What did you do wrong? Blame versus Criticism

by Caroline van Kimmenade

Nobody’s perfect, right? So it’s normal to receive some criticism from time to time. If you’re someone who makes a real attempt to hear others’ point of view, reflect on your actions and take responsibility where needed, then surely, all will be well?

So why is it that – with some people – even when you try your hardest to understand their criticisms and find solutions, you still end up in what feels like a bottomless pit of what you did wrongs? The kind that make you feel like you’re slowly sinking into a swamp of awfulness and all you want to do is take a long, hot shower?

That’s because, there is a HUGE difference between criticism and blame.

drawing of person scratching head in confusion

Not all criticism blame is easy to spot

Unlike in old movies where you get a clarifying musical cue when the bad guy makes a move… *giiiiiihhh dunk dunk traaaaaaaaaaahhhh* real life situations don’t come with that kind of obvious warning. Too bad!

It gets even trickier. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been in a conversation where someone said to me: “Caroline, I really feel like I just need to go ahead and blame you for everything. Now, let me count the ways that every single thing is your fault!!”

If that really happened, it would be a little easier to process.

Instead, the outright awful folks will probably scream at you while you scratch your head, wondering what on earth is going on. Meanwhile, the civilized blamers, will say that they just have some criticism they want to work out with you.

We’ll leave the screamers be in this article. Chances are, you know something is up pretty quickly. Instead, this article will zoom in on civilized blame, because that is tricky.

Enter: Civilized Blame

What makes civilized blame difficult is that it’s presented as criticism: “heads up, I have some issues with how you do things”. So you listen and take note of the critique.

If you’re pretty good at handling criticism you’ll likely take these two steps:

1. Try to really understand the critique first.

2. Find a way to make things better.

So far, so good!

But then you get stuck at step 2.

Somehow, every time you’ve identified a valid point of critique, and developed a solution, the problem seems to shift. You’re told that oh, that actually isn’t really the problem, the problem is something else. So you go through steps 1 and 2 again. After a moment of reflection, the other person might say “that’s a nice gesture, but it’s not the real issue. The real issue is [insert a new criticism].”

Has this ever happened to you?

When this happens once or twice, you can pin it on needing some clarification first. After all, it’s possible to have valid critique yet struggle to formulate it clearly.

Sometimes, the person criticizing you needs your help in getting clear on what exactly the problem is. Speaking up about something they feel hurt about can be really hard (I mean, it is hard, right?). If that’s the case, you might have to do a few rounds of listening, identifying and offering solutions before the real problem becomes clear and can be solved.

But what if the rounds seem endless? Every time you to try to understand a criticism things go wonky.

The “criticism” that can never be resolved

At first, the other person confirms that yes, you understood correctly, that is in fact the big issue. So you continue on with a solution, several even.

Yet no matter how many solutions you offer, it’s never good enough. There are always “yes buts” because “the bigger problem is actually this”. For every problem solved, the “real issue” seems to shift to something else again and again.

This can also happen after offered solutions have already been accepted. You solved the problem – or so you thought – only to get a callback that “actually, there is still a big problem”.

Suddenly, you understand why governments don’t negotiate with terrorists. No matter what the ask, once you’ve given them what they say they want, they’ll come back for more!

There’s something else you’re noticing too. You’ve had uncomfortable conversations before: when it took a while to come to a solution or compromise, but after, things were good again.

That is the beauty of criticism. It can be resolved. Resolving it might be hard and it might be a lot of work if the issue is complex, but the end goal is a state of relief for both parties. There was an issue and it’s now out of the way. Good!

So why is it, that in some conversations, no matter how many solutions you offer, you can never reach that blissful point of relief? In fact, every time you offer a reasonable solution, the other person seems disappointed. Instead of solutions leading to more trust and openness, they lead to more animosity.

When your solutions are always disappointments, what’s going on?

Sometimes, the problem looks solved and the conversation seems complete. Yet soon after a brief pauze of relief, the other person will come back at you to let you know:

1. The solution you offered isn’t really a solution because it’s not good enough.

and/or 2. Thanks for your efforts but, the real issue is something else.

Now you’re back to square one. But that’s after you paid the ransom money to get the hostages released. You thought they’d be on a plane back home by now, but instead, you get a call that you must also send 1 million freshly cut tulips to atone for the sins of your forefathers.

Blame like this (because that’s what it is!) drops you right smack in the center of nothing ventured, nothing gained. Nothing ventured, nothing gained for the blamer that is. You (hopefully) start to realise that unless you put your foot down, you will be sending gifts overseas for the rest of your life.

(“Hello? Yes, we still have your hostages. We realised something after some solemn reflection. We really don’t like the way you spoke about us on t.v. We want you to retract that statement and send us some of your finest rolexes. Plus a high resolution picture of you on the toilet with your pants down. You have 12 hours. Oh, and send us a pepperoni pizza while you’re at it.)

The other party will never be satisfied.

Why? Because they’ve decided you are an evil person who needs to be (endlessly) punished.

That’s the difference between cricitism and blame.

Criticism versus Blame

Criticism says: we have a difference of opinion, that’s o.k. I’m telling you how I see it and you’re telling me how you see it. It’s good to talk about it because we might come to a better outcome that way.

Strong criticism says: I believe you are a good person and able to work this out with me. I want to let you know that there are some things I take issue with. I would like you to change those things if possible. BUT if you don’t change those things the way I’d like, I won’t condemn you to hell. Not everyone can see eye to eye on everything, but I’d like to try. I’m also open to considering that some of this may be a misunderstanding on my end. Let’s work it out. You in?

Angry criticism says: I really think you messed up, here’s why. If you don’t make some changes, then I may decide to leave. I am not onboard with what you did and how you did it. If you see my point and make some changes, that would be great. I’d like to see a solution for this. If not though, all the best but I am out of here.

Criticism is about something you did, but it’s not about who you are. Since criticism is about what you do, there is space for fixing the problem: you can make changes to what you do and how.

Civilized blame pretends to be about something you did, but it’s actually about who you are. The blamer has already decided you are a bad person. Whether they realize it or not, they’ve already decided the situation can’t truly be fixed because you – through your mistake – have revealed yourself to be an utter failure, beyond redeeming.

Good luck trying to “fix” that!

50 Shades of Blame

Blame can come in many different voices. It can even use the words of critique: “I think you’re a good person, I’d like to work this out” yadayadayada. But the actions of blame tell a different story.

If they want to work it out so badly, why spend hours and hours debating an ever expanding list of “but the real issue is this!”? Why if they are so convinced that they know what you did wrong, won’t they just say what the issue actually is?

Ah, that’s the trick of blame. When you look at it assuming it’s critique, you end up looking for a valid point that simply doesn’t exist.

The goal of blame is not to resolve anything. The goal is not to get on the same page. It’s not to heal or repair something. It’s not to get along. It’s not to come to an arrangement.

The goal of blame is to make you hurt.

Now, any professional blamer will likely (I imagine) tell you that it can take a while to find something that hurts.

Maybe, to warm up, they use something simple like: “using bazooka font makes you look like an idiot”.

And maybe, that doesn’t quite get under your skin, so you calmly respond: “ah, ok. What font would you recommend I use?”

If you are still seeing this conversation as one of criticism, you will truly expect an answer to that question, and feel confused when you don’t get one.

you: Hello? Hello? We can use another font, just let me know what you’d prefer. Why are you not responding?

blamer: …

When someone is trying to blame you, they won’t suggest or accept any solutions. Instead, they’ll try another avenue of attack. What else could they somewhat justifiably accuse you of, that might really hurt your feelings?

Why trying to solve the problem, makes it worse

The insanity of dealing with civilized blame is that, the better you get at handling criticism, the more outrageous the “critique” will become.

Yet what you need to understand about someone who has chosen blame is that they will keep at it and they will continue to take issue with everything and anything.

This means that you need to get really clear internally: what do YOU believe a reasonable solution from your end would look like? You need to set the terms and decide when done is done, because if you wait for the other person to give you the thumbs up, you’ll still be trying to resolve this 10 years from now.

The goal of blame is not a logical resolution. The goal of blame is threefold:

1. The first goal of blame: Retaliate for perceived attack and wrong doing.

This comes from the simplistic understanding that because they are hurting, it is perfectly reasonable to keep lashing out at you and make demands until they feel better. Hence, the real problem is not what you did or didn’t do. The real problem is how you made the other person feel.

When someone is hurting enough to grab onto blame as a liferaft, you can be sure that the hurt is a gremlin of sorts that will continue to mutate. Every step of the way of that mutation, the feelings involved will be your fault.

It’s your job to smoothe over the Big Gremlinian Monsterpain.

This is why something can briefly seem resolved, and then it’s not.

Who knows, maybe you discussed terms, the kidnappers accepted. Then they took a bath and felt better so everything seemed o.k. But the next day, one of them stubs his toe and the other one hears that mom is in the hospital all of which is obviously your fault so now you’re back to square one. Previous agreements go in the bin and the circus starts all over again.

2. The second goal of blame: Gain the upper hand in what has now become a power struggle

When someone is in blame-mode they are not trying to understand or resolve anything. They feel threatened by you and are trying to work out how to make you as small and powerless as possible.

At this point, anything you say or do can be used against you to try and squash you.

This is why it turns into a battle that can’t be resolved. Whatever the blamer feels, they’ve decided it’s all your fault and you can’t be trusted. No matter the seemingly reasonable demands they claim to have, without a modicum of trust, no resolution is possible.

This is why a “discussion” like this feels like you’re slowly sinking into a swamp. You are! There is no way out as long as you keep treading water, because there is no solid foundation to any of it. The quicksand keeps shifting and the more moves you come up with, the deeper you sink.

The best thing to do is stay really still and reflect on what kind of environment you are truly in right now. Wake up, it’s not a meadow. Grab the first treeroot you can get your hands on and pull your way out of there.

3. The third goal of blame: Make you responsible for “the pain you created”

Blamers try to make you feel bad as long as they feel bad. They do this in a twisted attempt to force you to try and make them feel good. Wait what?

This “logic” relies on very simplistic cause and effect thinking: before you showed up in their life, they were doing o.k. Once you showed up in their life, they got hurt. Ergo: you are the cause of all the pain.

Even worse, blamers seem to believe that if they just keep bashing away at you, they can force you to magically take away the pain you “caused”:

Punishment + punishment + punishment + punishment = all wounds are healed.

Obviously, this doesn’t work. But they believe it does work so will keep at it forever.

Some blamers are also very adept at energetically displacing their feelings onto you. This is the equivalent of them pooping in a bag, handing you the bag, and then they run away. Now you’re stuck with their poop. To some extent this “works”. You feel worse and they feel a little better… until they inevitably need to poop again that is and the cycle starts all over again.

But let’s rewind for a second because all of this may be going too fast.

If you hurt them, you need to fix it, right?

If you assume that if someone is hurting very badly that must be due to what they say you did, I hear you. Yet, when things get really crazy, it’s important to factor in the possibility of distortion and personality disorders.

If there is a clear cause on your end, it must be possible to uncover it! But if every time you seem to get close to what is wrong, the narrative changes, then you’re not dealing with an actual cause. You might be dealing with a trigger at most.

A trigger is different from a cause because a trigger sets off a whole bunch of fireworks inside someone else, that are technically unrelated to what you said or did.

A trigger can be that your voice reminds someone of their abusive uncle, because you both roll your R’s the same way. So now you saying your R like that ripped open the Uncle Wound and because the blamer is hurting so much over that they now try to displace all that pain onto you.

The best way to do that? Bash away at you psychologically and energetically until you feel bad enough that you start to believe that maybe rolling your R’s is a terrible crime to humanity. (Though in reality, you’ll likely never discover the actual trigger and just feel bad without knowing what you “did”)

Why blamers lash out, even when it doesn’t solve anything

In the blame dynamic, the person lashing out tends to believe that they are justified in lashing out and also that lashing out will solve a problem:

1. It will make you, the baddy, small and powerless so you can’t hurt them again.

2. It will give you your “just punishment” so you never dare do that again (though you still don’t know what that is)

3. It makes you responsible for their pain, so they don’t have to take responsibility for it.

Ironically, making someone else responsible for all their pain also turns the blamer into a chronic and powerless victim. After all, if you have all this power to hurt them and it’s all your fault, then there is nothing they can really do to make it all stop.

So all in all, this whole blame circus becomes incredibly disempowering for both the blamer and the blamed! It’s a lose-lose situation, but trying to explain that won’t get you anywhere, so it’s better to just cut your losses and get out.

Accept that the best you can do is end all this in a way that seems reasonable to you. The blamer will never feel it’s fair or reasonable – not for long anyway. So, it’s up to you to make the decisions on what you will and won’t do, and leave it at that.

P.S. Does this article ring way too many bells? It may be time to say NO to narcissists!

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