Remember the game “hot potato” that you played as a kid? Blame is like that. No one wants to be left holding it, since you might get burned. As a result, we develop explanations for the innocence someone else will hopefully connect to us. You or a child you work with may have “reasons” for not having an assignment completed. “The dog ate my homework” comes to mind.
Inflating the Truth
Some reasons are somewhat “true,” at least in the eyes of the beholder. In the 1995 film, Clueless, here’s how one of the characters, Travis, passes the blame for being late: “Tardiness is not something you can do on your own. Many, many people contributed to my tardiness. I would like to thank my parents for never giving me a ride to school, the LA city bus driver who took a chance on an unknown kid and last but not least, the wonderful crew from McDonalds who spend hours making those Egg McMuffins without which I’d never be tardy.” Cher, the main character in the film, goes further when she fails to admit that she has run a stop sign. She uses reframing to put a positive spin on her faux pas when she says, “I totally paused” and then backs this up with an oblique explanation: “You try driving in platforms!”
The Passive Voice: “Not Me”
All of us have times when we are clueless, and we, too, pass the blame to keep from feeling shame or embarrassment. Have you ever been late and blamed the traffic? Your children? Your spouse? Had a particularly tough day in the classroom and blamed the students? Their parents? Administrators? The economy? Do you find yourself using the passive voice, saying, “Well, yes, mistakes were made.” But by whom?
A key aspect of excuse-making is assigning control of the situation to extrinsic factors, thus shifting blame and, sometimes as a bonus, reframing oneself as a victim. This is short-term gain: It appears to solve a problem now, but does not deal with the actual one(s), or it creates new ones. A teacher who says, “The students didn’t follow the directions” has passed the blame as adeptly as the student who says, “We weren’t warned that there would be short answer questions mixed in with the multiple choice.” The teacher has missed the opportunity to examine the way directions are worded and the student has missed the chance to reflect on study strategies and comprehension of content. In this way it is possible to pass both the blame and the guilt with no resulting gain.
Why You May Need to Disbar Your Internal Lawyer
While reframing is often the best way to get out of your own way, the blame “reflex” may be preventing you from a necessary change. Stop defending yourself; failing to accept responsibility keeps us from being able to change habits that impede our personal, academic and professional growth. Whether you are trying to change yourself or someone else (see Part I of this series, Turning around the Hidden Power of Blame), you already know that it’s very difficult.
According to William James, three things need to be engaged for us to change: attention, habit and will. In other words, you need to notice what you are doing in order to stop doing it so much; you need to develop an alternate and more effective habit; and you need to develop staying power (often “won’t” as opposed to “will” power).
Cultivating Mental Balance
If you’re ready to swap blame for attention, habit and will, here are some Positive Psychology tools to help you.
- First, notice how often you find that you blame “circumstances” like the weather, as opposed to other people, for your inability to have more of what you want. You can’t change some things in your life, but you can nearly always change your response and attention to them, whether things or people.
- Next, you need to attend to the habits of mind that are reinforcing your resistance to change and create new ones.
- Finally, you will need to have the will to stick with an empirically-based coaching program. Note that you may want the nudge of someone besides the face you see in the mirror.
Sometimes you will need to stick with a program much longer than the six weeks it was tested and shown to have correlations to improved well-being. For example, I have been meditating for about seven years, preceding my MAPP program by a few years. Meditation in combination with other tools from Positive Psychology (Tell Me Something Good, Strengths Buttons, Mood Repair Tool Kit) has been more powerful and transformative than meditation alone in my experience.
According to Wallace and Shapiro (2006), there are four processes underlying mental balance. These are conative (becoming aware of and setting intentions, goals and priorities) attentional (mediating inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity as cultivated through mindfulness), cognitive (viewing the world without imbalances of thought or attention—See Penn Resiliency Program), and affective balance (cultivating loving-kindness, empathetic joy, equanimity and gratitude).
Are you “totally pausing” through the stop signs of life? After she totally pauses, Cher goes on to side-swipe several parked cars and later fails her driver’s test which she then blames on the man testing her. It’s easy for us to see how she is clueless as she stands before her mirror.
But making changes of any kind is a balancing act. All behaviors, even ones with undesirable outcomes, often have a hidden benefit. Blaming, for example, has the benefit of letting one look into the “rose colored mirror” where you are the fairest one of all. Perhaps to receive this message you may pass the blame quite a lot, but not end up getting more of what you really want. Think about what you’d like more of, and how you can change your contribution.
Wallace, B.A. and Shapiro, S.L. (2006). Mental balance and well-being: Building bridges between Buddhism and western psychology. American Psychologist, vol. 61, no. 7, 609-701.
Really really glad you’re addressing a topic that we never think about much consciously, but once you point it out, YES, it’s clear to observe that this happens all the time!
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I LOVE the movie Clueless. And I didn’t really think about why until I read your article. While I totally get your point about blame – and I do think we all do better when we take personal responsibility for our own actions, regardless of external circumstances – there is something so incredibly optimistic about the main character in Clueless, Cher. Yes, she’s shifting blame, but she looks at the world as a place where things will inevitably work out, and, perhaps more to the point, she is kind and giving. I think Cher embodies perhaps the best of optimism. She does not jump to self-blame as much as she also doesn’t put blame on others. Just a thought… Thanks for inspiring it. I think I’ll watch Clueless again soon.
Sherri, One of the advantages of mindfulness is that blame really becomes redundant – they are just thoughts that you explore and learn from.
The irony is that reserach suggests that using our “inner lawyer” – ie challenging and reframing reduces our levels of mindfulness.
I also agree with your coacktail approach. I think combining mindfulness (which I don’t think is covered in the Penn program) with other interventions makes them more powerful.
Mindfulness seems to make everything else that much easier. For an exmaple see Kirsten Cronlunds article on how mindfulness makes it easier to re-appraise https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/kirsten-cronlund/200903151652 – a fundamental resilience skill
testing a comment again
That’s an interesting perspective on Cher. Her character is a close adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, who took it upon herself to be matchmaker and general do-gooder to her community but failed to realize (hence the title of the movie) that she was often clueless about just how much of that was actually good for others. I’m not sure that is the same as optimism, though she is surely not a pessimist!
I do like and use the cocktail approach, as you call it. The idea that interventions can be individualized makes it tough to empirically test them, but the A in MAPP is applied–we are not MEPP. In the end research that works in a lab but not in the field has not passed the application test, at least not yet. Meanwhile people and life go on, so “experimenting” with research findings is necessary.
Sherri, I love the quote on tardiness from Clueless! Thanks so much for reminding me of it.
While I agree with you that taking no responsibility is not a healthy response, I think it adds to optimism when she looks for other factors that contributed to her situation. Do you see it that way?
I think there is a big difference between blaming and reframing. “Not-me” is not the same as optimism.
Optimism can be built, of course, by being more realistic about one’s situations. On the other hand, if the belief is that rules do not apply to oneself–ever–(Cher believes all grades are negotiable and thus does not come to class prepared or complete assignments)then this is not using her strengths for good.
Cher also believes that she should be making the world a better place through fashion and matchmaking. This may make her feel happy and fulfilled, but what about the people she is trying to “improve”? They may have strengths that she is overlooking.