we counted all our reasons
excuses that we made
we found ourselves some treasure and threw it all away
George Ezra and Joel Pott
There is a perception out there that people go to therapy to complain about their lot in life and blame others for their woes (parents, teachers, religions, politicians…), and thereby to deflect responsibility for their own actions and decisions.
How do I know. Well, for one, I’ve heard it said many times by people with whom I’ve worked or socialized. And I’ve also heard it from nearly every client I have met! Not from the ‘this is my turn to moan’ point of view, but rather from the ‘I’m not going to do what other people do’ angle. It’s pretty obvious that associations of therapy and self-indulgence are deeply entrenched, particularly in British society. (I know friends from the US read some of my blogs. I’m sorry to tell you that ‘it’s all a bit Californian’ is a common refrain!)
I thought it might be worth exploring this perception and the truth as I experience it.
Finger pointing versus handwringing
As a counsellor I can’t say that I’ve never experienced a client pointing a finger at someone else and excusing their own choices and behaviour. I can say that it is very rare. Much more common is the tendency to deny the fault of others and shoulder the blame for things which were obviously well beyond the influence of the client. (If you want an example, I have had many, many clients who have blamed themselves for their parents’ relationship break-ups even if they were literally babes in arms when it happened.)
As a general rule, people don’t go to therapy to address issues with bad luck. They disproportionately attribute their negative experiences to their own decisions, and often to their own existence. As they see it, the problem is almost always with them.
Being selfish versus being aware of your self
So, if clients arrive unwilling to criticize others, does the process of therapy change them into moaners? Does discussing your challenges make you self-indulgent and selfish? I don’t think so. I think it can make you more aware of your ‘self’: of who you really are. As a result, you may become more aware of your own needs. This in turn may lead to the possibility of making decisions which aren’t intended primarily to please others. If up to that point the decisions which have shaped your life have been made for the sake of others, then any changes in outlook could be perceived as more self-centred. These decisions may actually be the first the client has ever made that showed any regard for themselves. People looking from the outside, who are used to selflessness and sacrifice may well perceive the shift as negative… particularly if they stop benefitting so much.
Whether you attend counselling or not, I think it’s interesting to reflect on the idea of blame. Who do we blame, why do we blame… and what is the point?
So, who do you blame?
When misfortunes plague you, what is your first thought? Do you look to see who’s fault it was, other than you? Or you do just accept responsibility for such common mishaps if they were under your control?
People’s response to misfortune varies widely and not everyone indulges in the ‘blame game’. Like most things in life, our characteristic responses tend to be somewhere on a spectrum.
At one extreme we find the people who always find someone else to blame. (You run out of petrol because your partner didn’t fill up the tank when they last drove the car; your marriage fell apart because your wife was controlling and didn’t accept your need to reduce your golf handicap; you slip over on the pavement because the council don’t clear up the autumn leaves soon enough.) These people don’t accept blame. They don’t take responsibility, but they may take credit! It doesn’t take a genius to look around at high profile figures and spot these patterns.
At the other extreme are people who blame themselves for everything bad that happens in their lives, even when they obviously had nothing to do with an unfortunate outcome. (Interestingly, they also take credit for little or none of the good outcomes in their lives.) A cynic may suggest this is just false modesty, but it usually isn’t. Some people do believe that they cause every bad thing all or most of the time. In my experience people somewhere towards this end of the spectrum make up a high proportion of those who eventually seek help; usually turning up after years of being worn down by the constant self-criticism with which they live.
Most of us sit somewhere on this spectrum, and our responses to particular situations my shift from one side to the other. As with most things, our tendency to take or attribute blame tends to become a problem the further towards the ends of the spectrum we are and the more embedded the pattern has become.
Attribution – debit where debit is due
In psychology-speak, the issue of blame is closely related to the concept of attribution. Attribution is simply about where you lay the responsibility for good or bad fortune. There are many aspects to attribution. Carol Dweck looked at Attribution theory in education. She found that one’s attribution had a significant impact on motivation. She found that roughly equal proportions of the population attribute positive outcomes with their work ethic or their innate ‘talent’ (or lack of). This has a profound impact on response to feedback and educational outcomes. I won’t go into more detail here, but her work is fascinating and tells us a lot about how best to talk to our own children.
One intriguing aspect of Dweck’s work is that she found out that some people attribute success to internal, stable factors (I’m smart and I’ll always be smart) and misfortune to external, unstable factors (I was unlucky or my teacher was rubbish and it won’t always be like that); whilst others attribute success to external unstable factors (I worked really hard and I won’t be so lucky next time) and failure to internal, stable factors (I’m just stupid!) Can you spot yourself?
Fascinatingly, Dweck also found that these attributions matched pretty well with genders. It seems likely that something in the way we bring up girls encourages intense reflection and insecurity whilst boys are often raised immune to self-criticism. Of course, these characteristics aren’t uniform. I know many men who are very self-aware and sensitive to their impact on those around them and I know women who appear to have impenetrable self esteem and don’t accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. We may not like all of the conclusions, but Dweck’s research was robust and influential.
Linked to what I’ve just described is the tendency to blame yourself when something goes wrong. This may be due to so-called internal attributions for failure. You see yourself as inept, foolish, or irresponsible. In my experience this is very common across the population and particularly so amongst minority groups and those with disabilities (visible or invisible.)
Fundamental attribution error is an example of a Heuristic. This is a kind of psychological/emotional short cut; a set of assumptions, based on our awareness of the world around us, which we use to make quick decision. Heuristics are useful in, for instance, assessing the risk in crossing a road or walking down a dark street at night. We have a sense of how good an idea this might be before we engage our conscious brain. Fundamental attribution error is a shortcut which allows us to pull out in front of another car and blame it on unavoidable circumstances then see someone else pulling out in front of us as being an expression of their arrogance!
By now it won’t surprise you that I see far more of the former than the latter in the counselling room. But why do we develop these patterns? As with everything, opinions differ, but I think it is useful to consider these patterns as learned behaviours. At some point in our development (inevitably, it starts early) we learn how to attribute circumstances. We may pick up the habits of our parents or carers, which allows us to fit in with our home culture, or we may develop defences (denial, deflection, projection) to shield our egos from the attack which comes with taking responsibility. Once we have established a typical response, every day offers opportunities to practice it until it becomes almost instinctive… like a conditioned reflex to situations.
And why do people blame others?
As with all of our behaviours, blaming others serves purpose.
1. It’s an excellent defence mechanism. Blame helps us hold onto our own self-esteem by avoiding awareness of our own flaws or failings.
2. It’s easier to blame someone or something else than to take responsibility.
3. Blaming someone else can make us feel like we’ve solved a problem (the problem is ‘them’). In reality, we may not have engaged at all with the issue and consequences.
4. Blaming can be a form of lying. Consciously not accepting responsibility for our actions can work (don’t tell politicians… ok, they already know!)
5. It’s a useful weapon in an argument (as above!)
Blaming puts the problem in someone else’s court. If you don’t have any problems, you probably won’t bother to pay a therapist to not help sort them out! If your default position is blaming yourself, there’s a pretty good chance that you feel responsible for far beyond your influence, have low self-esteem and lose or avoid arguments, even when you are probably right.
But I suspect I digress, and the last thing I’d want to happen is to be accused of wasting people’s time! Social media offers great opportunities for people to finger point and blame others for affecting their lives in small ways; check any comments section. If you’ve read this far and feel it hasn’t been helpful or interesting… who’s fault is that?...Back to the plot.
Why does his matter?
I find it interesting that people still say therapy is a forum for self-indulgence and whingeing. Almost without exception* they are not therapists. They can’t possibly be coming from a place of uninformed prejudice… can they? If not, then where does their knowledge of what goes on in confidential counselling sessions come from? One can only reasonably assume it comes from what they fantasise about saying to a therapist, or from the only counselling sessions they could have experienced… their own! In my experience, those who assume that therapy is one long excuse-fest are quite far from the mark. If you want to meet people who readily blame those around them for their difficulties, there are far better places to look than a therapist’s office.
Despite incredible progress in destigmatising mental health issues in recent years, this negative attitude towards therapy and those who seek it still pervades many areas of our society (often within the mind, and out of the mouths, of people who look disturbingly like me!) This deters those who need it from seeking help, so it is damaging to the wellbeing of others. I think inherent in such an attitude is a negative view of humanity. The grandfather of modern counselling, Carl Rogers, firmly believed in the goodness of people. He argued that people have an ‘actualising tendency’, an instinct towards self-growth and personal development. For him, the task of a counsellor was to be empathic, honest and, crucially, to see the best in the person sitting in front of them. In my experience, seeing the best is far easier for the counsellor than for most clients. Most sorely underestimate their worth, rather than assuming they are being held back by circumstance.
*The exception being Dr Max Pemberton, an intriguing figure who manages to balance being an NHS psychiatrist with writing in some of the most poisonous rags in Britain. He has been known to criticise the impact of therapy whilst working day-to-day alongside people who happily monetise blame.