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Last Updated Wednesday March 08 2017 12:27 PM IST

Heal Thy Self | The only winning move in the blame game

Nirmala Ferrao
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Argument Representative Images: Getty Images

We all know that an unfortunate series of events originating in the Garden of Eden led to Adam and Eve being evicted from their prime property and forced to seek alternative career paths; we also know that their Original Sin unleashed the continuing pageant of humanity’s sorrows. What is far less known is that it was in the same Garden that humankind’s first, best-known and most popular game originated. Both, Adam and Eve played it, and so did God, by the way.

Remember how that game got underway: Eve and Adam, being of sound mind and body, and with informed consent and knowledge of the potential risks involved, nevertheless indulged in the forbidden fruit, then went into hiding. As they cowered in their nakedness, a wrathful God boomed out rhetorically: “Adam! Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat?” Adam responded with the ‘original blame’: “The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the fruit, and I did eat.”

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Then God said to the woman, “What is this that thou hast done?” 
Eve said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

So Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed a talking serpent.

Actually, of course, Adam also cleverly blamed God: “The woman you put here with me...” as if to say, “If you hadn’t given me this woman, having briefly anaesthetized me and surgically fashioned her out of one of the ribs you took from my side, then none of this would have happened!”

God, being the cleverest of them all, didn’t buy these excuses or accept the blame, instead squarely pointing a divine finger at all three conspirators. And that’s how Adam and Eve lost their jobs in Eden Inc., and the serpent was cursed to forever crawl on the ground on his belly.

It is interesting to conjecture that, before this face-off, there were no blames reported as occurring in the Garden of Eden. Although the Guinness Book of World Records has been grievously amiss in not recognizing the fact, this is the first game – outdoor or indoor – ever played in the world.

Now and forever

Pointing fingers

It is also a game we have continued to enjoy playing ever since. Students not doing well in school? Blame the teachers. Or the parents. Or the teachers’ parents. Or the weight of the school-bags. Bad day at the office? Blame the boss. Of course, blame the employees if you are the boss. A wife has an affair and blames the late hours her husband keeps in the office. A husband backhands his wife and blames her for “not understanding” him.

People who wouldn’t dream of blaming parents for a child’s asthma or diabetes have no second thoughts about blaming bad parenting for a child’s hyperactivity, depression or social phobia. Parents, in turn, often blame their children, believing that they’re lazy or rebellious. Worse, the children with these psychological problems often blame themselves, convinced that they’re just bad kids.

Of course, the fall guy doesn’t have to be another person at all. Animals, inanimate objects and abstract entities are regularly at the receiving end of the blame we dish out. All-time favorites include the weather, the stars, biology and the government (all levels, all the time). There’s a book called, 'Blame it on the Weather', another called 'Blame it on the Rain', and a third one called, 'Blame it on the Sun. Why is nature one of our favorite scapegoats? In his book, 'Blame it on the Weather', David Phillips poses this rhetorical question and answers it himself: “Weather has great appeal as a scapegoat because it is impersonal, random, complex and uncontrollable. Nothing can be done about it. No guilt – it’s nature’s fault.” We blame nature not only for natural disasters but for all kinds of things like our mood swings, and the fact that we stood up our date because we were feeling “under the weather”.

Nikolai Gogol, the Russian novelist and dramatist, may have warned us that “It is no use to blame the looking-glass if your face is awry”, but that sound advice hasn’t stopped us from blaming inanimate objects when things go wrong. Doors and floors, cars, vacuum cleaners, laptops and other devices – all are handy scapegoats as we see in familiar chants such as, “I couldn’t see the sign clearly because my stupid glasses fogged up”, “My toaster has it in for me, burnt the bread again this morning”. Some years ago, a visitor to a museum in Cambridge smashed a 17th century Ming vase, converting crockery worth £500,000 into fragments worth £diddly; he was quick to blame his shoelace.

Then there’s the blame biology message, not at all a new one. Earlier versions of this blame claim used to go on the lines of “bad blood” that supposedly caused delinquent behavior or criminal acts or “feeble-mindedness” or any other variant of degeneracy in some unfortunate member of the family. Today, it’s “faulty genes” – along with a whole posse of other biological culprits. Thus, circadian rhythms, says one article, is the biological reason for teenagers arriving late to school and nodding off during class. What about the fact that they were up till 2am, playing computer games?

Sounds bizarre today, but may be some day your grand-kids will be using this one, “Sorry, I’m late for my exam, sir, my space shuttle had a launch-pad problem taking off from Mars.”

In the meanwhile, we continue to often take our cue from Adam, blaming God, believing that it is the Creator who has ultimate control – and therefore ultimate responsibility – for our thoughts, feelings, actions. Even atheists blame God – I have heard a number of atheist-friends describe natural disasters such as the teletsunami of 2004 as an “act of God”.

Why is the blame game such a popular pastime?

Easy to learn. Can be played anywhere, with anyone, requires little set-up time, simple instructions, rules. A fun way to spend your afternoon… also your morning, evening and night. What more could you ask for in a game?

But there is more. In fact, the biggest payoff in the blame game is that it is a well-perfected device for making ourselves feel good. As human beings, we all want to be thought well of – and to think well of ourselves. Every child learns, sooner rather than later, that admitting failure means taking the blame. Rather than owning that pain, we look for a more secure place to stand on. Blaming someone else is perfect for giving us that terra firma. We hit out at an easy, available target, in order to avoid taking personal responsibility or feeling any culpability. Blaming others means never having to say you’re sorry.

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So, where can I learn to play this game?

If you haven’t already, it’s clear that the accepted norms of parenting have been blatantly ignored in your family. The blame game is one of the many games that children learn from their parents, and it generally happens in a de facto kind of way. Blaming the teacher is one of the earliest ways that parents initiate their offspring into this game. Our children overhear us complaining about their teachers whenever they aren’t doing well in school. They are our offspring, and as such they are all geniuses. Therefore, if they are not able to grasp a theorem or learn to love the hanging participle, it stands to reason that this is a teacher problem, not a student problem. Not only does it not have anything to do with the fact that our child doesn’t pay attention in the class, but if she were a good teacher, she would be able to command better concentration and interest in her students.

Of course, the teachers have also already learned the blame game from their parents. What goes around, comes around. If her students are having a hard time learning this material, the reason seems obvious: I’ve got a really bad bunch of students in this class. Or: I’ve got a clump of rowdy students who are making it difficult for the others to grasp what I’m teaching.

How to make the winning move

Quit blame game

There’s only one winning move in the blame game – and that’s to quit playing.

What! Quit playing??! Why should I quit playing a game that works so well for me?

One good reason: the payoffs don’t come for free. Despite the short-term temptations of blaming, there are high costs in the long term, and they’re all in the fine print. Here’s a partial listing:

» It’s no fun for the target of your blame. Well, if the target is God or nature, it won’t matter too much one way or the other. As they found out in the Garden of Eden, trying to blame God just doesn’t wash. As for nature, blame her and she will very often hit back and give you some more of the same. Consider Vesuvius. The more you shake a fist at that mountain, the more venom it spills. Has been doing it, off-and-on, for the last several thousand years.

But when the target is an animal or a human, that’s a different matter altogether. Animals can be physically hurt or psychologically harmed by being the victims of our blame-shifting, and a dog whisperer or equally expensive healer may need to be called in to clean up the ensuing emotional mess.

As for humans, we don’t like being blamed, period. Blaming involves making a negative judgment about someone, so expect resistance, long-term resentment, and a crimp in communication. Not a great way to make friends and influence people.

Intimate relationships suffer even more serious erosion. It’s obviously difficult to maintain a close relationship when one person always has an arm outstretched with an accusing finger. Such chronic blaming is a form of emotional abuse.

» Blaming resolves nothing. When you blame, your mind is focused on finding a fall guy rather than finding a solution. The message, the tone, the overall vibes tend to focus on what you don’t want – on what your colleague or spouse or cat is doing that is wrong – it doesn’t focus on what you do want, i.e. a solution to the problem. So, the net result is – zilch.

» It gives you an aura of negativity. Blaming always begins with a negative thought; or several. Even those you are not blaming (but who are witnessing your blame-making) are left with a sense of negativity about you. Recent research shows that what is remembered about those who point fingers is not their arguments or the righteousness of their cause but the sheer fact of negativity, which makes them less attractive to others.

A deep set of research also shows that people who blame others for their mistakes lose status, learn less, and perform worse relative to those who own up to their mistakes. And that the same applies to organizations. Those with a culture of blame have a serious disadvantage when it comes to creativity, innovation and productive risk-taking.

» When you blame, you surrender control. When you blame someone or something else, you give power to the person or thing you blame. You are saying, in effect, that your genes or the weather, or whatever, controls how you feel and how you will act, and that you are powerless in the matter. For instance, let’s say that your business is failing. You decide to blame your assistant. Well, this makes your assistant more powerful than you. You’re saying that it’s your assistant who determines whether your business will succeed or fail. You’re saying you have no control or choice in the matter.

» Blaming can become contagious. Most workplaces have a rampant culture of blame. Employees feel their office lives are a high-stakes game of “blame or be blamed”. This can be disastrous for those who get caught up in it, and it can sink teams, de-rail projects and cause employees to become disengaged because fear and resentment take root. When people start feeling insecure about their jobs, they tend to shirk responsibility for their mistakes, and in turn they begin to shift the blame from themselves. Research has found that merely being exposed to someone else making a blame attribution for a mistake was enough to cause people to turn around and blame others for completely unrelated failures. What was at work was what the researchers called goal contagion. The “germ” that spreads, they found, is the goal of protecting one's self-image. When people observe others protecting their egos, it spreads – virally.

Make the switch from blame to aim

Aim

There are a number of strategies for shifting from the negative focus of “whom” to blame to the more positive agenda of “what” needs to be done, and “how” the goal can be reached. Here are some of the ways you can move forward:

» Do a reality check: how rational is your blame claim? Consider this incident from real life. The youngest daughter in a family comes into the living room with a cup of tea she has brought for her mother. Her brother is clowning around in the room. Distracted by his antics, she spills some of the hot tea on herself. In less than a heartbeat, before anybody else can say anything, she starts shouting at her brother, blaming him for “making me spill the tea.” How so? He didn’t deliberately start clowning only after she’d entered the room. He didn’t knock the cup out of her hand. Wasn’t it she who allowed herself to be distracted by his clowning? Must she not take the responsibility for her inattention?

Irrational blaming of this kind is far more common than we might imagine.

» Do not confuse the deed with the doer. Blame statements are not simply saying, “What you did was wrong”, they are not focused only on the deed. Instead, because they make a judgment about the person, the doer, it is the person who falls from good grace. The message is: You are less of a person for your failing, you are less worthy of respect. It’s a cardinal rule of playing the game.

But, as we know, this is an unjustified conclusion. Even if someone does something wrong, it doesn’t mean that the person himself is bad or deserves less respect. If this were the case, then we would all be undeserving of respect because we all falter or even fall down in the course of our lives. So we must never lose sight of the fact that it’s the deed that was wrong, not the doer who must be damned.

» Focus on the future. No matter how bad the problem or screw-up, the objective must be to confront the issue tactfully so that the person responsible naturally wants to work with you to fix the problem, to reduce the chances it will recur. In a team situation at the office, even if one member of the team has goofed up, it’s far more politically savvy and productive to adopt a two-pronged approach. Speak to the person, but privately; the aim is not to humiliate him in front of his colleagues. Let him know you are aware that the mistake is his responsibility, and ask how you can help prevent it from happening in the future.

Then go the next step and approach the faux pas as a team problem. Meet with the entire team, recommend a post-mortem analysis where you look at the chain of events, what occurred and what didn’t, and try to get questions answered in a good-faith process.

» Get to the ‘whole truth’. If a TV commercial tells you (as the Epiduo gel ad did) that you should “blame biology” rather than French fries for an outbreak of acne, delve a little deeper. If you do, you’ll find the ‘whole truth’ is rather different. Yes, it is true that biologic factors are involved in acne, including excess sebum production, obstruction of sebaceous follicles and inflammation. Also, research has shown that greasy foods and chocolates won’t worsen acne. However, we also have evidence that excessive manipulation and rubbing, hair gels, medications and stress will increase oil production and probably the pimple population. Also, that some foods trigger a rise in blood sugar levels, causing a boost in insulin which in turn revs up activity in your oil glands. In other words, you do have some control over your acne problem. You can change only your part in the equation, but that gives you a lot of power – and it means you cannot remove yourself from personal responsibility in the matter by simply “blaming biology”.

Which brings us to the most important strategy for quitting the blame game…

» Take responsibility – it’s self-empowering. The concept of being responsible – for the way you feel, the way you act, the way your life moves forward – is not an easy one to accept. But it’s the strategy that gives you control, choice and, ultimately, power.

To take the example mentioned earlier, instead of saying, “My business is doing badly because my assistant is no good”, take the responsibility for what’s happening to your business. You will then more likely be saying something like, “I need to train my assistant so he doesn’t make mistakes” or “I need to get a replacement for my assistant so my business will have a better chance of succeeding.”

So, although you cannot control everything that happens in your life, you can control how you choose to respond to situations. You can choose to become either the victim of circumstances or, instead, to be the victor of circumstances.

» Know when to seek help. Right now, the world over, millions of people live trapped in a self-destructive mire as they obsessively dwell over and blame their past for the way things turned out for them. In a modern culture that places great value on independence, the message that’s going out to these people very strongly is: Bury the past, get a move on, get a life! It’s true that some of these people are self-styled victims who are playing the blame game for all it’s worth, if only to gain “that special attention which is the prerogative of the miserable”, as writer-critic Robert Hughes called it.

But if you grew up in a seriously dysfunctional family, or if your childhood was marred by severe trauma (such as daily violent beatings or chronic sexual abuse), blaming the past (and your tormentors from the past) seems justified and “right”. Not only that; even those who realize that such blame is unproductive, do not seem able to get beyond it. There’s a reason for this: the damaging experiences from the past give rise to self-defeating patterns of thinking and maladaptive behaviors and these are deep-rooted and unconsciously driven. Thus, for instance, it comes more naturally to such people to deflect or deny responsibility than to take it on. Until they can process the pain and anger and resentment coming from the past, they cannot move beyond the status quo. Very often, they know all this, but they simply don’t know how to embark on the road to healing.

This is where therapy can be invaluable. The process will be a long and challenging one. But it is also a liberating and, in the end, a self-empowering one. It can literally give you a new life.

(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, now works as a counseling therapist)

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The opinions expressed here do not reflect those of Malayala Manorama. Legal action under the IT Act will be taken against those making derogatory and obscene statements.