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5 Kinds of Blame-Shifting, and Why They Work

1. Pretending it was a joke and that you're too thin-skinned.

Key points

  • "Blame-shifting" is a specific form of verbal abuse, although it may coincide with gaslighting and other forms.
  • A blame-shift is meant to absolve the abuser of responsibility but it also effectively makes the target feel guilty or shamed.
  • Blame-shifting is effective because the abuser knows the other person's insecurities and vulnerabilities.
  • When parents use blame-shifting to justify verbal abuse, children are defenseless.
Photograph by Public Domain Pictures. Copyright Free. Pixabay.
Source: Photograph by Public Domain Pictures. Copyright Free. Pixabay.

As I’ve written before, it is remarkably easy to make a child feel responsible for an adult’s abusive behavior. Adults hold all the power—they make the rules, after all—and what is a child, especially a young one, to answer if the adult says, “You made me yell at you when you didn’t listen”? Yes, folks, that is a slam dunk.

An older child may actually be able to see that what the adult is saying is patently false but may decide that it’s just not worth the inevitable pushback. That was true for Danielle, now 46, and her brother:

“My father was remarkably consistent so there wasn’t much to navigate. Basically, someone always had to be at fault and it was never him. That was true at his job and true in the house. Hot water heater broken? I took too many showers, my mother washed too many clothes. Back door screen door didn’t shut? My brother did a piss-poor job closing it as he did on everything, according to my dad. It was pointless to even begin. But there wasn’t much confusion either about who he was and how he acted. Both my brother and I knew it wasn’t about us.”

It may sound strange but Danielle and her sibling were lucky because the patterns of abuse were so out there and so consistent that they were easy to spot. However, children and adults are much more vulnerable to the real damage of verbal abuse when blame-shifting is subtle and, sometimes, hard to see.

Verbal Abuse Is Fueled by an Imbalance of Power (and a Need to Control)

That remains true even in a verbally abusive relationship between two adults. Many things can, of course, contribute to the imbalance of power: one person needing or being dependent on the other more; financial dependency; a lack of courage to envision a different present (which the abuser will play on); and a pattern of cycles in the relationship when the abuser goes from abusive to even complimentary or nice, arousing your hopefulness that the pattern is finally coming to an end. Alas, since those who relish both control and like the rush of power that comes with watching someone crumble when he or she is verbally abused, epiphanies are—you guessed it—rare.

5 Common Blame-Shifts and Why They Work

This isn’t an all-inclusive list but, anecdotally, they seem to be the ones that people experience most often. This is drawn from the research I did for my book, Verbal Abuse: Recognizing, Dealing, Reacting, and Recovering.

  1. Pretending it was a joke (and that you're too thin-skinned to get it). The verbal abuser usually doesn’t bother when there isn’t a crowd, but if there’s an audience and you look visibly distressed, he or she will wriggle out by calling you “too sensitive” or lacking “a funny bone.” The “I was only kidding" defense probably won’t fool the onlooker, but it may plant a seed of doubt in your head, especially if you were told that as a child, which is the whole point.
  2. Making your behavior the cause of the abuse. This sounds as though it requires a real sleight of hand, but it actually doesn’t. The abuser’s sentence usually begins with the words “if you didn’t” or “if you hadn’t” and then fills in the blanks. What follows justifies his or her behavior because you “actually” started it. Here are some random examples: “If you hadn’t decided to bring this up for what has to be the thousandth time, I wouldn’t have lost it,” “If you’d done what you promised to do, I wouldn’t have yelled at you,” and so forth. This classic blame-shift may actually suck you in especially if you were angry at the time.
  3. Blaming the abuse on your bad timing (and insensitivity). Yes, this sounds as though it takes chutzpah, but how dare you bring up an issue when he or she “is tired,” “spent the day at work,” or “has lots of things on his or her mind?” Of course, the reality is that there never seems to be a good time to bring up any issue, but that doesn’t stop the verbal abuser from working to have it boomerang back at you. No wonder he or she ignored you, put you down, or screamed at you, right?
  4. It’s your flaws that make it happen. The sentences usually begin with “you always” or “you never” and the blame-shift focuses on all the essential flaws in your character—your laziness, your procrastination, your inability to make up your mind, your stupidity or obtuseness or anything else—that actually forced him or her to be abusive. Who can blame him or her for having to deal with all of that? Who wouldn’t lose it? This blame-shift is classic between the verbally abusive parent and the targeted child but, yes, it happens between adults too. Be prepared for a litany of flaws, all of which are intended to make you feel lousy about yourself and guilty for having “provoked” him or her. This particular blame-shift usually aims at eliciting an apology from you---for being you.
  5. Your constant complaints are the same old tattoo (so why bother talking?). In my experience, this blame-shift justifies stonewalling, ignoring you, or pretending you haven’t said a word; it can also segue into brinksmanship, as in “If you’re so unhappy, why don’t you just leave?” Make no mistake—these are all forms of verbal abuse—and intended to shut you up and shut you down. He or she knows you aren’t ready to leave and he or she also knows you are desperate for an answer or resolution to the problem at hand. That’s why this form of blame-shifting works.

Blame-shifting is a form of verbal abuse that is both highly motivated and manipulative. The first step toward the door is recognition of the patterns.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2023

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