How Blame Makes Pain Worse

by Vicki Rackner MD

After hearing a great radio interview,  I changed my plans so I could attend the guest’s book signing that night.  I arrived early, and found a long line.

Five minutes before the start time, the ticket-seller announced, “Sorry.  We’re sold out.”  A man near the front of the line approached her and pleaded, “Is there a way you could get just one more person in?  Hearing this talk is very important to me.”

She replied, “If it was that important, you should have planned better.”

Ouch!  Blaming stings.

A person getting disappointing results from chronic pain treatment can get blamed just like this disappointed ticket-seeker.  The difference?  A blamed person in pain doesn’t just get hurt feelings; blame can intensify physical pain.

Here are some thoughts to help you banish blame.

1. Distinguish blame from fault.

Fault is failed responsibility.  The person “at fault” contributed to the bad situations by failing to act according to expectations. If the event planner expected 100 people and booked a room for 20, her actions contributed to the seat shortage.

Blame is like a game of hot potato, passing along the pain.  Blame makes the blamer feel better by making the blamee wrong–whether or not the actions of the other person contributed to the problem.

Assigning responsibility/fault applies logic with the intention of doing better next time.  Assigning blame applies emotion with the intention of making the blamer feel better by criticizing the blamee.

2. Recognize blame.

Blame can be insidious.  If a comment leaves you feeling judged or accused or criticized, pay attention.

The blamer appears powerful; their action come from a sense of powerlessness.  Blame passes the blamer’s pain of helplessness along to the blamee.

3. Accept responsibility.  Refuse blame.

Accept responsibility and learn from your mistakes.  Do not accept blame.  Easier said than done in the heat of the moment.  Practice what you would say ahead of time when someone tries to blame you, like, “Are you trying to blame me?”   Or maybe, “That comment is not helpful.  Let’s focus on making things better rather than worse.”

4. If you’re blaming others, stop.

Blame stings, and pushes people apart.   A compassionate response soothes the hurt and brings people together.

Instead of “You’re to blame,” try, “I really wish I could help. This is hard for both of us.”

5. Rethink “Why me?”

When bad things happen, people ask, “Why me?”  People in pain are often willing to accept blame.  “My bad” is less painful than “Stuff happens.”  The truth is there is no fairness in chronic pain.

Blame does not build bridges between people; blame creates isolation.  Isolation intensifies physical pain.  Replace blame with compassion.

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