The Therapeutic Role of Blame

Megan Wildhood
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2114

I attended a lot of trainings as a case manager that are intended to help me interact with people better. Many of the communication exercises and strategies taught at these trainings have the aim of avoiding at all costs making the person you’re working with feel blamed. When it comes to victims of abuse, oppression, disenfranchisement and the various ways capitalism parses those who are “worthy” of survival and those who can be discarded, this is the way we all — not just service providers, but humans in general — should proceed. But blame can actually have a necessary role not only in human relationships but in justice.

Dr. Brené Brown says that blame is “just the discharge of anger and pain” and that “we know from the research that it has an inverse relationship with accountability.” When we define blame as just the discharge of anger and pain, it makes sense that it would have an “inverse relationship with accountability.” But sometimes, it’s actually really important to know whose fault something is. If we don’t take that step, we can end up taking on or allowing others to assign responsibility that isn’t ours. Not only that, but real, enduring change won’t happen if we’re too afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings to call them out when they need to called out.

In my last post, I reported how vital it is for me that those who want to be close to me, who want to help me, need to be able to call a spade a spade and name abuse or mistreatment when you see it. Essentially, I need people to not shy away from “blaming” someone. No one involved in what happened with my church, which included people in leadership higher up the denominational chain, was willing to blame the people who were actually responsible, and so at the end of the day the person left carrying the blame was me. The people actually responsible were my pastor, who chose to harbor inappropriate feelings for me for four and a half years while presenting himself as an effective counselor and as someone who was capable of providing fair and helpful pre-marital counseling to me and my husband, and his wife, who knew about the feelings that deeply compromised her husband’s ability to help me or my marriage (not to mention really wounded their marriage). Because no one was willing to state that it was their fault, a vacuum was created: someone actually did do something wrong and since fault wasn’t being placed on the appropriate people, I got treated like it was my fault.

I lived with a couple on the elder’s team my final year of college and the husband of that couple became like a father figure to me. He acted like he cared about me very much and I learned to trust him. After my pastor told me he had a crush on me and blamed me for it, the first people I told were this couple. That was basically the last time I spoke with either of them, besides the drive-by-relationship crap that is texting people on their birthday after not speaking to them the entire rest of the year and not responding when they attempt to go beyond such self-serving shallowness. The wife texts me. The husband doesn’t talk to me at all. He actually believes I gave the pastor Stockholm Syndrome, which he wouldn’t tell me to my face but only to my best friend after she tried to follow up and figure out why everyone at this church stopped talking to me as if they simply couldn’t wait for the day I would leave. Stockholm Syndrome is “feelings of trust or affection felt in many cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking by a victim toward a captor.” This is the epitome of victim-blaming. The pastor is the one with the feelings of inappropriate affection, which was not a hostage situation at all. I, not the pastor, was the victim. There is no “captor” other than the pain and grief I feel to this day over losing nearly everyone in the city I was in who I thought loved me, all at once, and the lack of interest anyone has in rightly resolving it.

When the right people are not blamed, when fault is not placed on the right people, innocent people are left vulnerable and alone. They may also begin to question their ability to trust their own feelings and perceptions. When you refuse to blame the people who are legitimately at fault, you gaslight the people their actions are injuring, piling on additional hurt and making it much harder for the wounded to heal. I didn’t ever question whether I was to blame for my pastor’s actions or the way the church handled that situation. I knew my pastor was wrong and I knew the response from the church leadership was wrong. But I did start to question myself, and my ability to judge right and wrong, because of a different situation that happened about a year after we had to leave the church and how it was handled.

A few nights after my sister, who was 24, got engaged, my parents had her fiancé’s family over for dinner. My husband and I were visiting from out of state because it was near Christmas so my mom invited us to that dinner. But she also gave us an option of going out on a date, having a break from the family without being rude. We chose to go out — we went to a restaurant I’d missed since moving away, and found one of the only bowling alleys left near where I grew up. When we came back around 10 that night, everyone was still sitting around the table. My parents have gone to bed much earlier than that since I was in high school but that wasn’t the only odd thing. There was alcohol in our house, which I don’t recall happening much, if at all, when I was a kid.

My mom invited us to sit down at the table, which I felt uncomfortable doing, but I didn’t want to be rude or make a bad impression. It seemed like my sister had had too much to drink and no one was really stopping it but I tried to focus on getting to know her fiancé’s brother. Clean-up began happening about 15 minutes later and I felt obligated to help rather than go upstairs to the room we were staying in. As I was gathering leftover food to package up and Tetris into the fridge, my sister confronted me and revealed the anger and resentment I’d known she’d felt towards me for a very long time. I wouldn’t eat the rest of the salad because it had black pepper on it, which I’m allergic to, like my sister wanted me to so it wouldn’t take up room in the fridge. I refused to eat it and tried to push it aside without arguing with her. She got in front of me and shoved me backwards as she was saying, “I am so much stronger than you, bitch.” Then she started laughing and went back into the dining room to “clean up” the rest of the alcohol. My parents, my brother and my husband all witnessed this and said nothing.

My dad said we’d talk about it in the morning, which I knew wasn’t going to happen unless I made it happen and I was tired of doing that sort of thing. The next day, I made plans to have lunch with an old friend from high school. When I returned to the house, my mom came up to the room I was staying in and invited me to the family dinner planned for that evening as it was the last evening everyone was in town for the holidays. She asked me not to “make a scene” if I do decide to come.

“You mean my standing up for myself after getting pushed and swore at in front of my own family who said nothing?”

“Well, there are two sides to every story.” Then my mom seriously tried to defend my sister by saying that she probably heard the B-word on TV.

“If she’s impressionable enough to think TV is reality, then why was she deemed mature enough to be allowed access to alcohol?”

“It was her choice” was all my mom said.

“Is that why there was no follow-up like Dad said there would be?”

“Well, you weren’t here.” My mom did that thing with her eyes that I’ve learned means impatience approaching exasperation. I grew up being the recipient of that for things like not brushing my teeth when she asked me to or needing emotional support. “Plus, your dad and I aren’t responsible for your relationship with your sister.”

“I didn’t leave until well after noon. There was plenty of time for someone to take initiative before then.” But I started to wonder if maybe I should have been the one to initiate. After all, it was my situation. Shouldn’t I be the one who decides what happens?

I remained upset and confused about this for more than a year, which didn’t help break the ingrained pattern my family has of blaming the most emotional one in the room regardless of who actually did what. The most emotional person in the room, the one carrying the stress of the system in family-systems speak, was almost always me; everyone else had bought into the unconscious training my family put all of its members through that says emotions are bad and being the bigger person means walking away no matter how big of a mess you leave behind.

I couldn’t explain to my parents why I remained upset and confused for a number of years. Finally, during a fight with my mom about it, I figured it out. She was focusing on how much of a problem it was that I was blaming her more than anything else I was saying.

“You’re telling me I’m not allowed to tell you when you did something wrong because blame hurts your feelings?” It’s not just my family that makes emotions about a problem the problem rather than the actual problem. Our culture would rather scapegoat angry people than deal with what they’re very often legitimately angry about. “We have to protect people’s feelings over taking responsibility now?”

I tried to explain to her that there were multiple issues going on here. It wasn’t that I thought my parents were responsible for my relationship with my sister — we were grown adults, the age I thought when I was a teenager that we might start becoming friends. But they were responsible for helping us work out our issues as children, and there clearly were issues. The kind of rage and disdain the alcohol unmasked in my sister a few nights before Christmas that year does not come out of nowhere. Alcohol lowers one’s inhibitions; it doesn’t cause people to make things up entirely. They had failed to help us work out whatever had been going on between us since we were too young to understand what it was. Instead, they assumed we had the capability as children to take adult-sized responsibility and let us work out our issues on our own. They never had the power to make us like each other, but when you have children, you are committing to give them the tools they need to grow into adults, and one of the most important ones is how to build, nurture and, when necessary, repair relationships with other people. Friendships may happen naturally, but they don’t last naturally, not even with siblings. And maybe it’s not meant to be that everyone becomes friends with their siblings, but the level of rage my sister clearly carries for me means there is a reason we won’t be becoming friends; that our not speaking to each other and the failure of my efforts to form a friendship with her as an adult are not neutral.

The other issue I tried to bring up with my mom was that, regardless of the relationship or failure of relationship I have with my sister, I was shoved and sworn at in front of them and they didn’t stand up for me. “There are two sides to every story” may be true, but it’s not an excuse to not even bother to learn either one of them. It was extremely hurtful that they just opted out and felt like neutrality was even an option, let alone appropriate, but my mom wasn’t able to hear that above her complaints that I was “blaming” her. Yes, I was. She didn’t stand up for me when she saw what might have started a fight had it happened in a bar. She wasn’t open to even considering that she may have had a role in the lack of relationship my sister and I have as adults, which, between my sister and I, only I seem to be grieving. She thought the problem was the blame. She just didn’t want to be blamed.

I wasn’t able to let this situation go enough to write about it without accusation and anger until I stopped blaming myself entirely and gave some of the blame to my mom. Yes, there are reasons my sister doesn’t like me, some of which are my fault, some of which are her misperceptions. Yes, as adults, we are responsible for whatever our relationship or lack thereof looks like and I believe I have done what I could to repair, or maybe build for the first time, the relationship with her. I remain open to it, I just don’t know what else I can do; you cannot force relationship, even with flesh and blood. And yes, I didn’t have to stick around to help clean up that night my sister shoved me and called me a bitch. It wasn’t my party. I could have gone up to the room my husband and I were staying in and gone to bed. That option didn’t occur to me at the time because I have a wicked case of Oldest Child Syndrome — but it also doesn’t mean, like I felt for years that it did, that I brought this on myself.

It’s not indiscriminate blame I’m advocating for; blame by itself doesn’t solve anything. But failing to blame the right people really only serves the purpose of avoiding blame, which is really about people who fail wanting to avoid the difficult feelings of guilt and remorse. My parents avoided blame, my sister avoided blame, the pastor at my old church avoided blame (and of course, psychiatrists and therapists regularly avoid blame, which I’ll discuss in my next blog). But they also avoided the consequences of their actions or inactions, and left most of the pain to fall on me, which isn’t fair even if I did have an equal part to play in those situations. No one likes to be blamed but that doesn’t mean it should be avoided. Even if it is simply “the discharge of pain and anger,” pain and anger need to be discharged. If they’re discharged appropriately, such as at the people who bear true responsibility, healing and release can happen.

This often doesn’t happen, though. When you focus on not assigning blame, you amputate accountability, perpetuate our culture of victim blaming (which is when people in power mess up and use their power to outsource the consequences of their actions to the people they hurt) and increase the chances of injustice and injury recurring. We shouldn’t take on blame when we didn’t do anything wrong, but we also shouldn’t avoid blaming when there is something wrong. Otherwise, we also avoid truly fixing it.

16 COMMENTS

  1. Seems like our society as a whole assigns the blame to the one who’s “too” emotional, speaks unpleasant truths, or is weaker than the rest. These are usually those who “lose it” from stress and get punished for it by shrinks and others. 🙁

  2. Thank you, Megan, interesting subject you brought up. Also, I am sorry for the pain that others have caused you. You seem like a smart, honest and compassionate person which probably makes you a target for those without those traits.

    Misplaced anger and lack of accountability is rampant in our society including with therapists, psychiatrists, politicians, religious organizations as well as within some families. A sincere apology is almost a sign of weakness in our culture instead of it being one of courage, strength and humility. It helps us grow to take accountability of our words and actions. No one is perfect and we all make mistakes. I do believe in forgiveness even if the person who wronged me never apologizes, though that does not mean I would put myself again in position of being hurt again by that person nor even in a relationship with that individual if I could avoid it.

  3. Well, I suppose I’ll start my comment with a judgy aside: “Special occasions” are packed with petty pressures. They DO NOT mix with booze!!! My special occasions have been substance-free for years. If you *really* want to let the good times roll, don’t jeopardize them with poison. Most of your guests are people you see infrequently. On any given day, they’ll carry burdens that you’ll never see and never try to fix. So, don’t force them to “moderate” their consumption of your “treats”. Celebrations can not accommodate the testing of human limits. They’re meant to be joyful events, not scrutinizing ones. To acquire the former, you’ll have to ditch the latter.

    And Ms. Wildhood was right – Mom and Pop set this mess in motion long ago. Honestly, it seems like Sis sat on too much resentment for way too long. If she’d been raised to speak when she was hurting, she wouldn’t have tried, in vain, to drown her feelings. A better family would have encouraged her to speak by herself, for herself, regardless of the outcome. By the age of 24, one should not still feel compelled to undercut their efforts to manage their relationships. Megan’s sister MUST find a way to break that habit. Otherwise, she’s doomed to lose her marriage, along with everything else in her life.

    The same can be said for Megan. She also paid the price for that boozed-fueled engagement dinner. When people get invited to parties, they expect to be welcomed or asked to leave. They shouldn’t expect any less than that, even if they’re feuding with the host. As resentful as Megan’s sister was, you really have to wonder if she ever wanted Megan at her dinner. I wouldn’t put it past Mom and Pop to guilt-trip Megan’s sister into adding Megan’s name to the guest list. The drama totem is high in this family, and those two clowns are at the top of it. Megan may not be owed an apology from her sister and brother, but she’s probably owed one from her parents. Their antics were outrageous and deeply hurtful, and they shouldn’t be repeated. Neither sister deserves to go through this again.

  4. I, too, had a problem with a pastor who I had just met. I didn’t understand why he was behaving so rudely at the time, my father had been in charge of his religion’s pension funds for years and had made that religion millions. I ended up agreeing to talk to a therapist about our interpersonal problems. I had hoped she’d help us work out the problem. I didn’t know at the time that the religions had entered into a faustian deal with the “mental health” workers long ago.

    The “mental health” workers’ job is to “blame” any person who has interpersonal problems with a pastor, for any reason. But especially when, as it turned out in my case, that pastor wanted to cover up the sexual assault of my child by his best friends (and likely also that pastor, since child rapists “often share their victims”).

    That therapist denied the problem, blamed me for my child’s new found difficulties, misdiagnosed me, and had me massively poisoned, via anticholinergic toxidrome. The medical evidence of the abuse of my child was finally handed over by some decent and disgusted nurses in my PCP’s office, three and a half years later. My PCP and her husband were then kicked out of that medical practice, since everyone in that office had become aware of their malpractice.

    None of the mandatory reporters (psychiatrists, psychologists, doctors, pastors, school social workers, etc.) reported the abuse. The police and CPS refused to investigate, when I reported I’d been handed over medical evidence of the abuse of my child. I was able to terrify the school, who had the child molester on their school board, into closing it’s doors forever, out of fear of a lawsuit. Ironically that school closed it’s doors forever on 6.6.06.

    A subsequent ethical pastor eventually confessed that my family had dealt with “the dirty little secret of the two original educated professions.” And there is medical evidence of the truth of the systemic child abuse covering up crimes of our “mental health” workers.

    https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2019/01/23/18820633.php?fbclid=IwAR2-cgZPcEvbz7yFqMuUwneIuaqGleGiOzackY4N2sPeVXolwmEga5iKxdo
    https://www.madinamerica.com/2016/04/heal-for-life/

    The role of our “mental health” workers is to “blame” the wrong person. The child molesters should be blamed, arrested, and convicted for their crimes. The “mental health” workers should get out of the business of blaming the child abuse survivors and their families, misdiagnosing them, poisoning them, and attempting to murder them.

    I do so hope to see an end to this “dirty little secret of the two original educated professions” soon. And I will just mention that one of the flaws in the logic of betraying an artist in this manner, is that artists get their frustrations out via their paintings.

    And so they will end up with a “too truthful” portfolio of work poignantly – and frighteningly for the child abuse covering up “mental health” workers and the religions – describing the crimes committed against that artist’s family. “A picture paints a thousand words,” after all. And a portfolio of paintings tells a very compelling story.

    In this insane and very divisive world in which we live, where Spirit cooking and pedophilia art is all the rage with our self proclaimed “elite.” I would imagine the work of us Spirit led, anti-child abuse artists should have a place in the art history books as well. Since I do not believe the majority of people in this country think raping children is a good thing. Only time will tell, however.

    In the “culture war,” of good vs evil, that is going on in our country. In which our religions have chosen to be on the side of evil, which is shameful.

    https://books.google.com/books?id=xI01AlxH1uAC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
    https://virtueonline.org/lutherans-elca-texas-catastrophe-coming-lesson-episcopalians

    We all need to hope and pray that good eventually overtakes the evil. It’s a shame our religions and the “mental health” workers have chosen to be on the side of evil. Anyone dealing with any kind of child abuse should stay as far away from the “mental health” workers as possible. Since today NO “mental health” worker may EVER bill ANY insurance company for EVER helping ANY child abuse survivor EVER.

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-child-does-not-have-bipolar-disorder/201402/dsm-5-and-child-neglect-and-abuse-1

    And today’s “mental health” workers will not just deny your legitimate concerns. They will misdiagnose you, since they cannot bill to help you, then they will attempt to murder you with their neurotoxic drugs. A toxidrome is a medically known form of poisoning, and poisoning a person is a form of attempted murder. And both the antidepressants and the antipsychotics can create anticholinergic toxidrome.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toxidrome

    We also need to start blaming the religions and “mental health” workers who are committing these systemic crimes against millions and millions of child abuse survivors, and their families. The, primarily child abuse covering up, “mental health” system is not just scientifically fraudulent and “invalid,” it’s a downright satanic system.

    And I for one, think it’s insanely stupid to believe that an industry that has spent over a century profiteering off of covering up child abuse, will all of a sudden change their ways 100%, and start actually helping child abuse survivors.

  5. It might be a talent best learned in childhood, how to bring what’s on the inside to the outside so that it improves things instead of making them worse. I never learned it, my parents, I think, thought they should teach me how to behave so I would be successful in life, at the cost of keeping it all in, which hasn’t worked out very well.

    • You said a mouthful! I think that is the real key to good parenting – to teach kids that it’s OK to be who they are and it’s safe to bring up stuff that is uncomfortable. Of course, kids need a lot of guidance and love, but it is so important for them to be able to “bring what’s inside to the outside.” In fact, that sounds like a great title for a book!

  6. Megan, I can relate so much to the family dynamics you describe and the destructiveness to the self that happens when one is scapegoated for the family dysfunction. Kudos to you for standing up for yourself, as hard as that is. I hope you and your sister are able to both recognize and resolve your issues and restore a loving sisterly bond. I haven’t spoken with my sisters in a very long time and that brings a different kind of pain I wouldn’t wish upon you.

    Thank you for sharing more of your story and for the message to place blame where it belongs rather than shrinking from the idea that anyone could be to blame. When you’re on the receiving end of misplaced blame, it’s so important to take your story back and own your own life’s narrative. And it’s wonderful to model that for others whenever possible, as you’ve so eloquently done here.

  7. Wow. Really hits home. I was always “the good kid”, high achiever, while my older (only sibling) sister was in trouble from a young age. Drinking, drugs, violence….all funded by my father. Knowingly. Small Town; everyone knew. I was her nemesis because I was “successful”, even though I ended up disabled by Zoloft at 39 and losing everything.

    I tried, for years, to convince my dad to cut off the funds for drugs because she was going to OD and die. Social worker said the same thing, but he wouldnt. He said to me “that (dying) might be the best thing to happen to her”. I couldn’t believe what I heard. Couldn’t speak.

    Years more of her abusing drugs and me, on his dime (actually hundreds of thousands of dollars over 30+ years). His only response “you should hear how she treats ME”. I left the family for a few years, but ended up going back as I was sick and he was in 90s.

    July of 2017, she was dx with cancer and moved from the house he bought for her to his house I was living in with him. She took over, smoked heavily inside. No relative would come near as I tried to help with her care AND as he got very sick. Still, none of several previously close cousins made any contact as I put up with abuse from both. He was diagnosed with cancer in March of 2018. Decided to not treat, which I thought was a wise decision.

    I eventually had to leave the very harmful and unhealthy situation. I never returned. She died in July. He died a few weeks ago. My 2 dogs died in between.

    I blame him. I blame him for not trying to stop the madness to save face. People think he’s a great stand-up guy, father of the century. Nice house, manipulated others with money, though they never recognized it. None will talk to me because I called him out. I’m left completely alone with absolutely no family left and disabled. Even friends don’t believe or understand what was so bad. She was NOT an addict. She ordered drugs online and partied like people who go out and get drunk on weekends. She was mean. He was mean. But, somehow, I ended up being the bad guy for telling the truth. ONE social worker called it a “circle of crazy” between the two of them.

    The grief is indescribable. People seem to think I shouldn’t be grieving because I didn’t like them. But, I’m grieving the loss of all hope of ever having a healthy family AND the loss of cousins who were more like sisters than my own ever was. I have no kids of my own.

    I know I’m right in how I feel. Should I expect others to support or validate me when their experiences are completely different? I don’t know. I was on the inside. But, losing all of that – after losing my health and career – is unbearable.

    • Of course, you are grieving. It is hard for me to understand how people can be so callous? Is it just because they don’t want to feel the grief themselves? But in any case, it means nothing about you. You’re entitled to feel whatever you feel, and the heck with anyone who says otherwise!

      • Steve, I think there’s more than economics at play in our culture’s embrace of bio-psychiatry. A lot of us are selfish pigs.

        Thanks to the concept of Mental Health we don’t have to pat someone on the back. “Sorry you’re feeling depressed. Let’s discuss it over coffee. Then, if you feel like it have dinner with my family and we’ll watch a movie together.”

        Now we say, “Your depression is a disease like TB or leprosy. Please see a doctor and take meds to fix it. I’m not equipped to deal with you since I’m not a certified professional. And please stay away from my kids in the future.”

          • I don’t think it’s as much approving vs disapproving of certain kinds of behavior as it is naturally self-caring and self-respecting to distance oneself when certain behaviors become exceedingly challenging and have no regard for personal boundaries.

            And what may be challenging for one person is breezy for another, due to familiarity, for one thing, but also because we have diverse sensibilities and varying relationship dynamics, based on from where we come.

            Anger is a human emotion which we all feel at one time or another, and blame is certainly warranted in a corrupt and harming system of oppression and abuse. But chronic hostility and aggression–in whatever form, overt or passive–will definitely push people away, which stands to reason I think.

    • Barbara,
      When you have a set of fucked-up family dynamics that others can’t/won’t/don’t see, it can be hard to get the understanding and validation you need from people close enough to think they know the situation. You are more likely to get that from total strangers– like from some of the folks here.

      Also, grieving the loss of someone you were conflicted with can be much more complicated than grieving someone with whom you had a mutually respectful, loving relationship. I think that’s, in part, because there’s not the repository of good memories that keeps the good things you did share alive for you; it’s slim pickings. You gotta salvage from whatever’s left. Another part is losing the possibility for anything ever to get better, of building something new from the ashes. They die and those dreams die too. And then there’s the question of where to put all those unresolved feelings. Ranting at a headstone just aint the same…

      At least, that has been my experience.

  8. “Our culture would rather scapegoat angry people than deal with what they’re very often legitimately angry about.”

    What a breath of fresh air. I admit I have done my share of displaced blaming. But still, that doesn’t mean every single bit of blaming I’ve done has been transferred to the wrong party.

    I still DO blame Massachusetts General Hospital for willfully, deliberately, and cruelly depriving me of water. I blame them for failing to apologize when they had obviously harmed me. I blame them for denying that it was abuse. I blame them for not admitting fault when it was quite clear I had diabetes insipidus and what they had done could have killed me. I blame them for all their illegal attempts to silence me after it all happened. I blame them for trying to diagnose me with mania and paranoia to discredit me. I blame them for failure to recognize that I was enduring a traumatic reaction from water deprivation. I also blame them for spreading around lies to the general community that I am a dangerous person.

    I credit myself for getting away when I did. I blame myself for acting like a bitch at times and blowing my cool at people who didn’t do anything wrong, simply because I was experiencing traumatic memories. I regret the loss of friendships that happened during those years. Most will not respond when I try to contact them, so I am not able to apologize in a way that will be taken seriously.