No One Wins the Blame Game

By Michael G. Quirke, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Today, during the middle of a busy day at my San Francisco counseling practice, I received a wonderful quote that I knew I just had to share with you.  It was sent to me by a respected colleague and teacher of mine.  As I read these few short sentences on my Blackberry, I was immediately struck by how directly the words applied to me and the people in my practice.

The quote was from Carl Jung, the famous psychologist and disciple of Freud’s.  It said,

“Your vision will become clear when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams.  Who looks inside, awakens.

Wow!

So what do these lovely, mystical sounding sentences that have to do with anger, depression and relationship conflict? Here’s my thought on that.  Over the years, I have seen so many really good people become chronically overtaken by their anger.  Sometimes, we talk about it and I describe it like a trance that takes over consciousness, grabbing hold of your attention and your physiology.

The interesting thing about the “anger trance” is that it is an externally directed one.  When we are angry we are often overly focused on what someone else is doing.  We find it hard to stop and turn inside and consider the internal reasons why we are reacting so strongly. Where there is anger and depression, there is usually blame.

Part of this is a physiological phenomenon.  When we are threatened, we often have what is known as the Fight or Flight response.  This primes our system to move our attention outside. There is a certain sense to this.  After all, we might not escape danger if we can’t take our focus off our internal world of thoughts, feeling and sensations.   When fight or flight dynamics enter the realm of interpersonal relationships it looks like blame.

The downward spiral

You probably have seen it.  When two people are blaming and attacking each other, it never really solves anything.  These types of arguments are usually camouflaged power plays.  Resentment builds and trust weakens.  Someone capitulates and the threat subsides temporarily.   This lack of true cooperation limits the emotional bandwith of the relationship and inevitably eats away at any real feeling of security. Time and time again I have seen this tendency to blame others be the single biggest obstacle for clients in counseling for depression and anger.

So why do I like this quote so much?

This quote gives a very basic and necessary direction to all of us who wish to become mature adults.  It tells us how to undo the anger habit; the automatic, habitual emotional responses that can hijack our bodies and ruin our relationships.  It tells us that if we don’t look inside, we will be living in a dream that may be bizarre and colorful, but doesn’t make much sense.

Finally, this quote also promises an “awakening”.  When we turn our attention inward, take our focus off the other person, and understand the very particular meaning that external events have to us, we awaken from the dream.  When we stop blaming others we begin to take responsibility for our emotional states.  It’s then that we really begin to have choices.  When we continue to be habitually sucked into the blame game, we drive intimacy and connection out of our relationships.  For most of us, this is probably the biggest loss that comes from playing the blame game.

Finally, when we give responsibility for our feelings and actions away to others, we are left progressively more weak and powerless people. We become more dependent on other people and external events. They are what determines our mood. That usually doesn’t feel good for very long!