Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Why We Blame: Uses and Misuses

why we blameTo err is human. To blame seems to be human also.

We blame nature, we blame God, we blame our enemies, our spouses and ourselves. We even blame politicians for never taking the blame!


The definition of blame is to hold responsible, to find fault with, to censure, for something that has happened, has failed to happen or which has had a negative impact in some way.

We need to blame for regulations of feelings, reparation of harm and restoration of order on personal, interpersonal and broadly social levels.

The Uses of Blame

In the best of circumstances blame for wrong doing once acknowledged results in apology, concessions to meet the demands of restorative justice or punishment to meet the demands of retributive justice.

  • When an oil company agrees to make partial atonement by paying $1 billion to restore the Gulf of Mexico, there is some acceptance of blame.
  • When a veteran whose home is foreclosed and then sold while he is fighting in Iraq sues and wins damages, there is some sense of justice.
  • When a partner acknowledges infidelity and works to restore trust and renew love- there is the possibility of reconnection.

The Misuses of Blame

Blame however is complex and like most human dynamics rarely unfolds smoothly. The inability to blame, the projection of blame on others, retaliation or an imposed code of silence are misuses of blame that are incompatible with regulation, restoration and recovery.

  • When a fisherman assaulted by Hurricane Katrina losses the last scrapes of his subsistence by an oil spill, he disappears with no one noticing and no one accepting the blame.
  • When a 12 year old teen runs from sexual abuse in the home to the hands of a pimp, she rarely knows why the courts see her as “the one to blame.”
  • When people finally stand up in revolt to blame the oppression of a monarch, the response is blame for civil unrest and attack on them and their children.

The Danger of Self-Blame

Although self-blame may be warranted as personal acknowledgment and rectification of actual wrongdoing, we often use self-blame when we are innocent of any wrong doing in an attempt to regulate unbearable feelings or situations that are out of our control.

  • In her work with child abuse victims, traumatologist Judith Herman tells us that when it is impossible for a child to avoid the reality of betrayal and abuse by those who should be trusted, the child must construct a system of meaning that justifies it. Inevitably the child blames self. If it is her badness that causes this – then she can try to be better.
  • In a contribution to our understanding of the formation, intensity and persistence of guilt in Holocaust survivors, psychoanalyst and survivor Alfred Garwood suggests that ‘survivor self-blame’ had the initial and principal function of reducing the pain and anguish of intolerable powerlessness in the face of annihilation risk and overwhelming loss. The ultimate result was obstruction of the mourning process and suicidal despair.
  • Working with combat veterans suffering from PTSD, psychologist, Patricia Resick underscores self-blame as a failure to assilimilate- a dangerous way to reconcile the warrior ethos of invincibility, responsibility for one’s men and mission focus with the horrific nature and unforeseeable losses of war.
  • In my own work, I have never met anyone who has suffered a natural or man-made disaster or even a serious medical diagnosis who did not in some way blame self. It would seem that we would rather regulate our existential helplessness by being to blame than considering that we cannot control life’s assaults.  

The Impact of Other’s Blame

The defense of self-blame is often fueled by the need of others to blame the victim as a way to psychologically distance themselves – “She should never have taken the train so late.” “He never watched what he ate.” “They insisted on living abroad.”

It is destructively used when it is a projection of the split off blame of those who both harm and blame.

The inevitable consequence of  incured self-blame is not only guilt but a sense of shame, reflected in a lack of confidence, self-disdain and fear of exposure. This makes us a victim of self. Too often it precludes the necessary empathy we need from self and others to heal. 

The victim of an assault wonders how careless she might have been and wants to hide.

The wounded policeman is ashamed “How can a cop get shot?”

The parents of the lost child avoid what they expect to be other’s pity.   

Beyond Blame

  • When blame is constructive, it is warranted and leads to actions that regulate us personally and interpersonally. It is reparative and restorative to victim and wrong doer, be they neighbor, lover or foreign country. It is not a life definition or a projection of our own blame.
  • If we are human we will at times use self-blame to quiet or defend other feelings. If self-blame persists it eventually becomes the only feeling allowed.  At some point to dare to feel again – to mourn,  to tolerate the rage,  to acknowledge fear and to accept the unknown is to unlock self from the traumatic event.

The world uses and misuses blame. Personally, we may at times need to blame ourselves and others. To truly go forward, blame needs to move us forward –  to forgiveness.

For Further Reading

Garwood, A. (1996) ”The Holocaust and The Power of Powerlessness: Survivor Guilt an Unhealed Wound.”British Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 13(2), 1996.

Photo by Geoffrey Fairchild, avialable under a Creative Commons attribution license.