Of all the behaviors that lead to dysfunction, the impulse to blame is probably near the top of the list.
What makes blaming so problematic, however, is how subtle it can be. When life gets hard — and it does, always, at one point or another, no matter what — our minds so quickly point a finger elsewhere that we often don’t even realize we’re doing it. Blaming then becomes a way of navigating the world — a lens on everything — rather than a choice we can control.
“Our culture peculiarly honors the act of blaming,” wrote Lionel Trilling, “which it takes as the sign of virtue and intellect.”
True story. Where courage, honesty and analysis used to get us through our problems, blaming now deflects it elsewhere. Our culture reinforces that impulse, and oftentimes rewards it. So our problems get worse, which only makes it more tempting to blame someone else for them.
The instinct to blame is a toxic pattern. It deprives us of our agency, weakens our relationships,, causes dysfunction in our workplaces and creates inertia across our lives. We need to see blame for what it is, and we need a new way to reframe it, so that we can better understand how and when to appropriately take responsibility in our dynamics.
Let’s start by understanding how this peculiar tendency really operates.
What Is Blame, Really?
The impulse to blame is deeply human. When people hurt us, mistakes get made, or relationships reach a conflict, our minds resort to a clever way of avoiding the psychological pain created by these negative events.
In most cases, the easiest way to avoid that pain is to externalize it — to project the discomfort, anger or pain onto another person or situation, so we don’t have to sit with it any more than is necessary.
This process can happen so quickly that we don’t even realize it’s taking place. For many people, externalizing is so instinctive that it becomes standard operating procedure. We then miss our own role in the negative situation, and fail to take ownership of it.
The opposite of blame is internalization, which basically means taking on the responsibility for any pain (and its source) ourselves.
When we completely internalize, we bear the burden of the negative experience in its entirety, believing that we are ultimately responsible for what happens to us, how we feel, and what to do about it. This is the pattern that leads to thoughts like “It’s all my fault,” “Why do I keep doing this to myself?”, and “I’m the only one who can fix this.”
Internalization can be just as toxic as externalization.
Whereas blame projects anxiety, anger and other difficult emotions onto other people, internalization hangs onto those feelings and attributes them entirely to the self. That process can lead, among other things, to experiences like depression, shame and guilt.
So if both approaches get us into trouble, then what’s the right approach to understanding our role in negative situations?
The Accountability Spectrum
We can think of internalization and externalization as two ends of a spectrum.
On one end of the spectrum, we take on too much ownership of those experiences, and attribute all responsibility for them to ourselves. This is self-blaming — total internalization.
On the other end of the spectrum, we refuse to take ownership of our negative experiences, and instead project them outward. This is other-blaming — total externalization.
In the middle is a healthy synthesis of these impulses: an appropriate recognition of other people’s responsibility and a healthy ownership of our own.
Let’s call that middle ground accountability.
What does it mean to be accountable? In short, it means honestly understanding the role we play in the way life happens, and not taking on any more or less responsibility than we should.
It means recognizing how much of a relationship, situation or outcome we are responsible for, and how much of it another person (or organization) is responsible for.
It means internalizing the appropriate part of a particular dynamic, and being willing to do the work — whatever the work might be — to address it.
Accountability also means being self-aware and disciplined enough to not take on more of a situation than is appropriate or healthy. Which also means not becoming the object of someone else’s blame — a very easy pattern to fall into, because its origin is out of our control.
True accountability is our end game.
It’s the mindset that allows us to take the best parts of each side of this spectrum — attribution and ownership — and avoid the tendency to project or internalize.
But that begs an interesting question: Why do we blame in the first place? That’s where our work begins.
Recognize why you’re blaming.
We know that blaming is a form of externalization that minimizes psychic pain. But blaming can take a number of different forms that fulfill different functions.
In a single day, we can blame the city for traffic, blame our colleagues for not refilling the water cooler, blame our bosses for making us stay past 7, blame our friends for making us feel dumb at dinner, blame our cat for knocking over the glass of water on the bedside table, and fall asleep blaming our parents for putting us in this whole situation in the first place.
In some of those cases, blaming might be totally rational — and maybe even appropriate!
After all, the city does need to fix traffic. Our colleagues should have the decency to refill the water. Our bosses should be more efficient. And we all know that cats, despite how awesome they are (shout-out to Momo and Micky, my Dr. Evil Sphynx cats), can also be total a-holes, especially when there’s a glass of water just begging to be knocked off a table.
But if you dig a little deeper into those instances of blaming, you’ll always find some more complicated intentions underneath.
For example, when you blame the city for traffic, are you also avoiding responsibility for leaving the house late?
And when you blame your colleagues for not refilling the water, are you also making yourself the saint of the office (and conveniently forgetting that time you failed to refill it)?
When you blame your company for keeping you late, are you looking for additional reasons to resent your boss (and conveniently ignoring the two and a half hours of DIY tutorials you watched on YouTube during the day)?
And when you yell at the cat, are you actually angry that after all this time, you still haven’t learned to not leave a glass on the bedside table? And isn’t the cat an easy object of your anger after the blame-a-palooza you had today?
There’s always more going on beneath the surface when we externalize.
When we blame other people, we’re almost always externalizing the pain of responsibility. But we’re usually also enhancing ourselves in other, more subtle ways.
Blaming can also help us achieve a few other objectives:
- To be “right” by making other people “wrong”
- To let ourselves off the hook / avoid work (of any kind)
- To be “special,” even in our suffering/unhappiness/disadvantage
- To indulge our emotional satisfaction
- To discharge our feelings of discomfort, anger, anxiety, or helplessness
- To give us a sense of control (ironically, by attributing that control to other people)
No wonder we tend to blame so easily. Blaming really works! Or at least it seems to.
Once you see how blame is designed to prop you up, it becomes a lot harder to engage in it as easily.
You catch yourself fuming at the city, and you realize that the city didn’t force you to be late — it was you who overslept.
You find yourself yelling at your colleagues in your head, and you realize that they might have forgotten to refill it, but that doesn’t make them bad people — and it won’t make you a good one.
You snap at the cat for knocking over the water, and you realize that the cat has been trying to tell you for months not to leave your water there — and anyway, being mad at the cat won’t make you feel any better about the day you’ve had. (And maybe go set a second alarm for tomorrow.)
The first key to stop blaming is self-awareness.
That means bringing more consciousness to your thoughts and feelings, catching yourself (in the moment, if possible, but also at a later time) externalizing those thoughts and feelings, and parsing them for their underlying intentions.
If you can get a handle on the underlying reasons you’re blaming — beyond just shifting responsibility — then you’ll give yourself two huge advantages.
First, you’ll find it much harder to justify your blaming. And second, you’ll gain some critical insight into your mind.
Because if you drill down to the intentions underlying your tendency to blame, you’ll discover a trove of qualities that every person needs to recognize.
You’ll discover your insecurities, vulnerabilities, expectations, and hidden agendas — in short, you’ll discover the nooks and crannies of your ego that were being papered over with the flimsy band-aid called “blaming.” And those nooks and crannies are the exact areas that every top performer actively works to understand and address.
But aren’t we right to blame other people sometimes? Aren’t there situations that do warrant our blame? Are we really responsible for everything?
These are great questions. And they bring us back to the idea of true accountability, which depends on an accurate understanding of our role in every situation.
Replace blaming with understanding.
Externalizing in any given situation depends on an inaccurate understanding of responsibility.
When we blame someone else, we attribute more responsibility to them than they actually have. When we internalize that blame, we attribute more responsibility to ourselves than we actually should. When we correctly apportion responsibility between ourselves and the other party, then we achieve true accountability.
True accountability requires honesty, self-awareness and — maybe most importantly — a willingness to bear the pain that comes with honestly attributing responsibility.
To do that, we have to replace the impulse to blame with the commitment to understand. Only by choosing to understand can we get an accurate view of all of the factors at play in a negative situation.
The following questions are useful to get a handle on how responsibility for a situation shakes out:
- What specifically is the negative situation taking place? How is it showing up in this moment?
- How did we arrive at this situation? What events, decisions or factors led to this moment?
- Who else is involved in the situation? What are their roles and responsibilities?
- What is my role and responsibility in this situation?
- Which external factors (not under anybody’s direct control) played a role in the situation? (E.g., weather, office policy, tangential conflicts, rough days, laws, etc.)
- What questions can I ask of myself and the other party to better understand the situation? What do I need to know to correctly understand who’s accountable here? What do I not know about this situation?
- How did all of these factors — events, decisions (or non-decisions), personalities, conflicts, environment, etc. — interact to lead to the negative situation at hand?
Answering these questions will give you access to all of the crucial data that creates a situation. When we cave to the impulse to blame, we deprive ourselves of the chance to appreciate that data. We’re so eager to avoid the pain that we miss the opportunity to understand.
Of course, if we truly understood the situation at hand, it would be much harder for us to blame. Because then we’d have to acknowledge just how many variables conspired to create the negative situation — including us. We can’t understand and externalize. That’s why most people are so resistant to considering a situation fully before they point a finger.
The best antidote to blaming is empathy.
Empathy, of course, is the ability to understand and share the experience of another person. But more broadly, it’s the willingness to step outside of ourselves, stop taking things personally, and appreciate a situation from all perspectives.
When you apply empathy to the questions above, you look at a situation from a number of different perspectives — yours, the other parties’, the world’s — to understand its root causes. You choose curiosity over certainty, patience over gratification. By appreciating how many different variables are at play, you diagnose the situation more accurately — more fairly — and move out of the self-centered perspective that gives blame its ammunition.
That’s why empathy is such a superpower. It allows you to navigate conflicts and problems more honestly, gives you access to crucial data you wouldn’t otherwise have, and short-circuits a ton of counterproductive behaviors, like resentment, self-righteousness and blame.
(By the way, that’s also the key to avoiding the fundamental attribution error, a dangerous cognitive bias with close ties with blaming.)
When you study situations like this, you inevitably discover that the math of responsibility is never as clean as we’d like it to be.
With the exception of a few outliers, there is never a situation in which one party is entirely at fault and the other party is completely blameless. In almost every case, there is a complicated dance between the two parties (or among several parties) that creates the negative situation in question.
This dance takes place within a much larger ballet of environmental factors that magnify the conflict even further. The parties involved only realize that something is wrong when the problem boils over, at which point they usually blame everyone but themselves.
We need to stop and tease those factors apart, so we can clearly see what we’re responsible for, what other people are responsible, and what nobody’s responsible for.
Then — and only then — can we…
Take appropriate ownership.
Once you get a handle on all of the variables at play in a situation, the next step is to identify and own your piece of it. That means parsing the scenario for the aspects you directly control, so that you can do your part in remedying the situation.
Let’s take the case of two roommates, Alan and Sophie.
Alan comes home from a stressful day at his bank, where he turned in a project a few days late and was blamed for a database error he didn’t make.
That night, he snaps at Sophie for finishing the soy milk, and Sophie — who’s working through some challenges with her boyfriend and currently out of work — responds by staying quiet.
Alan, sensing her withdraw over the next two days, hardens even further, which makes Sophie want to talk to him even less. Because they’re not communicating, they fail to discuss the repairs they need done to their shower, so the landlord doesn’t know to send someone to fix it.
The next morning, Alan wakes up to a flood in the bathroom only to discover that Sophie slept over at her boyfriend’s house, leaving Alan alone to deal with the problem. He’s late for work, getting him into even more trouble with his boss, who decides not to give him the promotion he expected.
By the time Alan and Sophie sit down to talk about who’s at fault, the math of what actually went down between them is super complicated.
Alan definitely played a role, in the way he brought his problems at work into the apartment and snapped at Sophie. Sophie also definitely played a part, in the way she withdrew and failed to take care of the shower.
They both communicated poorly. But they also were both under a lot of stress in other parts of their lives, factors that really had nothing to do with their relationship.
And then there was the bad luck of living in an old building with plumbing issues, which would have caused the flood regardless.
So who’s actually wrong here? How do these two people parse their conflict? How do they tease out the actions and reactions that made up the fight? How do they identify which parts they owned and which they didn’t?
They have to first try to understand each other and the situation. Then they have to take ownership. Let’s look at those two steps in detail.
First, replace the language of blame with the language of understanding.
Alan and Sophie could easily point a finger at each other. They each made choices that contributed to their problem, and they each seem like the main culprit to the other.
But if they committed to fully appreciating the dynamic before they pointed a finger, it would be much harder to blame each other, and much easier for both of them to take responsibility.
Replacing the impulse to blame with the choice to understand is a matter of reframing the language of responsibility. It means asking questions rather than making statements, leading with empathy rather than judgment, and enduring the discomfort of recognizing our own role in a situation.
You can translate the language of blame into a different, more conscious language of understanding. Here are a few common examples.
|“I can’t believe you did that.”||“Why did you do that?”
“Help me understand why you made that decision.”
“Did I do anything to make you react that way?”
|“It’s all your [his, her, their] fault.”||“This is where I feel you [he, she, they] could have acted differently. Do you agree?”
“Is there something I’m missing about my role here?”
|“Here’s what I need you to do.”||“Here’s what I’d like you to do. Is that a fair expectation?”
“What can I do?”
“What should I have done?”
|“This is not my problem.”||“Is this a problem in the first place?”
“Whose problem is this?”
“How much of this is my problem?”
|“This is why you’re wrong.”
“This is why I’m right.”
|“Here’s how I see things. How do you see things?”
“I noticed you did/said/felt X. Why?”
“What did I do to create those actions/words/feelings in you?”
“What should each of us have done to make this situation as productive as possible?”
When you consciously shift from the language of blame to the language of understanding, you create a dynamic that leads to collaboration, harmony and accountability.
That shift requires a conscious choice. It’s often harder than just pointing a finger somewhere else. When you choose to understand rather than blame, you let go of the assumption that you are completely right (and “they” are completely wrong), you choose to empathize with the other person, and you open yourself up to acknowledge your role in the situation.
Ultimately, though, this shift will make things better down the line. Because while blaming often seems like the easiest response in the moment, it always creates additional conflict. You kick the proverbial can down the road, and you miss the opportunity to develop solutions to the problem in the moment. The problem then grows, which makes it more tempting to blame someone else, which perpetuates the cycle.
That’s why we have to choose our words — and the mindset they create — very carefully.
Second, take ownership of your part in the situation.
Once you study a situation honestly, you’ll be in a position to appreciate all of the factors at play. Those factors include what you did, what the other party did, the connections between those decision, larger situational variables, personal histories and personalities, and so on. With all of those cards on the table, you can choose to pick up the ones that are truly yours.
For example, Alan couldn’t control the database error at work. But he could control his response to that error. He could have done more to make it clear that the error wasn’t his fault, thereby avoiding the trouble with his boss.
Then again, he also could have done more to help fix the error when it happened, rather than pointing his finger at his colleague. If he had, maybe his day wouldn’t have been quite as painful, and he wouldn’t have brought that energy into the apartment. (Interesting, right? Accountability in one conflict can actually avoid problems in other parts of life!)
The same principle applies to Sophie. She couldn’t control Alan’s anger at her finishing the soy milk. But she could have written herself a note the day before to pick some up, apologized to him in the moment, or reminded him that they agreed to share groceries, which means that sometimes they’ll run out. Instead, she shut down and internalized her resentment, which only magnified the tension between them. She could have chosen to express herself, and prevented Alan from making assumptions about how she felt.
At the same time, both Alan and Sophie were dealing with situational factors — relationship woes, plumbing problems — that had nothing to do with their relationship directly. They could forgive each other for responding to that stress the way they did. They could also own the parts they played in making it worse. And they could release any expectation they have that life will always be worry-free. Groceries will run out. Bathrooms will flood. These things happen from time to time, and they can’t always be internalized or externalized.
Step by step, word by word, action by action, we can parse a situation for the actions and reactions we can control.
Those moments might be collaborations with the other person — you finished the milk / I stopped talking, you had a rough day at work / I shut down, you didn’t tell me about the shower / I didn’t sleep over — but we can still own our side of that collaboration. We always have some responsibility for our actions, even if those actions are responses to someone else’s.
As you decide which pieces to own, commit to accepting responsibility for your part, even when it’s uncomfortable, frustrating or embarrassing. The reason we blame is that we want to avoid the discomfort associated with accountability. To break the pattern, we have to invite and tolerate that discomfort, knowing that our ability to bear it is the “price” we pay for healthy accountability and productive relationships. And it’s well worth it.
As you work through this step, keep the ownership spectrum in mind.
When you take responsibility for the role you played in an event, notice the tendency to slip back into internalization. The more self-aware you become — and the more you discover the power of accountability — the more tempting it can be to take on more and more responsibility in your life. What starts as healthy accountability can subtly slip into toxic internalization. That’s a pitfall we have to consciously work to avoid by constantly checking in with ourselves.
Remember: Your goal is accountability, not self-punishment.
Accountability might be uncomfortable (and sometimes downright painful), but that doesn’t mean we need to beat ourselves up to be responsible people. Regret, guilt, and shame might come up from time to time, but they aren’t necessary. The end game is a healthy understanding of responsibility — not self-flagellation.
Accountability as a Habit
The accountability process we’ve been exploring is a superpower. It’s a tool you can take with you to your career, your relationships, and your family gatherings. Whenever you catch yourself mid-blame, you can take a step back, come back to this framework, and find a more productive approach.
Over time, you can also make accountability a habit. You can consciously cultivate it in a way that becomes second-nature, until the instinct to take ownership of your actions becomes just as strong — hopefully even stronger — than the impulse to blame.
You can do this in a few ways, all of which will make non-blaming a standard operating procedure.
Leading by example.
Leading by example means committing to accountability in our own lives first, and modeling what accountability looks like for the people around us.
When we refuse to internalize or externalize, we demonstrate accountability in action. That often inspires the people in our lives to do the same, sets expectations about how you’d like them to respond to negative events, and creates a template for others to follow.
In most cases, we need to commit to accountability before we demand that other people do. That’s because accountability is a two-way street, and because we can only rewrite the pattern of blaming by — surprise, surprise — taking ownership of our part in that pattern first.
Creating a practice.
Turning accountability into a practice means returning to the framework in this article when negative situations arise.
When an instance of blaming comes up — and you’ve failed to stop it the moment it arises — you can always fall back on policy and procedure. You can take a step back, notice the externalization taking place, consciously choose to work through the steps we’ve covered, and find a more productive way through the conflict.
You can even make this a daily or weekly practice, in which you take stock of all of the instances of blaming that came up in a certain period, and reflect on how you could have operated differently. This can be a powerful practice on your own, with your family, or with your team at work.
Accountability is a mindset as well as a toolkit. It can be shared and taught.
In many companies, accountability can actually become a layer to the business overall. Managers can teach workshops on accountability, use it to resolve office conflicts, and build it into meetings and discussions. It can become part of a company’s “way.”
When you make accountability a way of doing business — and combine it with the methods above — you create a culture of accountability. This is the kind of culture that differentiates happy, productive, healthy workplaces from frustrating, dysfunctional, toxic ones.
Of course, the other methods listed above will come into play too. You need leadership that is willing to model accountability for employees to do the same. And all institutionalized accountability is an accountability practice writ large.
The Promise of Accountability
Accountability is infectious. When we blame other people, we make it much easier for them to point the finger right back. When we internalize, we signal that we’re willing to put up with that externalization, and we suggest that other people should internalize their reactions too.
But when we stop blaming and start owning, we set a tone, a standard and an operating procedure for navigating challenges.
We do the work of stepping up and accepting our part, and we give people the safety and confidence to do the same. We signal that we won’t put up with unwarranted externalization or toxic internalization. We show that we’re willing to embrace the discomfort of taking responsibility in order to step into a more honest relationship with ourselves. As a result, we also give ourselves another huge advantage: healthier, more connected, more productive relationships. Which is a good reminder that non-blaming also has a huge role to play in our networking and connections.
That’s the ultimate impact of this work. That’s how accountability breeds more accountability, and helps us access the trust and agency that we miss whenever we indulge the impulse to blame, rather than owning the part we play in our lives.
[Featured image by Adi Goldstein]