Blame is a Pseudo-Balm Bomb
WTF?!?! Ok let’s break it down.
What do I mean by a “pseudo-balm”?
Let’s start with remembering how painful it can be to accept fault or responsibility. For most of us it’s very uncomfortable to feel the shame, sadness, and helplessness that comes with having done something that makes life difficult for another person or hurts them. Even worse when that other person is someone we love! This is pain that we might well wish to be rid of.
So what psychological function does blaming others serve for us? By deflecting responsibility away from ourselves we don’t have to feel the disquiet of those painful feelings as much. In the moment, it feels much more empowering to get angry at another person by finding fault with them, whether the fault is real or manufactured. This is what I mean by a balm: blaming someone else is at least temporarily a soothing distraction from feelings of self-judgement and inadequacy which we really don’t want to have to feel.
Now think about what it feels like to be on the receiving end of blame. Think of the last time you felt blamed for something, rightly or wrongly. The feelings are the ones we talked about at the beginning: shame, helplessness, sadness, and hurt. Blaming another person is an attempt to offload those painful feelings from ourselves to the other person.
But if we’re a team and I shift the pain from myself to you we’re actually no better off as a whole. In fact, we’re worse off for several reasons. I’m probably still in pain regardless of the attempt to pass it off, and I’ve compounded the pain between us by pushing it onto you. Responsibility in relationships (or a team) is rarely one person’s fault.
And since anger is often the part of hurt that is most easily felt and expressed, blaming our partner can set off a chain reaction of hurt. In this (truly vicious) cycle, both people are trying to shift the blame to the other, but the result is just a circle of pain. Both the shifting of blame, and the circle of pain are what I mean by a bomb. It’s destructive, no one wins, and everyone gets burned. As couples therapists, it’s one of the most common forces we see blowing up relationships. If the balm works at all, it’s only temporary, and in the end makes things much worse — thus it’s a pseudo-balm.
BTW, blaming yourself in a harsh way isn’t very helpful either. At least you’re not spreading the toxin around in an obvious way. But if you mope, pout, act the martyr, or loudly denigrate yourself, you are still poisoning your environment, which will likely sideswipe your partner as well.
The best antidote is balanced compassion and understanding. Compassion for yourself to soothe those shameful, helpless feelings, and compassion for whatever aspects of your partner you find difficult. Compassion involves recognition of suffering, acknowledging that we’re all flawed and make mistakes, and moving towards the suffering (rather than away from it, or against it) in a kind, caring way.
Contrary to popular belief, self-compassion allows us all to take more responsibility and perform better than a harsh self-punitive approach. Owning responsibility and being vulnerable about our flaws (which we all have) is the path to healing shame. It also allows us to stay with or deepen our connection with each other rather than flailing to avoid the painful feelings, pushing each other away, and feeling disconnected and alone.
Take the pseudo-balm bomb out of your arsenal and replace it with compassion — both for yourself, and for your partner!
Robert believes the keystone to successful relationships is being able to know your own thoughts, feelings and behavior at multiple levels, while also being able to understand, empathize with and reflect your partner’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. In this way he helps you “attune” to each other and begin to heal the emotional stumbling blocks that are keeping you stuck or disconnected as a couple.