When you blame your frustrations on others, you feel powerless, and your mental health suffers. Yet blame is immensely popular! Here is a simple explanation of why your brain goes there, and a fast way to enjoy your power instead.
Why your brain flows to the blame place
Blame starts with a healthy urge to make things better. When something goes wrong, you want to know why to make it right next time. The human brain is designed to predict. Our ancestors predicted where food could be found before they invested a lot of effort. Sometimes they were wrong, and went hungry. They tried to learn from the experience to make better predictions.
Our ancestors predicted where food could be found before they invested a lot of effort.
The brain rewards you with dopamine when you make a correct prediction. It feels good, which motivates you to move on to the next prediction. You make predictions all day and enjoy the dopamine...until something goes wrong.
Disappointment = threat
When a prediction is wrong, your brain releases cortisol, “the stress chemical.” A simple example is reading a typo. The letters you see don’t match your prediction, and a tiny cortisol release alerts you to stop and take in more information. Sometimes our failed predictions have bigger consequences. The job you hoped for and didn’t get. The support you expected that didn’t materialize. The partying you chose despite the risk. Your cortisol surges.
When a prediction is wrong, your brain releases cortisol, the stress chemical.
Cortisol is released by a gazelle when it smells a lion. It makes you feel like your survival is threatened even though you don’t consciously think that. Cortisol motivates a gazelle to run even though it would rather be grazing. It works by grabbing your attention so you can’t focus on anything but making it stop.
Blame makes it stop
When you blame, you are making a prediction: “Nothing I do will fix it. They have to fix it.” You can always find evidence to “prove” that it’s their fault — whether “they” are your family, your boss, your partner, your government, or nebulous forces that you can’t define.
Blame shifts responsibility from you to “them.” This has advantages: You don’t have to feel bad about what you did or didn’t do. You don’t have to believe in your ability to do something different. Blame relieves cortisol fast because it’s so easy to think of things they should do. However, blame has disadvantages too.
Blame relieves cortisol fast because it’s so easy to think of things they should do.
When you tell yourself “I can’t do anything about it,” you deprive yourself of dopamine. Your brain saves the dopamine for steps toward rewards. No steps, no dopamine. For example, when a monkey is hungry, it has to climb toward a piece of fruit. Each step closer triggers more dopamine, and it surges when the fruit is just within reach. Then the dopamine stops because its job is done. The monkey has to meet its needs again in order to enjoy more of it. Blaming is giving up on your own steps. The only step you invest in is anger at “them.”
Mental health is confidence in your ability to meet your needs. When you believe you cannot meet your needs, you feed your brain a survival threat message. You end up with constant cortisol. Fortunately, you have a choice. Your choice is hard to feel when you’ve wired in a blame habit. To learn to feel it, start by imagining a baby turtle. You have probably seen a video of newborn turtles running into the ocean. They run away from home the instant they crack out of their shells because they’re born hard-wired with survival skills. Humans are not.
We humans are born helpless and vulnerable. We have to learn skills from experience. The bigger a creature’s brain, the longer its childhood, because it takes so long to wire skills in. A gazelle’s childhood is a couple of months long, and a monkey’s childhood is a couple of years. After that, a little mammal has to meet its own needs. Dopamine rewards it with a good feeling when it takes steps that work. When it fails, its cortisol surges, which motivates it to do what it takes to relieve the bad feeling.
Dopamine rewards it with a good feeling when it takes steps that work. When it fails, its cortisol surges.
What would happen to a gazelle who blamed others when a lion approached? What would happen to a monkey who blamed others for the scarcity of fruit? They would end up with endless cortisol and poor survival prospects. Instead, they take steps and enjoy the dopamine. Every gazelle and monkey learns to believe in the power of its own steps. If it didn’t, they would die once their mother died, and there would be no more gazelles or monkeys. Instead, the mammal brain is designed to build trust in its own skills.
You may insist there are no steps you can take right now. When you think that, you alarm yourself with cortisol, and deprive yourself of dopamine.
Beliefs about your power
It feels bad to believe you are powerless, so why do people do this? We are all powerless at birth, but a baby soon learns that crying brings milk. Slowly, cries become words, and a child builds a sense of its ability to influence the world around it. Our power is limited, but we survive by using the power we have. Early experience builds the neural pathways that turn our chemicals on and off. Each brain must learn skills necessary to survive in a world it cannot control.
Each brain must learn skills necessary to survive in a world it cannot control.
Blame feels like a skill because it relieves cortisol for a moment. The more you practice this “skill,” the less you practice other skills. The blame habit is often reinforced by the world around you. Friends may be nicer when you share powerless feelings. Leaders court you by leading the blame game. Teachers may reward you for blaming society and therapists may bond with you by reinforcing your blame. It’s easy to see how the blame habit gets entrenched.
If you blame your blame on others, you are well and truly stuck!
Instead, you can notice your prediction habits and build new ones. You can predict that your own steps will meet your needs. This is called “personal agency.” The words make more sense if you imagine you’re a big Hollywood star with a big Hollywood agent. You expect your agent to move mountains for you, but you end up disappointed. So you fire them and hire a new agent, but they disappoint you too. After a few tries, you realize that you need to be your own agent. Always remember that you are your own agent.