When I was a child, I can vividly remember watching a friend blame his younger brother for a window he had just broken moments before. His mother was fuming with anger while listening to the story.
As my friend walked off the witness stand he smiled at me and we went outside to play. The younger brother was grounded, while my friend and I enjoyed a warm summer’s day free of worry. This is a very exaggerated example through the eyes of a child. However, the long-term effects of displacing blame have ramifications far beyond the understanding of most adults.
As a child, you reason and rationalize with a limited amount of bandwidth, but as each child grows, so does their sophistication. The lesson learned for my friend was a simple one: When I am not to blame, then I am not in trouble.
A new neural network was created at that moment. My friend was presented with a dilemma. A window was broken, his mother was angry, and he wanted to avoid punishment. At that moment, he chose a novel idea. An idea he had never used before. He decided to blame someone else for his actions, and the consequences of his choice were positive.
As humans, we are prone to make decisions that have positive outcomes. When we are met with novel or new dilemmas we use what psychologists call “decision hierarchies,” in which the person looks through all the old playbooks, memories, and consequences to similar events to choose how they will solve this new and abstract problem. People normally choose the most tread path. The path that feels safe and familiar. This is the path I want to discuss below.
The path to shirking responsibility and blaming others is a complicated problem and I will be discussing it in broad terms. It is my experience that no matter how similar two people are with the same problem, the path that led them to me is inferentially different and unique. There are general ideas, themes, and patterns with folks who get caught in cycles of displacement and the blame game. Let’s look at those concepts from a bird’s eye view.
Why is Blaming Others So Common?
Why do people avoid responsibility and displace blame? It’s my opinion that blaming others is one of the fundamental struggles of being a human.
When God spoke to Adam in the garden about eating the forbidden fruit, Adam did not say, “It’s my fault, Lord, I know what I did was wrong.” Nope, instead, he shifted the burden onto Eve. Genesis 3:12 says, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
It is almost laughable to think that the first person in the history of humans immediately tried to hedge around taking responsibility for their actions after making their first mistake. And yet a chapter later we read, “Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?'” (Genesis 4:9)
You can begin to see a theme throughout Scripture, from Adam all the way until Peter denying that he knew Jesus. It’s as if there is a default pattern of blaming others that lives beneath the surface of all of us.
Oftentimes we do the same in our day-to-day lives. We shift and create narratives that allow the consequences of events to fall upon circumstances or others involved. This is most commonly seen and referred to as self-serving bias.
In many cases, a self-serving bias allows you to protect your self-esteem. By attributing positive events to your own personal characteristics, you get a boost in confidence. By blaming outside forces for failures, you protect your self-esteem and absolve yourself from personal responsibility.
This is a dance that many people are unaware they take part in but know the steps of the dance by memory. Our self-esteem can act as the glue that holds together the concept of our identity, what’s right and wrong, and how we view ourselves in the world.
When a person’s self-esteem is being shifted and shaken, it is alarming for us. We naturally go into self-preservation mode and try to protect the vulnerable and sensitive parts of ourselves.
Unfortunately, sometimes the cost of protecting our self-esteem contributes to the downfall in our ability to confront problems we encounter in life. If the finger is always pointed away from the body, the person waving the finger relinquishes the power to attempt fixing or rectifying the situation.
Locus of Control
There are many ways that people view problems they find themselves in. But an overarching theme that exists between these innumerable problems is the idea of Locus of Control.
Locus of Control is a person’s belief system regarding the causes of his or her experiences and the factors to which that person attributes success or failure.
Within this concept are two ends of a spectrum: internal and external locus of control. If you believe that you have control over what happens, then you have what psychologists refer to as an internal locus of control. If you believe that you have no control over what happens and that external variables are to blame, then you have what is known as an external locus of control.
For example, let’s say we are watching a person with a high external locus of control being called into their employer’s office to have a discussion about workplace productivity.
What can we expect this person to say once they have left their boss’s office? It could be assumed that they will have painted a narrative of frustration surrounding other co-workers they view as the real problem, bureaucratic unfairness, haphazard equipment, etc.
Conversely, a person with a high level of internal locus of control may walk away saying, “I need to work harder. How can I manage my time more effectively? How can I implement new strategies to increase my team’s productivity?”
These are very different outlooks on the same situation. A high or low internal/external locus of control can be something a person is born with, taught through life experiences, or has forged into their personage.
To have a high internal locus of control is to have a high degree of responsibility and accountability. For a person with fragile self-esteem, this can be a daunting task because the stakes appear to be extraordinarily high and risky. When they are met with criticism and feedback, they feel personally attacked and have a strong urge to protect themselves. This is often played out in the form of displacing the negative feedback away from themselves.
The urge to protect ourselves from criticism and failure is one of the oldest stories. It is written inside you and me to step away from the consequences and absolve ourselves from the repercussions.
The problem with stepping outside the circle of responsibility is that we teach ourselves that we are unable to solve the problem we are part of. We see this being acted out in our news cycles, with endless stories of people blaming others and shifting narratives.
It’s so rare that we find ourselves watching a person taking on the full weight of their choices. And yet it is these rare people who are able to overcome and amend.
How Christian Counseling Can Help
Taking responsibility for your actions is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is an instrument that needs to be practiced and perfected. Once you begin the journey of taking accountability for your actions then you begin to possess the power to direct your steps.
If you find yourself pointing the finger around you, take a moment and point the finger back out yourself. What part of the journey can you take responsibility for? We don’t have to fall into the steps of Adam and Peter. We have the ability to step into the light and accept our part.
If you realize that you are frequently blaming others and rarely taking responsibility for your own actions and choices, Christian counseling might be a helpful option for you to consider. Feel free to contact me or one of the other counselors in the counselor directory to schedule a risk-free initial session.
“Boy with Camera”, Courtesy of Tuấn Kiệt Jr., Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Puddle Jumper”, Courtesy of Daryl Wilkerson Jr., Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Mirror in the Woods”, Courtesy of Marianna Mercado, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Thinking”, Courtesy of Engin Akyurt, Pexels.com, CC0 License