I want to talk a little about blame, and by that I mean the apportioning of responsibility for pain. (I’m going to leave out the issue of intentionality here, which we can talk about later. It’s not so important to parse out in words.).
Blame is one of those subjects which requires contradictory approaches at various levels of development. The instruction on what to do about blame will vary depending on where along the road the practitioner is standing.
We have a nifty Chinese proverb that tells us so: “He who blames others has a long way to go on his journey. He who blames himself is halfway there. He who blames no one has arrived.“
Indeed, there is some truth to this. People of very low emotional intelligence, beginners on the journey, blame everything and everyone else for their own misery and unhappiness quite often. If something has gone wrong, it’s someone else’s fault. They like making others responsible for their feelings, their mental states and moods, their emotional reactions, their triggers; it ensures that others will take great care of them, tiptoe around them, coddle them, and protect them from all the unpleasant things, which is how they exert indirect control over the world around them.
Most people recognize this as a very childish and immature mindset. And so the directions for someone at this stage are all about taking personal responsibility. It has to do with withholding blame and criticism of others, restraining immediate judgement and finger-pointing, regulating emotions and the need to lash out, and looking at one’s own actions and feelings, beliefs and insecurities, as the contributing cause of the negative event. This is all very common conventional wisdom.
As we proceed further along our proverb, we begin learning all about the workings of our own mind. We learn more nuanced things about how we make faulty assumptions and interpretations; we learn about projection and how we often disown things we don’t like about ourselves, pinning them on others; we learn about how we take things too personally sometimes, and how to stop taking things so personally…
Thus, we come to blaming others less and less for our upsets. We take ever-greater responsibility for our emotions, for our reactions, and we learn that when someone says something upsetting, even objectively upsetting, if we do our own inner work, we don’t even have to get upset about it.
And so there are all kinds of practices here, from cognitive behavior therapy to some of the depths of stoic philosophy, almost all of popular spirituality, everything in self-development circles, all the common wisdom teachings are all geared in this direction – blame others less.
So then, after much much walking, we arrive at the “blames himself” half way mark in our proverb. This place of personal emotional responsibility and awareness is really important, and a sign of emotional maturity.
“Blames himself” is a good place to be for mental and spiritual health. These are generally the humble accommodating types who are quick to apologize, quick to admit that they made a mistake, quick to take the blame even when it’s unwarranted, as it were.
And so now this is where we get into a bunch of problems and confusion, and a lot of misdirection or even malicious gaslighting.
When a person is at the “blames himself” place of development, and he begins to open up his traumatic Pandora’s box o’shit, the pain often comes roaring out, blaming someone else. Hard. Like the trauma erupts to the surface of consciousness, and it is viciously blame-y. All that other nice stuff we learned before goes out the window, and the pain is screaming victimhood and blame.
This is right and good. This is the nature of real pain.
In order for this person to continue his healing work, he needs to identify deeply with this victimhood, with this pain, and allow it to blame the other completely, until the pain is fully digested out. No more of that detached floating above your story business; you have to get fully fully into your story, as deep into the darkness as you can get, with as much detail and naunce as the feelings offer, in order to let the pain come out completely.
So the guidance here goes the opposite way – assign blame, vehemently, to your bad guy/abuser, until you digest all of your pain. Sounds logical, right?
But it turns out that this is really really hard to do. The mind of the “blames himself” person is so accustomed to blaming himself, or detaching from victimhood altogether, that he can’t get his mind fully in solidarity with his feelings. The feelings are roaring blame, while the mind is busy doing the opposite. This is a terribly unpleasant place to be. And all of those original “spiritual” and “emotionally intelligent” instructions backfire here. Because you have to go into the pain fully, and blame blame blame, and even transform the mind that is refusing to blame, altering the thought patterns that resist blaming.
This is broadly the category of self-gaslighting, and I want to talk about it because it’s very important to healing.
The feelings feel real pain and blame, that’s normal and correct. Meanwhile, the thoughts in the mind are trying desperately to convince the feelings that they are wrong. This happens in a number of ways, so it’s important to be on the lookout for these inner quagmires. They stand in the way of healing and processing of pain.
There is a phenomenon I call “compassion bypass,” (I don’t know if anyone else uses that term, but it’s convenient to mention here). This is where the mind will jump to compassionate excuses for the abuser, instead of taking a really strong blaming position. Sometimes it’s based in actual facts, sometimes we just make it up. “He didn’t mean it. He didn’t know what he was doing. He was under a lot of stress or dealing with his own pain. He has a traumatic past. He can’t control himself. He is a victim of blah blah blah.”
This compassionate understanding, or excuse making, for the abuser absolves him of responsibility, and forces our pain to go silent. It pushes our pain away, while we sympathize with the supposed painful condition of the abuser.
It’s very hard to blame someone or be angry with someone, when you see them sympathetically. But remember that this is a trick of the mind. It’s intended to get us away from feeling or healing our pain, away from feeling or processing our anger and rage.
I read an account recently of a woman who was terribly angry at her deceased husband for committing suicide. Instead of letting herself feel that anger and process it through, because she was afraid of falling into an abyss of rage, she kept reminding herself to be compassionate about the pain he must have been in. Compassion for him is wonderful, but when it is being used to interfere with healing, as an avoidance of her own feelings, then it’s not wonderful and becomes maladaptive.
Another problem we encounter in the mind, the one that prevents us from blaming strongly, can be a guilty conscience problem. It says “Well, I’m no angel. I’m not perfect. I’ve done bad things too. I’ve caused him/her harm too. I can’t take such a strong blaming position.” It feels possibly hypocritical or somehow morally wobbly to get so angry, or to be such a victim of real pain, when we might also be culpable. (Being self-righteous doesn’t come naturally if you’re not used to it). It feels as though we must be perfect victims, absolutely blameless victims, before we are allowed to blame others or get fully angry. This is obviously wrong, and also stands in the way of processing our pain fully.
The mind will sometimes invalidate the feelings, saying things like “this can’t be right, I must be feeling the wrong thing here,” when in fact, the feelings are real and true, but the mind can’t believe it. The mind can’t wrap itself around something like blaming the other, when it is so used to being always at fault. It feels wrong and completely unnatural to blame the other, or to blame them as harshly and uncompromisingly as the pain demands…
I want to address a few different dynamics that train the mind to self-blame, which will be helpful to finding the root causes of the self-blame patterns. These develop in childhood, and then unconsciously hang around in the mental landscape until we make them conscious.
The first has to do with attempts to control situations that are beyond our control. Blaming ourselves is one way to cope with the realities of something we can’t control. Self-blame takes a huge problem, one we are powerless to change, and reduces it to something that is our fault, and thus within our capacity to fix and address. Take something like illness for instance. When faced with the illness of someone we care about, the mind will attempt to assign blame to itself, (this is my fault, I caused this) and then we will run around trying to fix the supposed cause or do something different, as a way to avoid dealing with the source of illness we cannot actually control. This is often how children learn to deal with big negative events like divorce or deaths – they blame themselves because it gives them a sense of control over a situation when they feel powerless.
The second has to do with taking the blame, blaming ourselves, as a way to protect someone we love. We see this theme as a trope in many of our crime dramas – the parent sitting in the interrogation room, confessing to a crime they didn’t commit, to keep their beloved child from facing the dire consequences. We do this a lot, we offer ourselves as martyrs, when we feel that we are stronger and better able to handle the punishment than our weaker beloveds. We don’t want to see our beloveds suffer. But as children in dysfunctional dynamics, this balance gets reversed. We become parentified by irresponsible adults, we lose faith in their strength, in their maturity, in their ability to protect us and keep us safe, so we become the parents, keeping them safe. Out of our love and solidarity with them, we take this same position of self-blame, self-sacrifice, “blame me, I can handle it,” as a way to protect the immature adults we love from harm.
The third has to do with narcissistic parents. In this situation, the narcissistic parent is always the victim, and is never to blame. The parent never ever takes responsibility, never apologizes, and never allows the child to be anything but at fault for all the parent’s problems and feelings. The child is never allowed to be the victim, and is always to blame. So the child’s natural tendency to self-blame becomes magnified exponentially, by the overt and implied endless blame-shifting from the narcissist parent.
(You might also see here how the enablers will use various demands of compassion for the narcissist to shift the child out of any attempts to express victimhood or pain… This is how he learns to do the compassion bypass thing, to get out of feeling negative feelings, which have never been allowed.)
It’s important to remember here that this is temporary, even if the healing period lasts for a while. It’s ok to blame, to blame harshly, to blame fully, to feel the anger and rage completely, to allow all the pain to come through and get processed out.
Ultimately, if we allow ourselves to blame the other fully, the pain will move through, and then the feelings will stop roaring with blame. Slowly, over a long road, we arrive at forgiveness. And when we look back at the wound and the events and the pain, we see the scar, but the emotional charge is gone.
At the mystical depth of forgiveness, we understand, of course, how and why the events were needed and beneficial for our soul’s growth. And we are even grateful to the other for the role they played in the trauma. We arrive at a kind of “there’s no one to blame” short-hand about it, because we needed to experience the pain for our growth, this other person was tasked with delivering the pain, and so blaming or some kind of desire for justice or vengeance is silly. We don’t feel blame, we feel gratitude for what they did, and even feel some compassion for the suffering they endured as a result.
I want to make clear here that at the non-dual or mystical levels, trauma and pain, and questions of right and wrong, are still very much relevant. They are the food that feeds and fuels the growth of the soul. Some misguided teachers like to dispense with all of this – discarding the self, discarding morality, discarding pain and healing, discarding most of wisdom and virtue, discarding all the very difficult complicated work, as if none of it matters in the spirit world. They jump to “there’s no one to blame” in a ignorant kind of bypass of human suffering.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
These issues, their careful resolution, the legitimate healing, the actual digestion of pain, matters enormously at the soul level. Trying to side-step it is stupid and a waste of precious time.
Given that we have all of these currents pulling us in various directions, working out the questions of blame for any given issue becomes really challenging. But we cannot heal fully, process our pain fully, nor forgive completely, without untangling these questions. We cannot be in alignment or integrity with our inner selves (the feelings and the mind in solidarity with one another) without doing this complicated work. Our authentic feelings know the truth, and they demand that we become conscious of the truth as well. They also then demand that we transform the mind into a proper unified servant of those feelings…
Learning how to apportion blame the right way, to take full responsibility for ourselves, and to assign blame to the other, when they have caused harm, is a very important part of the healing and maturation process.
I want to make a final note here about a common misconception that prevails about the end of the proverb. A highly evolved person, someone who has been walking this path for a long time and doing all of this work, develops a very keen discernment for evil, for negative intentions, for veiled motives and provocations, and relying on their feeling sense in the body, possesses “right moral vision,” which accurately gauges the morality of any given situation very quickly and intuitively. He possesses an unspoken sense of any given interaction. That means that he assigns proper blame swiftly and sometimes harshly to the wrong-doer, taking quite intense confrontational action when needed, and peaceful restorative action, when that’s appropriate. It is inaccurate to say that he walks around never blaming anyone, as if he can’t discern right from wrong, (although that is the portrait of the blind amoral master some people would prefer and project.). So the proverb is right in one sense, and helps us understand some of this process, but shapes the wrong perception of what spiritual evolution actually looks like at the tail end.