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Why People Blame, Shame, and Criticize

How many of us have been on the receiving end of another person’s attempt to blame, shame, or criticize us? How does it impact us? Do we get defensive and try to turn the tables on them so they feel all those things? Do we take it in and believe that we are unworthy, that we deserve to be attacked? Are we able to respond with some form of listening that acknowledges their feelings but stay clear that it is just their opinion and not some kind of truth?

We live in a world where criticizing with undercurrents of blaming and attempted shaming is more the norm than rare. Why has the world become cold, calloused, and mean? Social media gives people license to attack others, maybe because the person can’t see the wounded look in the other person’s eyes. Decades ago, it seemed the world was gentler and more willing to appreciate another’s perspective, allowing differences of opinions without the need for some kind of verbal attack.

The person who comes to mind for me is Senator John MaCain. A brief biography from Wikipedia: John Sidney McCain III (August 29, 1936 – August 25, 2018) was an American politician and United States Navy officer who served as a United States senator from Arizona from 1987 until his death in 2018. He previously served two terms in the United States House of Representatives and was the Republican nominee for president of the United States in the 2008 election, which he lost to Barack Obama.

YASCHA MOUNK in a 2016 article entitled “The Right Kind of Partisan” says the following: “But the epitome of McCain’s political decency came at the height of his 2008 presidential campaign. At a town hall meeting a few days before the election, a voter said that he was scared what would happen to his country if Barack Obama was elected. ‘First of all,” McCain emphasized, ‘I want to be president of the United States and obviously I do not want Senator Obama to be.’ Then he pivoted. ‘But I have to tell you: He is a decent person, and a person who you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States.’” 

The article goes on to say, “That is why McCain was not a bi- or even non-partisan patriot, as some misremember him. Rather, he represented something we need much more urgently: a decent partisan, who was animated by his conviction about how to change the country, and yet deeply respectful of the people with whom he disagreed.”

I am concerned for our young people who witness so much blaming, shaming, and criticizing all around them. What is our society modeling? What messages are they receiving? What have they learned about how to treat others? 

If children feel blamed, shamed, or criticized, or even if they felt parents’ disapproval or rejection, the all-important secure attachment process does not occur and children can feel isolated and abandoned.

In a Psychology Today article “Why we’re prone to shaming others—and getting shamed ourselves.” The article states that “The younger we were, the more likely that, regardless of any extenuating circumstances or our parents having unrealistic expectations of us, we were made to feel inadequate, stupid, incompetent—in a word, ashamed. We felt not good enough. And the very essence of shame is the sense that there’s something irreparably bad or defective about us…In short, over time we became sensitized to criticism, frequently even in its milder forms. And as we grew older we developed defenses to safeguard all that remained insecure about our self-image, needing to devise ways of contesting what we came to regard as onslaughts on it.”

In another article entitled author Arash Emamzadeh asks the question: “Have you ever wondered why some individuals blame others for their own shortcomings, mistakes, or misfortunes?”

He concludes that “Perhaps it’s because blaming others is a defense mechanism—an unconscious process that protects the finger-pointer and blame-shifter from experiencing unpleasant feelings, such as guilt or shame…Blaming is usually considered part of the defense mechanism called projection, which involves denying one’s own anxiety-provoking or negative characteristics and seeing them instead in others.”

Whatever the reason, I hope we can all consider how much blaming, shaming and criticizing goes on all around us, how it negatively impacts our young people, and how it’s possible to learn from John McCain – how we can be respectful even when we disagree without having to blame, shame, or criticize the other person.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Can you recall a time when you felt blamed, shamed or criticized by someone? How did that impact you?
  2. Was blaming, shaming, criticism, rejection or even abandonment something that happened to you in your childhood? If so, how has that impacted you now as an adult regarding blaming, shaming and criticizing?
  3. Are there things now that you might want to share with the young people in your life to encourage them to learn why blaming, shaming and criticizing are unhealthy and unfair and that instead we all need to learn how to be more respectful even in those times when we disagree with someone?