The Name, Blame, Shame or Guilt Game

Blame or shame. Male hand flips wooden cubes and changes the inscription 'shame' to 'blame' or vice versa.

We live in a world where we label, identify and categorize pretty much everything about life.

Two interesting categories: facts and opinions. Facts are provable, evidenced-based data. They should be irrefutable until someone comes along with a new set of facts that contradict existing ones.

To organize facts, we create categories under which each falls: facts about people, facts about investments and taxes, facts about the weather and so on.

Even as we are categorizing the world, we ascribe traits and responsibilities to those facts. For example, deciding that people are basically selfish or are basically kind, illogical, thoughtful, challenging, and so forth. With regard to investments or taxes: “The best way to invest is…” or “The way you should manage your taxes is….”  With regard to the weather, we make definitive statements that today is “beautiful,” “perfect” or “miserable.”   These are all opinions, although they often are stated as facts.

When we name or label something, it sometimes is a factual statement and sometimes it is an opinion meant to influence a belief. “15% of the population has been vaccinated” is a fact in that it can be verified scientifically – and subject to change as more people are vaccinated. “Healthcare workers are dedicated to getting as many vaccines in people’s arms as is possible” is an observation that ascribes motivations, which are descriptive and at the same time are someone’s belief rather than factual.

Why does all this matter?

Facts that then are labeled and categorized often become translated into messages that, whether intended or not, can place blame on someone, producing a sense of responsibility, leading to feelings of guilt and shame. Think about the differences between feelings of sadness, grief and loss that occur because something has happened that has been taken away: someone has died, someone has lost their job, someone is facing a major surgery and therefore their lifestyle is being radically changed. These are losses that produce emotional reactions with varying degrees of intensity.

The interesting shift occurs when a person moves from experiencing the sadness connected with a loss to ascribing responsibility and therefore blaming somebody, often themselves, or something for that loss. Blaming typically means someone is at fault, has done something wrong or bad, has shirked a responsibility resulting in a negative outcome or even was intentional about causing someone pain.

I suggest that especially in these times of overwhelming confusion, chaos, fear, stress, pressure, sadness and loss that we differentiate between our grief – “I am so sad” – and the propensity to blame – “This is my fault.”  While there certainly are times we need to be held, and hold ourselves appropriately accountable, we also need to explain, not excuse, our mistakes.

Sorrow and sadness can weigh us down but the weight of blame, guilt and shame, often placed on us unfairly, especially when we do it to ourselves, can be unbearable. To differentiate: guilt is “I did something bad” whereas shame is “I am intrinsically bad.”

It is important to differentiate between our sadness and these tendencies to find fault in others or ourselves. Yes, there are times to take responsibility for our mistakes but how fair is it to expect constant perfection?  Maybe we need to lighten up because unfair pressure, demands and expectations can push us beyond our human capacity to function.

Extending the grace that says we all make mistakes, we all are fallible, we are human is a fairness we all deserve to give others and ourselves. 

Then there is the subject of forgiveness, but I will save that for another blog.      

 Invitation for Reflection:

  1. Do you resonate with the idea that there are distinct and important differences between naming, blaming, guilting and shaming someone, especially when whatever they did that caused a problem or hurt someone is understandable?
  2. How might you respond when things around you go wrong? Do you blame yourself? Feel like something is your fault? Or do you allow yourself to feel sad but not responsible?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute