When trying to regain a sense of power, control, and success after experiencing a failure, we have two options: blame others, or take stock of ourselves and begin the arduous task of self improvement.
We human beings are certainly not perfect. We make mistakes, and we hurt others. Often we hurt others inadvertently, sometimes even deliberately. But whenever we injure, there’s always blame to assess. The conscientious among us readily see their part and accept their fair share of blame. The character-impaired, on the other hand, want to blame everything and everyone else except themselves.
Common beliefs about why some who do bad things might blame everything and everyone else but themselves are increasingly being challenged. Once, mental health professionals almost universally advanced the notion that those externalizing blame were unconsciously employing the defense mechanism called projection to alleviate the anxiety, shame, and guilt they felt about their behavior. Projection is a defense by which we allow ourselves to see in others’ attitudes, beliefs and actions those things which we would find so unconscionable or unacceptable that it would crush us to acknowledge them in ourselves. This notion assumes everyone has the level of conscience development actually to experience unbearable levels of shame and guilt. But mounds of research have demonstrated that not everyone has such strength of conscience — and time and experience have taught me that the bigger reason for pointing the finger of blame elsewhere is people simply not wanting to do the hard work of reckoning with and correcting the shortcomings in their own character responsible for their problems. It’s easier to pass the blame than it is to be accountable.
In Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], I describe how disturbed characters tend to think, and one of the more common “thinking errors” they are prone to is what I call “Quick and Easy Thinking”. We all want the valuable things in life, but character-impaired individuals aren’t willing to put forth the effort necessary to earn these things. They harbor attitudes of entitlement, feeling that things are “owed” to them, and when they’re denied the things they covet, they feel cheated.
When things go wrong in the life of a disturbed character because of their disordered ways of thinking and doing things, they’re supposed to experience discomfort: that’s nature’s way of sending a valuable message that something needs to change. But what people do to end this discomfort makes all the difference in the world. Those who’ve experienced failure and want to regain a sense of power, control, and success have two options: blame everyone else for what’s gone wrong and vent rage on them; or take stock of themselves and begin the arduous and often lengthy task of honest self-examination, correction, and improvement. Of the two options, one is without question much easier than the other, and disturbed characters are looking for the quick and easy way.
A case hit the news some time ago of a disgruntled former employee of a television station who walked up to a field reporter and her camera operator and shot them both before shooting himself. According to reports, the person committing this crime had been cautioned several times about his “difficult to get along with” manner, especially his unmodulated displays of anger and aggression. He wasn’t just cautioned about this at the station from which he’d recently been let go: years earlier, at a different station, he’d been counseled about the same things. At that time, he blamed his difficulties on discrimination and filed a lawsuit. When he was cautioned about the same behavior at the next station he went to work for, he blamed his co-workers for harassing him. When his case was found to have no merit, he blamed “the system.”
While it’s hard to speculate about an individual case based on news reports, in the more general case, we do know that with disturbed characters, it’s never them. It’s always someone else’s fault. It’s far easier to blame than it is to accept responsibility. Changing one’s attitudes, one’s ways of thinking, and especially one’s ways of doing things is a really difficult enterprise. That’s especially true in adulthood. It means changing a lifetime of habits. Pointing the finger takes almost no energy at all.
For a long time we thought that people who commit murder-suicide were so deep into an anger-laden depression that they no longer valued life. But under scrutiny, in many cases another pattern emerges: a disturbed character with a long history of dysfunction, and who has resisted others’ urging to seriously self-examine, makes a last-ditch attempt in the face of yet another failure to cheaply and quickly restore a sense of power. (In the case I cited above, the killer apparently boasted of the power he’d finally wielded over those who had supposedly victimized him.) Disturbed characters never want to let those who could potentially exert power over them get the upper hand. They also refuse to accept the consequences of their actions. Some are so determined to write all the rules and script the story themselves that they would rather die than admit culpability or subordinate themselves. If they know they’re heading for defeat, they may become determined to take others with them.
We live in a tragically character-deficient age. We also live in a complicated, demanding world. Unfortunately, there are many among us who haven’t developed the character resources to deal adaptively with life’s challenges, and they especially don’t do well with failure. They externalize the blame for those failures and resist looking at themselves. It’s far too easy just to point a finger. Self-scrutiny and correction would entail a lot of work. They may lack enough love in their heart — either for themselves or others — to do that work. So, they fail to profit from their experiences. That’s why passing a bunch of laws can’t really protect us from the character-impaired among us. Rather, we have to face the character issue head-on and take a serious look at the sociocultural factors responsible for enabling, promoting, and even rewarding so much character disturbance in the first place.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on May 31, 2017.
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