Causes Of Stress: Blame

by Doc Orman, M.D.


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This week, I’m highlighting three very common causes of human stress: 

  • Resignation
  • Hope
  • Blame 

In my previous two posts, I talked about resignation and hope.  Today, I’m going to talk about another very common cause of human stress—blame. 

The Blame Game

If you followed this blog throughout the 2011 Holiday Season, you may recall an earlier post where I talked about blame as a common source of holiday stress. In that post I noted that:

“Whenever things go wrong, regardless of the time of year, one of our first automatic impulses is to look for someone or something to blame.  Blaming is so widespread, and so automatic, that we can mistakenly conclude that it’s an appropriate way to respond.”

The truth about blaming, however, is that it’s often based upon faulty thinking.  For example, one form of faulty thinking results when we narrow our field of vision to focus on just the behavior of other people, without taking into account our own role as a cause in the matter. 

Blaming And Either/Or Thinking

As I’ve previously pointed out in this blog, Either/Or Thinking is an extremely common hidden cause of stress for human beings.  Either/Or Thinking can take many different forms.  Two of these forms, Credit/Blame Thinking and Cause/Effect Thinking, are at the heart of our automatic blaming behavior.

Credit/Blame Thinking goes like this:

  • When something good happens, you should look for someone to credit.
  • When something bad happens, you should look for someone to blame.

Cause/Effect Thinking is a bit more problematic:

  • When something (good or bad) happens, something must have caused it.
  • There are causes, and there are effects of those causes.
  • Causes are not effects, and effects are not causes.
  • Therefore, if you identify a cause, it cannot be an effect.
  • And if you identify an effect, it cannot be a cause.

Unilateral Blame

This latter type of Either/Or Thinking leads to a type of faulty thinking I call unilateral blame.  Here again, when we are engaged in unilateral blame, we tend to focus exclusively upon the behaviors of other people, while ignoring any roles we might have played in causing whatever happened.  We can also make the same mistake in the opposite direction.  We can view ourselves as unilaterally to blame for something bad that happened, while at the same time denying or refusing to acknowledge the causative roles that others may have played.

Either way, we often end up with a distorted view of what actually might have caused an unwanted outcome (or a positive outcome) to occur.  This distorted viewpoint then causes us to inappropriately blame either ourselves or other people, when a more complete view of the situation would have revealed that multiple other factors were also likely involved.

Unilateral Blame And Our Emotions

Unilateral blame is not only responsible for much of our blaming behavior, but it is also at the heart of two very common human emotions:  anger and guilt.

When we are angry at someone or something other than ourselves, we are always engaged in unilateral blame thinking.  We hold other people (or things) responsible for something undesirable that happened, and we tend to view ourselves as being more or less innocent.

On the other hand, whenever we are feeling guilty, we are unilaterally blaming ourselves for something bad that may have happened.  Occasionally, such unilateral blame may be appropriate, but more often than not, other causative factors played a role as well.

So the phenomenon of blame can play a role (often hidden from our view) in causing many types of stress in our lives.  Frequently, this hidden pattern results in stress in our relationships with others.  But as we’ve also seen, it can also play a role in causing us to feel angry, guilty, or experience other forms of emotional distress.

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