Whether in families, workplaces, or courts, finding who’s to blame and what the “appropriate” punishment would be is a central preoccupation when our own needs or those of someone we care about are not met. This habit goes so deep that for many of us it becomes completely automatic to the point of having no awareness that we are doing it.
Even when we wake up to the costs of blaming and want to change this habit, it may take much practice over time to be able to recognize in the moment that we have fallen prey to this persistent pattern. Until then, we will likely have no room to maneuver. Even after years of practice, I still recognize that temptation and it takes some conscious choice to pull my energy inward and away from the other person.
Cultivating self-responsibility and releasing blame is a practice that we can do over time. Initially, we are not likely to even notice that we are blaming someone until after we’ve done it and we become aware of the consequences to us of blaming another. That moment of waking up is of great significance in terms of our capacity, over time, to move closer to where we want to be, so we can create more inner space to notice and more willingness to move towards self-responsibility.
Gentleness toward Self
Perhaps the single most important practice we can cultivate is gentleness towards ourselves when we discover we have, once again, fallen into a pattern or habit of reaction instead of having choice about how to respond. Sadly and ironically, we are more likely to then blame ourselves for blaming rather than open our heart to our own human fallibility and to accepting exactly where we are.
As part of this soft engagement with ourselves, we can become curious to understand why our energy is drawn to blaming. Why is it so important to blame, especially given that it’s against so many other values we are trying to cultivate? What we discover can help us soften towards ourselves even more as we understand that however rewarding self-responsibility can be, it is a strenuous practice. Aside from simply being habitual, blaming others can be tempting because it protects us from the challenge of finding the willingness to take ownership of our needs and reactions.
If we can receive ourselves gently when we blame, our internal organism will naturally want to wake up, because the result of waking up is openness. If we blame ourselves, we are less likely to gravitate toward more waking up. In addition, gentleness toward ourselves prepares us for shifting out of blame toward everyone else and opening to their humanity as well.
Cultivating Empathy for the Person We Blamed
Finding empathy for the person we blame is one of the most difficult practices we can develop. I remember a time when I was in a relationship with someone, let’s call her Nancy, who was addicted to a substance. One time I was in deep trouble and asked Nancy to stay with me instead of reaching for the substance. In response, she became angry at me and walked away. I was so distraught that I most literally couldn’t fall asleep. I lay in bed blaming her for not caring about me. This only increased my agitation, until I decided that since I couldn’t sleep anyway, I might as well engage in finding an empathic understanding of her choice. It was extraordinarily difficult, because my attention was completely filled with the blame. For the first while I didn’t even finish the question I was posing to myself before I was completely engrossed in the blame again. I did it as a form of meditation. Whenever I found my attention wandering off into blame and judgment, I consciously chose to bring it back to the fundamental empathic question: what could possibly have led Nancy to make the choice she made?
Over the next few hours, I was able to stay longer and longer with the question. Toward the end of that night, I finally found an answer, and it was astonishingly simple. Being at the mercy of an addiction meant that Nancy had lost her capacity to choose, in the most literal sense of the word. This insight also helped me understand the anger that came my way. It was, paradoxically, an expression of her care for me. Despite the care, there was no choice, and the anger was about being shown so brutally that there was no choice. It was unbearable, and I was blamed for that experience. Understanding all this was a turning point in that relationship, as well as in my ability to make sense of the experience of addictions.
This dramatic experience was not singular. Over the years I have found time and again that directing my mind and heart toward empathy for another person released me from the suffering caused by judgment and blame.
Reclaiming Our Wanting
Earlier today I was visiting a therapist friend in New York City. She told me about being stuck in her work with a particular couple and asked for my support. It soon became apparent that she’s blaming one of the partners for the difficulties in the relationship. I offered her the practice of empathy for that partner, and she quickly discovered she was too attached to her judgment to be able to open her heart. Seeing this, I suggested that she instead look for the source of the specific judgment in herself. I guided her to look for what she most deeply wants in this situation. Like most of us, she was initially unable to do so, her energy being pulled again and again back into the judgment. Soon it became apparent that she wasn’t only judging the partner; she was also judging herself for not being a better therapist. I asked her if she could find in herself the basic desire to be of service to others which is such a foundational aspect of choosing a career of therapist. She literally chose to shift her position on her chair, as if to look away from the couple, before she could do this. Then, when she was finally able to do so, she found that passion, that core wanting. Her face shifted, and she smiled as she told me of finding an inner glow that was golden. That’s when she was able to soften her heart sufficiently to look at the behaviors of the partner in question and find some understanding for the inordinate suffering that led to their unfortunate choices. The rest was easy.
The Freedom to Choose
As we are about to part, I told my friend about a situation I was quite unhappy about. She immediately “jumped to my rescue” and proceeded to judge the other person in my situation. Rather than experiencing her reaction as support, which is how I know she intended it, I found myself contracting and feeling helpless. These days, support looks more like helping me identify what’s important to me and seeing into the heart of the other rather than fanning any ember of energy that may still be pulled to judge.
Surprised at my response, my friend wondered whether I truly never wanted to blame. Did I really never experience blame as release? I asked her how it was so for her. It was a form of protection, she told me. Somehow she didn’t have to look inside herself, and could instead blame someone else. This is, indeed, the seductive pull of blaming. This is what each of us is called to examine. For myself, I am no longer finding any satisfaction in blaming. I relish, instead, a welcome and refreshing new freedom. I am no longer a slave to the habit of blaming or judging. I am no longer giving my power away. Even when I am pulled in that direction, which is far less often than in the past, I can recover, often within seconds, my knowledge that I can know what I want and take action to move towards it, often through connection, within me and with others. Any momentary self-righteousness that blaming can offer pales in comparison.