Blame shifting and how it ruins relationships
I would not have had an affair if you were fast enough in the game.” “I wouldn’t have beaten her if she didn’t provoke me.”
“I would have gotten that promotion if my colleague didn’t play dirty games.” “I would not have done this if you wouldn’t have done that…”
Every day, we come across people who like shifting blame. According to James Kabiro Karuru, a counselling psychologist, shifting blame is when a person does something wrong or improper and then puts all the blame on someone else to avoid taking responsibility.
“This is a psychological defense mechanism whereby the ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or traits (both positive and negative) by denying their existence or attributing them to others. This character is exhibited in blame shifting and shame dumping. It is a manifestation of a defense mechanism known as ‘projection’,” explains Karuru who is also school chaplain, ACK Diocese of Mt Kenya Central.
Karuru says it is always easier and more comfortable to blame the other person than it is to accept own faults. It also feels ‘safer’ to take up the role of the victim when faced with something inappropriate.
Beatrice Muthoni Muraguri, a counselling psychologist at Excellence Link concurs. She says blaming is a losing game, where the winner becomes the loser.
According to her, there are several techniques people use to shift blame. The first one is playing victim.
“For instance, if a partner is caught cheating, they dig up a situation in the past where you hurt them; blow it up and you are forced to apologise. They can for example say ‘you told me I’m not good enough, so, I decided to look for somebody who can appreciate me!” she says.
Another technique they apply is dismissing or minimising their partner’s feelings. They do this by saying things like: “You are too sensitive”, “You are too reactive”, “Such a small issue and you are about to call a press conference?”
“This is aimed at making you look like you are exaggerating the magnitude of the offence in question,” Beatrice adds. Others adopt a “stink bomb” attitude. The offender knows they have been caught and there is evidence to incriminate them, so they no longer care. “They may say: “Do your worst!”
“Yes, I did it! Go to hell!” “I am not your slave!” “You are the sick one here, I won’t swallow the painkiller for you!” she says.
Blaming depends on the abuser knowing your weaknesses and tendencies; among them might be your steadfast avoidance of conflict or your proclivity to play the peacemaker; your tendency to backtrack on your positions; your desire to please; your own insecurities and doubts about yourself; and your tendency to question the validity of your thoughts and feelings.
Karuru says putting blame on circumstances or people, especially those close to us when things go wrong can have a severely damaging effect on our relationships, families, and career. It broadens the communication gap.
“If an attempt to discuss anything directly results in a verbal abuse of how everything is your fault and how if you wouldn’t have done something, your partner wouldn’t have behaved in a bad manner, the communication gap becomes broader and broader,” Karuru says.
Blame shifting may result to feelings of resentment against your partner.
“Not everything can always be your fault. You realise that you are unnecessarily being blamed for your partner’s anger outbursts and the thought of just being with them makes you bitter,” he adds.
One may also be afraid of taking decisions – You’re constantly afraid that any step you take will be another mistake for your partner. The certainty of being blamed for every single thing makes one fearsome, tired and in some severe cases, terrified.
According to Karuru, chronic blaming is a form of emotional abuse — chronically being blamed for an act that you did not actually commit is like taking a verbal beating.
“Even if it was something that you were responsible for, but meant no harm, constantly getting blamed is still an inappropriate and non-productive form of communication between lovers, friends, or family members,” he shares.
Beatrice says some people who shift blame are narcissists as they have an exaggerated sense of self. “Therefore, to avoid self-hatred, they blame others,” the psychologist explains.
Additionally, she says the blaming partner’s personal growth is inhibited because they do not accept correction. Blame creates inaction. When someone blames, it’s as if they’re handing over control of the situation.
“I can’t change until you do,” is the implicit message. “Blaming also kills empathy. This might turn one into a beast with time and this marks the onset of domestic violence,” Beatrice adds.
What to do
According to Karuru, when wounded by a blame shifter’s words, know they are hurting, too. This may make it easier to begin from a strong and productive place rather than simply retreating or attacking back. And it does take strength.
“The best first step in a conflict is to acknowledge your own contribution, even if the other person is wrong. This removes the blame shifter’s weapon. They will redouble their attacks if you begin by focusing on their faults,” he advises.
When acknowledging your contribution, don’t dwell on blame or get melodramatic.
“Calm down and be the sober one in the conversation. Acknowledge the role you have played in the issue in question and apologise. Do not build up a case by coming with a long list of evidence arranged chronologically from the past. This will just make the blaming partner more hysterical since they feel grounded,” Beatrice adds.
Karuru explains: “You may fear you are just rewarding bad behaviour. But consider your options: If you argue, deny, and try to pass the buck back to the blame shifter, you will make him feel even more threatened and prone to attack. You could slink away, refuse to engage, and wait for it to blow over, but that makes you an ideal target: a person who won’t stand up for theirself. A person who will allow someone to tear them down to make themselves feel better.”
After accepting your contribution, Karuru says one should remain firm. Don’t enable blame shifting now or in the future. Help the blame shifter see their role in the situation by making clear, non-threatening observations about what happened.
If the blame shifter continues to dump on you, speak up. Resist the urge to get emotional or confrontational. Once a blame shifter learns you won’t take the bait and feed the flames with more emotion, they will stop seeing you as a viable container for their own bad feelings and low self-esteem.