Blame and shame: how’s that working for you?

by Thomas Ellis, PsyD, ABPP on May 27, 2010 · 2 comments

in philosophy,sin,stigma

Jon Allen’s recent, illuminating post on sin reminds us of the limits of looking at human problems only through the lens of science: Research-informed theories and treatments can take us only so far in our effort to reduce the stigma of mental illness. Dr. Allen cautions that we must find ways to reduce blaming and condemnation, but beware lest we rob people of responsibility, a key aspect of human dignity.

Home sweet home

Easier said than done! How, indeed, are we to contain our reaction of disgust or even outrage about behaviors that we dislike? Indeed, most of us know first hand about the disdain that can be triggered by dysfunctional behavior, whether it’s a celebrity losing control of an addiction or a family member retreating to bed with depression. It is here that philosophy (psychology’s original home) shows its relevance to psychotherapy; indeed, it is here that we encounter the complex issue of human worth.

The practical question for therapists is how to teach patients to stop condemning themselves without excusing themselves of all responsibility for their decisions. Here we must make the philosophical issue clear and offer a choice.

The question, simply put, is this: Is the act the same as the actor? If I act stupidly, does that make me stupid? If I fail, am I a failure? If I treat others badly, am I bad, no good or even worthless?

Well, when someone treats us badly, doesn’t it follow that he or she is a jerk or an idiot? And doesn’t the same reasoning apply to me when I act badly? This is a philosophical question. However, research tells us that when such condemnation is directed at the self, emotional problems (notably depression and suicide risk) tend to follow.

Moreover, eliminating such self-labeling tends to promote recovery. Such therapeutic work helps the individual learn to stop the self-abuse and start practicing self-acceptance. The message is, “You may make mistakes, but you and your behavior are not the same thing. Human beings are more complicated than that. You are a human being who may behave well or badly on occasion but whose intrinsic worth never rises or falls as a result.”

Is this mere excuse-making? Mere psychobabble to let people do bad or stupid things with impunity? Far from pop psychology, the philosophical basis for this perspective can be traced back centuries to a variety of sources, including the Biblical injunction, “Condemn the sin but not the sinner.” More recently articulated by the humanist school of philosophy, this value system reminds us that science has been unable to discover a scientifically valid way to measure human worth, not by monitoring good and bad deeds, not by tallying up successes and failures, not even by developing a system for weighting the value of looks, wealth, intelligence, contributions to society or shoe size for that matter.

Our choice

This is, quite simply, a value judgment. And value judgments are rooted in philosophical systems, which are matters of choice. To illustrate: By one philosophical system, we could judge our children’s worth by their looks, grades or athletic prowess. By another system, we might reject such judgments and love them regardless of any of these qualities. There is no way to prove scientifically which perspective represents the “one true value system.” However, it takes most parents no time at all to figure out which of the two is in their child’s best interest.

So, what we are left with is a practical question: What is the impact of putting yourself down and calling yourself names? How’s that working for you? If it brings you happiness and success, then good for you – keep it up! Most often, though, our patients (and personal experience) teach us that not only is self-condemnation unhelpful, it tends to make matters worse by increasing self-hatred and prolonging depression and self-destructive behaviors. To make matters worse, people who condemn themselves for their problems are less likely to seek treatment for these problems.

But (and this is with a capital “B”), while this more forgiving perspective reduces blame and condemnation, it in no way excuses one from responsibility for past behavior or from doing something about the problem in the future. Even as I accept my self, problems and all, it is still my responsibility to address those problems: to seek treatment, get out of bed (even though depressed), resist destructive impulses and make reparations to those whom I have hurt.

If anything, the responsibility is greater now that an obstacle to change (self-hatred) has been removed. Far from excuse-making, “loving the sinner while hating the sin” can be a means of moving away from the paralyzing battle between blame and shame and toward a life that is more balanced, functional and healthy.

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