Blaming Others or Yourself *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

In a recent letter from a reader, I was asked to write an article about something she had read:

"There are two types of people one that blames someone else for everything that ever happened to them, good or bad; one blames themselves for everything! If the self-blamers get sick, it must be something they did or didn't do. If they were disliked, it was their fault. They take the blame for everything!"

First, these are not "two types of people." They are ways of responding to frustration. When people cannot reach desired goals, they get frustrated. In trying to find the reason for their frustration, some people are more likely to focus blame on others, and some tend to focus blame on themselves. However, there are more than two options in assigning blame.

As early as the 1930s, psychologist Saul Rosensweig theorized three options in perceiving blame when frustrated. The first two have been mentioned. Again, these are reactions not types of individuals.

Some responses are extrapunitive they cast the blame on others. Since others are seen at fault, anger and indignation are expressed toward them. For example, if another person failed to return a friendly greeting, an extrapunitive response would be to label that person as ill-bred or snobbish, regardless of the objective evidence.

In contrast, an intropunitive response directs the blame inward. The individual feels guilty and humiliated. If a friendly greeting is not returned, intropunitive greeters wonder what they have or have not done. Possibly a blunder has caused their greeting to be ignored. What did they say or do wrong? They may assume themselves to be inferior and not worth the notice. Again, this response trend can be used regardless of the objective evidence.

However, in contrast to the letter I received, Rosensweig suggests a third type of response impunitive. With this response both parties are freed from blame. The incident is glossed over, so neither party is seen as responsible. With the unreturned greeting, possibly there was too much activity going on, so the greeting was not noticed. The greeted party might be preoccupied with a serious problem. Lost deep in thought, the surroundings may not be noticed, let alone the greeting. Again, this response is regardless of the objective evidence.

Notice the repeated phrase, "regardless of the objective evidence." With these response methods, blame is not an objective evaluation of the situation. Blame will be placed according to the personal needs and desires of the frustrated party.

All three of these are responses to frustration not types of people. Although people can learn to rely on one (or more) of these responses, they do not always respond to frustration in the same way. (However, if we predict their response style, we are more likely to notice our accurate predictions and ignore those that are wrong.)

Of the responses, both extrapunitive and intropunitive responses are aggressive. Extrapunitive responses direct the aggression toward others, while the intropunitive responses direct aggression inward. Since an impunitive reaction views the situation as a cause, there is no aggression toward either party. Since many situations can be changed, more energy can be directed toward that goal rather than blaming people.

Rather than blaming others or yourself,
it is more constructive to remedy the situation.

If the response is extrapunitive or intropunitive, it has a special relation to memory. Both responses are remembered longer than impunitive responses. With extrapunitive responses, the incident is more likely to be remembered to "carry a grudge," so revenge can be planned. With intropunitive responses, memory serves to nurse injured pride or "eat one's heart out." Memory serves to maintain the aggression toward others or toward one's self.

In contrast, people who respond impunitively tend to forget the incident. The frustration is not interpreted as a "personal insult." Their attitude is that "sometimes unpleasant things happen" or that it is better to "forgive and forget." The other two responses extrapunitive and intropunitive involve neither forgiving nor forgetting.

All of us would like to think that we objectively evaluate the frustrations in our lives. However, since we often don't, which response to frustration would you like to cultivate?

* Adapted from Saul Rosensweig's "Types of Reaction to Frustration, " in a book edited by Melvin H. Marx, Psychological Theory: Contemporary Readings, MacMillan Company, New York, 1951, pages 477-479.

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