavior and to not condone it in myself. In raising the bar I was challenged to live by higher standards of conduct.

Paradoxically, when I stopped condemning all men as abusers I was able to walk away from a prey-predator motif of relating and foster an intelligent, discerning guardedness with men. It was only when I fully chose myself first and foremost, that I was able to morph my fear of men into a trusting curiosity. It was from this place that I was able to consciously choose and appreciate a man of principles who could measure up to the task of co-creating adult love.

In releasing blame I held myself and others to ethical standards of accountability and responsibility. I discovered realistic discernment and let go of that which could not be rectified or compensated for. This freed up energy to attend to that which would benefit my life.

Sadly, in this age of ‘us-them’ polarization, it has become culturally prescribed to exalt blame and denounce taking full and honest responsibility for one’s actions. In my opinion, this is not reflective of an activist stance, but rather suggestive of a collective state of paralysis. The only conceivable way to rise above the gravitational pull of destructive blame is to willingly accept the terror of one’s helplessness, one’s rage and fears so as to paradoxically exercise agency in life-affirming ways. The less I resisted the more I surrendered to truth. Ultimately I discovered that by acknowledging life’s defeats and letting go of blame so as to achieve acceptance, true liberation could be attained.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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