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.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.