From time to time, we all find ourselves in relationships with other people that ‘don’t quite feel right.’ It could be a friendship, a romantic relationship, or even a dynamic within our family with a parent, sibling, child, or a member of your wider family or community network.
Realizing you are being blamed for someone else’s mistakes, choices, or decisions can lead you to ask questions about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how to deal with it.
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Why do people blame others for their own mistakes?
Getting to the heart of this issue is key. There may be many reasons why people blame others for the mistakes they make, but they typically come down to the same thing or a variation of the same thing. Simply put, blaming others is a defense mechanism.
What is a defense mechanism?
Defense mechanisms are a form of unconscious process used to cope with impulses, feelings, or ideas which are not acceptable at their conscious level.
Developed as part of psychoanalytic theory, defense mechanisms can be thought of as psychological strategies that help people to put distance between themselves and threats or unwanted feelings, such as guilt or shame.
While we all use defense mechanisms to maintain our psychological wellbeing to some extent, protecting ourselves from anxiety or providing a refuge from a situation in which we cannot cope, their use can become problematic or maladaptive. Once this happens, a problematic or maladaptive defense mechanism can cause harm to the person and/or to those around them.
Blame as a defense mechanism
Blame as a defense mechanism typically falls under ‘projection’ – a type of defense mechanism initially defined by Sigmund Freud in 1895 and later by his daughter, Anna, in 1936.
In simple terms, projection can be described as the mental process by which people attribute to others what is in their own minds.
In other words, if what is in your own mind is too anxiety-provoking or something you cannot cope with, you project this onto someone close to you. Attributing your own self-blame outwards protects you from having to feel the anxiety of accepting your own mistakes.
In this episode, Dr. Gregory Jantz delves into the topic of gaslighting — a psychological manipulation tactic that distorts reality to establish a sense of power and control. A gaslighter might use a whole range of strategies to make a victim question their own reality. You’ll learn the tools needed to spot and combat these strategies early on to avoid being trapped in a manipulative relationship.
Do people know when they are projecting the blame for their mistakes onto other people?
No. Projection (alongside other defense mechanisms) is an unconscious process which means people aren’t usually aware they are doing it. It’s a clever way for us to process some of our feelings about the source of our projection but from a safer distance. We can remain an observer without having to take responsibility or face whatever consequences may come along with the scenario being projected.
One study suggests that blame is contagious and seeing others pass the buck for their own mistakes is one of the key ways in which we unconsciously learn to blame others.
What is the impact of being blamed for someone else’s mistakes?
Many of us will know the feeling of being wrongfully blamed for something we didn’t do. We might feel helpless, frustrated, angry, manipulated, or anxious, particularly when we don’t feel able to stand up for ourselves or our attempts to clear our name are not heard.
And for those blaming others? If you are conscious of what you’re doing, you might feel as though it’s an effective way of protecting your self-image.
The study mentioned above explored how blame within a workplace can create a culture of blame that even has the power to change the dynamic of a whole organization.
Blaming others may not feel like a big deal but it actually has detrimental consequences to both individual and collective wellbeing. It can even affect your health.
How should you respond to someone who blames you for their mistakes?
Once you have noticed a pattern of projection with another person blaming you for their mistakes, you are likely to spot it more and more.
Regardless of the cause or whether the other person is aware of what they are doing, this type of behavior can cause stress and suffering, so it’s important to find a way to deal with it.
This is particularly important if you have noticed you have started to blame yourself or you are feeling guilt, shame, or fear. Therapists term this ‘projective identification’ which is where you have begun to identify with the other person’s projections, internalize them, and take them on as if they were your own mistakes.
There are a few ways to manage a situation in which you’re being blamed for someone else’s mistakes.
First, assess the situation. Figure out if this is a one-off situation or a pattern of behavior that seems to repeat.
Similarly, consider who is blaming you for their mistakes. Is it someone you come into contact with frequently, or is it someone you rarely see?
Decide on your course of action based on the above factors, plus how the behavior is making you feel.
For example, with a colleague you barely know, who only crosses your path once a year, and whose actions aren’t really affecting you, you might decide it’s not worth the effort to challenge them.
However, if you’re being blamed for your spouse’s mistakes regularly and you are finding it difficult to be around them, this would suggest you need to address the issue.
We are all different and we respond differently to behaviors so there is no right or wrong. Do what is best for you.
Once you have decided to act on the blaming behaviors, you need to communicate with the person doing the blaming.
Ahead of time, consider what you want to say, rehearsing it if that helps you to feel more confident in addressing the situation.
Perhaps you might want to focus on how it is making you feel. Or maybe you have written down a list of the times it has happened that will support you in exploring the pattern together.
Keep things constructive by using ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements. For example, instead of saying ‘you keep blaming me for things you’re doing wrong,’ try saying ‘I feel confused and frustrated when I am blamed for things I didn’t do.’
Ironically, this type of communication stops the other person from feeling like you are blaming them! When they don’t feel attacked, they are more likely to want to work together towards a solution.
Looking at your boundaries is a way to check in with what’s okay and what’s not okay for you. The chances are that the blaming behavior of the other person is not okay for you and is therefore crossing a boundary.
The second part of a boundary is communicating the consequences of a boundary violation. For example, you could say ‘I’m not okay with you blaming me for your mistakes. I’m not going to put up with it anymore.’ You could even include a statement about what you will do if it happens again.
Other ways of enforcing your boundaries are to limit your contact with the other person, to change the context of your relationship where possible (e.g. don’t invite them to your house anymore and/or make sure all arrangements are in writing), and you could even consider whether cutting contact with them might be the best way to stop the behavior.
4. Work on yourself
If you have noticed a pattern of behavior in which you are often the target for other people’s projections, it may be you could use an injection of self esteem.
As well as practicing your boundaries, this could look like prioritizing yourself in other areas of life. Take part in more activities that make you feel good, spend time with people who support and champion you, and work on your self esteem with positive affirmations.
In addition to helping bolster you against other people’s projections, strengthening your feelings of self worth is likely to benefit many other areas of your life.
5. Education and protection
Finally, educate yourself about emotional abuse. While a one-off incident of someone else blaming you for their mistake may not be anything too concerning, if it happens frequently and alongside other behaviors it could be a sign of emotional abuse.
As well as the blaming, other behaviors that can happen as part of emotional abuse include:
Humiliating you in public
Berating or insulting
Constant monitoring or possessiveness
Dismissiveness or giving the “cold shoulder”
Isolating you from other loved ones
Emotional abuse can often be happening without the victim being aware they are being abused in this way. Abusers are very clever about how they operate, and are often adept at making their victims feel they are to blame or somehow deserving of this maltreatment.
Loving and positive acts can be interspersed with the behaviors above, which can make emotional abuse difficult to identify.
Blaming others for their own behavior is typical of someone with Narcissism or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a condition in which people have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance. Narcissists want people to admire them and so they need and seek out as much attention as possible.
Narcissists are lacking in empathy, meaning they are not able to understand or care about the feelings of others. Underneath their confident facade, their sense of self-worth is very fragile, making them easily upset by the slightest criticism.
If you are concerned you may be a victim of emotional abuse or you are the target of a narcissist, it can be difficult to know what to do. At The Center • A Place of HOPE, our expert professionals are experienced in working with emotional abuse in all its forms.
Our team understands the effects of emotional abuse and our proven treatment program has helped many people just like you to heal from their experiences, allowing you to go on to live a fuller and happier life.
Our proven Whole Person Care model addresses the entire you — your emotional, medical, physical, psychological, nutritional, fitness, and spiritual needs. You are more than just the abuse you went through.
Please get in touch with us for more information or to set up an intake appointment with one of our compassionate staff members.
 Freud, A. (1936). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Revised edition: 1966 (US), 1968 (UK))
 Fast, N. J., & Tiedens, L. Z. (2010). Blame contagion: The automatic transmission of self-serving attributions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 97-106.
Dr. Gregory Jantz
Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...
We are living in very stressful times, living in the time of this Coronavirus outbreak. The situation seems out of our control and our new way of living – either or lockdown or social distancing from loved ones –is uncomfortable and different. Here are 10 things you can do to...
How you feel about yourself affects all of your other relationships. Some of you may not be used to the idea that you have a distinct relationship with yourself, but you do. You have a personality and a will; you have a perspective on life that is lived out in...