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Why blame is so unhealthy

09 Dec 2013

Pauline had lived with an ever-present sense that she was not good enough. She took on too much responsibility for things that were not hers to take. A highly successful businesswoman who presented herself as a highly confident, tough character she would often break out into terrible bouts of self doubt. Over several sessions we explored her relationship with her mother. Pauline’s grandparents were immigrants and in order to make ends meet they’d worked every hour they could. Pauline’s mother had felt abandoned by them and from these experiences she developed a victim mentality. To this young abandoned girl the evidence was clear: the world was against her right from the start. She would trace her unhappiness to these events and her parents response to them. In adulthood when things went wrong, when she felt low, the world, society and the people in society were to blame. Subsequently, when she became a mother to Pauline, she tied her happiness to that of her daughter. She became dependent on her daughter in an indirect, passive way. Pauline’s mother was what psychologists call passive dependent. Pauline was now responsible for her mother’s happiness because her mother refused to take that responsibility. Pauline remembered occasions were her mother would wake her up in the middle of night: “You’ve upset me, and if I can’t sleep then I don’t see why you should.” And her mother would become angry when seemingly innocent questions in fact turned out to be traps, set to test her daughter’s ability to mind read her, the inability to do so evidence that she didn’t care for her daughter and so her mother’s feeling’s could be transferred without guilt on to her daughter. On leaving home the physical distance made the passive dependency less of a burden. Yet, throughout her twenties, whenever Pauline was unable to make a family get together her mother’s old habit still reared up, and rather than dealing with the sadness from her own disappointment herself, she blamed her daughter. “Friends won’t always be around when you need them but family will, only this family might not be around for you for much longer!” Pauline was in effect being asked to take responsibility for someone else’s happiness when it was not hers to take. Indeed, whenever a parent says: “Make your parents proud” or “Make your father a happy man,” they’re burdening their child with unfair responsibility. The same is true when parents become competitive about their children’s achievements; they’re indirectly saying to their children that the family’s honour and status is hanging on the child’s actions. And it was only when Pauline confronted her mother did things start to change. She made it clear to her mother she would no longer tolerate being responsible for her mother’s emotions and bad moods. She then backed this up by threatening not to see her mother again if the emotional blackmail continued, which eventually, after a great deal of stress and suffering, it did. At work she started to step back from over protecting her team and take the blame for instances when it was clear other team members were at fault. This gave her team the room they need to make mistakes and face the responsibility of them, and it lifted an enormous mental strain on Pauline freeing her to lead rather than molly-coddle. 


‘Neurotic’ behaviour is also evident in the workplace, a common occurrence with managers is that they take on responsibility for their reports success and happiness, become overprotective of their team when criticised and take on too much responsibility for failings of their reports. And when a neurotic person is being managed by a character-disordered manager then this is when bullying starts, the former’s inability to stand up to the latter fuelling the latter’s aggression. In these cases, both parties need help not just the bully but the bullied with his/her ability to come to terms with their personal rights and responsibility, the first step towards pushing back, being assertive and confident.      

Pauline’s mother and David are all typical of people with character disorders. It is the world not them that’s broken and needs fixing. Yet it is a fine line between blaming others and situations, and blaming ourselves. Some, like Pauline take on too much responsibility for things out of their control or for the failings of others; they blame themselves too much and are said to be neurotic and will invariably suffer from low self belief. The line between a character-disordered and neurotic person is a narrow one, and most of us invariably take on too much or too little personal responsibility to varying degrees depending on different situations.

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