Everyone does it sometimes, but it doesn’t do anyone any good. It just causes more problems. Of course, it’s a daily phenomenon in the news. Politicians seem to take finger pointing as one of their top three main duties, along with pretty much anyone in a position of responsibility who finds themselves in the media.
But of course I’m not all that interested in politics (at least, not on this blog) and I’m a lot more interested in interpersonal relationships and mental health. And blame is a big player in those too. We blame each other. We blame ourselves. We gain nothing.
There is a LOT that can be said about blame. I want to spend our short time together in this blog post looking briefly at how we ruin things for ourselves with blame, and touching on some ways to see things differently than we naturally might.
Blaming others for bad things that happen is the most natural thing in the world. When something goes wrong, the overpowering human urge is to find someone else to blame for it, lest one should have to accept blame themselves. Nobody wants to admit they’re wrong. If I can make you the wrong one, I don’t have to consider that maybe I’m the one who messed up. That’s much more comfortable than facing my mistakes.
It's even quite compelling to blame others when I’m not particularly trying to get blame off myself. You know what this is like: you’re walking casually through your living room and you stub your toe on the couch. Instantly, you are thinking, and possibly yelling, “WHO LEFT THAT COUCH THERE???”
That’s a rather laughable example, but we’ve all done this, haven’t we? You step on a fork or something on the kitchen floor, and your brain is immediately, but immediately furious with your irresponsible, entitled kid for not picking up after themselves. (Then you remember that it was you that knocked the fork off the table and forgot to pick it up. And you also do not remember this lesson next time you step on a sharp item.)
Here's Brené Brown describing this phenomenon quite nicely: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZWf2_2L2v8
And here’s a real-life example from my own experience: one Shabbos morning, my wife was looking for the corned beef she’d bought for lunch. Strangely, she could not locate it in the refrigerator, which is generally where corned beef likes to roost. She peeked into the trunk of the minivan to see if perhaps it had been left in there, but no luck. After a family-wide search and rescue mission, I was the fortunate one to locate it... on a pantry shelf. Where it had roosted overnight. I am no expert on the matter, but I’m pretty sure you do not eat meat that sat out overnight.
Naturally, my first thought was, who the heck left the beef on the shelf? My wife in fact voiced a similar thought out loud. Promptly, I went into action: I decided to entirely ignore the question of who left the beef and focus on the fun adventure of cobbling together Shabbos lunch from the sundries in the fridge. (It worked out fine, and was quite enjoyable.)
I consider this incident one of my great successes in life. Looking for the culprit and getting all bent out of shape would have accomplished nothing. Sure, we need to make sure such a thing doesn’t happen again. A general announcement to be careful about putting groceries away suffices for that purpose.
At any rate, probably nobody was going to own up to leaving the beef in the pantry, whether out of embarrassment or simply because nobody really remembers when they put a shopping bag down here or there. But even if someone did recognize they’d goofed here, calling them out on it would probably not produce better behavior, only negative feelings.
Now, obviously, yelling at or shaming your kids or your spouse is not helpful (especially when they’ve done nothing wrong). But I’d like to highlight a danger of not working to eradicate this response from your system. In the corned beef example, the outcome of a session of finger pointing would probably have been some screaming and crying and a lot of ill will all around. But in direr situations, the results can be quite a lot worse.
Another personal example: one night I went to bed early, and reminded my daughter, who was headed to a friend’s house, to lock up and turn on the alarm when she came back. I woke up the next morning to find the front door unlocked and the alarm off. And I live in Baltimore. This was no good. Fortunately, nobody had burgled us. But that kind of thing happens all too frequently in this town.
Imagine what would have happened if we’d awoken to find the house ransacked, or if someone had G-d forbid been injured by an intruder (or worse). Imagine how bad my daughter would have felt. Now imagine what the repercussions would be for her had I begun criticizing or yelling at her for her mistake.
If G-d forbid such a catastrophic event should happen, your response could have some very major ramifications for the rest of your child’s life. The situation is already traumatic for them – they may well be responsible for some unthinkable consequence. A blameful response would compound that; I wonder if she would ever fully recover from such a thing.
On the other hand, a loving and empathic response would be a vital foundation for what is going to be a long-term recovery process any which way.
The blameful reactions around stubbed toes and ruined lunches are small wounds that accumulate over time and grow callouses over a relationship. That’s already quite an undesirable result. But the consequences of such a reaction in an emergency situation are seriously, seriously bad.
Yeah, I know I said above that we shouldn’t blame others when something is our own fault. But then there are times where blaming ourselves is the wrong approach also. We can kick ourselves ad infinitum and just end up making ourselves feel bad, incompetent, unworthy, around things that really don’t deserve that kind of response.
This is another thing we all do to ourselves (though maybe not to such a depressing extent). We buy this brand over the other one and it turns out to be a dud, then we clobber ourselves for making the wrong choice. That’s a lightweight situation. Many people have had buyer’s regret with their spouses. Much bigger issue.
I’ll tell you where I encountered this for myself, and how I learned to approach it.
I used to have a commute of minimum one hour (and that was with no traffic, at noon). Every day on the way home there was the question of whether to take the highway or exit and spend the latter half of the drive on the back roads. Sometimes it was an educated guess; but, if I’m being honest, a lot of the time it wasn’t educated on much. (Google maps was a help, but not always.)
So what would not infrequently happen was I’d pick one of the options, get stuck in traffic there, and kick myself for having chosen wrong.
And then I had an epiphany.
The truth is, almost never could it be said that I had made the wrong choice, or a bad decision. I say this for two reasons:
Firstly, there was no way to know if the other choice was any better. This is a cognitive fallacy that’s so easy to fall into. I’m stuck in traffic, and I say to myself, “Doggone it, I should have gone the other way!” I’m assuming the way I chose was worse because of the painfully long traffic delay. But it’s entirely possible that the alternate route was just as bad or worse. It’s only in my head that I am sure that’s not the case.
Likewise for the Nikes you bought instead of the Reeboks. Your arches start hurting and you go, “I knew I should have bought the Reeboks!” But maybe the Reeboks also would have hurt your feet? Maybe your feet would have hurt even worse! You don’t know.
Hanging on to that mindset can save you a whole lot of misery when things don’t go the way you had hoped. It’s certainly critical when it comes to the biggies, like your spouse. It’s not uncommon for people to struggle with serious doubts that they may have married “the wrong person” due to some undesired factor or another. But the reality is that if you’d married that person instead of this one, you might have been in a “traffic jam” of equally bad proportions, if not worse. No matter who you marry, you’re picking a package with a set of benefits of drawbacks. It would not necessarily have been any better with the other one.
Yes, it might be that you wouldn’t have had to deal with your current spouse’s impossible parents, anxiety disorder, or inability to cook; but you don’t really know what you would have picked up instead with another spouse. (I know, you think you know that the other package would have been better; but you really don’t know what’s in the package until you open it – just as, you will probably admit, you didn’t know when you married this person what exactly the challenges were that you were buying into.)
Bottom line: when you are faced with the unpleasant ramifications of a decision you made, consider with acute honesty whether you can be sure the other option wouldn’t have been as bad or worse.
Now, to the second important perspective on supposed bad choices we’ve made: note well that a bad outcome doesn’t necessarily indicate a bad decision. If you made a clearheaded decision based on the information you had at the time – you collected what evidence you could, you put sincere effort and intellectual energy into it (as opposed to, say, flipping a coin, or just being mentally or physically lazy about it) – if that is how you made your decision, then you made a good decision regardless of whether the results turn out well.
You can’t know the future. You can’t account for every possibility and every variable that exists. You can take appropriate risks and make educated guesses, but at the end of the day, there’s a lot that’s not in your control.
If you researched Nikes and Reeboks, and the reviews favored Nike for arch support, then you made the right choice, regardless of whether the Nikes are hurting your arches.
It’s so easy to get down on ourselves when things don’t work out (or to let others get down on us). It’s critical to remember this point. A good decision isn’t defined by the outcome but by the process you went through to make it. Don’t blame yourself if, after a sensible decision-making process, you choose one option and it goes poorly.
If afterwards you look back and acknowledge that you rushed things because you were impatient, or favored one option over the other because it sounded like less work, sure, go ahead and kick yourself for doing it poorly. But if you did your due diligence and did the best you could, then you should feel good about yourself irrespective of the results.
We’re all going to make mistakes in life. Many of them. That means there will be many opportunities for blaming yourself and others. It’s a good habit to kick – you and those around you will be much happier for it.