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  • Writer's picturelarahammock

Are You Stuck in Blame or Shame? Move to a Place of Agency


This is a theory I’ve been considering for a while. This diagram shows how I think our agency is impacted by how much responsibility we feel over resolving a given situation. What do I mean by agency? It’s the power that we have to impact our situation. Having a high amount of agency is important because it is the main lever we can pull to create positive outcomes in our lives. It impacts all of the areas of our lives: our mental health, our relationships, our parenting, and our career/educational choices. Agency is one of the fundamental measures in mental health that predicts positive outcomes and wellness. This diagram can potentially give us some insight into how to go from a position of powerlessness to a position of agency.





Responsibility

So, let’s break it down. Along the horizontal axis of the Agency Bell Curve, you have responsibility. The notion of responsibility is complicated, which we will talk about later since there is both the question of who is responsible for landing you in a situation and there is the question of who is responsible for pulling you out of the situation. Many times these are not the same. So, in this case, I’m talking about who is responsible for resolving things. On the far left, you feel 0% responsibility for resolving things — that’s a position of Blame. Someone else made this mess, they can clean it up — it’s not my problem. On the far right, you feel 100% responsibility for resolving things — that’s a position of Shame. I made this mess, it’s up to me to fix it — no one else should do it for me. Blame directs the entire responsibility externally to others and shaming directs it all internally to ourselves.



Agency

The vertical axis on this diagram represents the amount of power or agency that you feel you possess to have an impact on your situation. You can see that the extreme ends of the spectrum — both blame and shame — are positions of powerlessness or no agency.



Extreme Blame

If you feel intense blame, you are allocating 100% of the responsibility for changing things to someone else or something else. This is a victim position. In some ways, being a victim is a position of power since you are staking out the higher moral ground. However, sometimes the moral outrage of that position allows you to insist that you won’t take any action to resolve things. After all, “It’s not my fault! They did it — they should be the ones to fix it!“. Let’s say you are in a 15-year marriage and things aren’t going well. Maybe your spouse has been an awful, abusive partner. You might say, “I haven’t done anything wrong! The failure of this message is entirely his fault, HE should be the one to change things!” You are placing the responsibility of solving the problem 100% on your partner. This position has no agency or power to change since “I shouldn’t have to and — I WON’T do it.”



Extreme Shame

On the other hand, if you are allocating 100% of the responsibility for a bad situation to yourself, this is a position of extreme shame. You are not taking into account anyone else’s actions, your history and trauma, the power structures at work, or any other external impacts on your actions or your decision-making. Instead, you are saying “It’s all my fault — I am a bad person and we wouldn’t be in this situation if I didn’t mess up so badly.“ In the 15-year marriage example, perhaps you have done many things you are not proud of. Perhaps you are someone who feels shame easily. You may think, “I am 100% responsible for the failure of this marriage. It’s all on me.” That is a position of extreme shame and it is inherently powerless and demoralizing. Shame tends to take things from “I did something bad” directly to “I’m a bad person.” From this demoralizing position, it is hard to take action or feel as though you can have any positive impact on your situation. This position also has no power to change since “I’m overwhelmed and — I just CAN’T do it.”


Again, these extreme ends of the spectrum are positions of powerlessness. There is either no desire on one hand or no ability on the other to make the changes that might positively impact your situation going forward.



Fault vs. Responsibility

There are times when you have legitimately screwed up in a major way. It was 100% your fault! And there are certainly times when you had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with what happened to you. You were 0% to blame — like in any case of child abuse or many violent crimes. Both of these statements are about assigning fault. When it comes to responsibility, fault is only one thing to consider. In other words, if you dropped a birthday cake on the floor, then yes, it is your responsibility to clean it up and maybe also ensure there is a replacement cake for the party. However, fault isn’t the only ingredient in determining responsibility. You also need to determine who suffers by not doing anything. For example, what if you are the one throwing the party and the person who dropped the cake is a 5-year-old child. Well, you obviously aren’t going to wait for the child to bake a new cake or else you’d be waiting a long time. And you are now the one who is suffering since you really wanted a cake for your party! So, responsibility for resolution or change is not just about fault.

The Path to Agency

So, the question becomes, if you are in a place of extreme powerlessness, how do you move to a place of power over your situation? To do this, you can’t be entirely in shame or entirely in blame. You need to move closer to the center of the diagram. How do you do this?


  • From Blame to Agency — for those who are in Blame, how do you move towards more agency? By admitting that there are things you can do personally for yourself to make your life better. For example, perhaps you are married to an active alcoholic. You believe that he is ruining your marriage with his drinking. Is it his fault? Yes. But is it his responsibility to resolve this problem for you? Not really — it’s at least partially yours. If you are waiting for him to change, you might be waiting for a very long time. You need to take care of yourself, get your own support lined up, build a life that is full and rich, and make your limits known to him. Then, if he chooses to make changes to his life — perhaps he can join you in your fuller, richer life. Do I think this is hard? Absolutely. But taking responsibility for resolving our own problems is critical to moving out of blame and moving forward.

  • From Shame to Agency — for those who are stuck in Shame, how do you get to a place of more agency? It is through self-compassion and self-competence. Shame can be overwhelming, demoralizing, and disempowering. How do we get to a place where we feel like we deserve to have a different life? Let’s say that YOU are the alcoholic husband in that last example and your drinking fills you with shame. Any time you think about making a change, you are filled with thoughts of unworthiness and contempt for yourself. If you begin to read about the disease of alcoholism and the neurobiology that hijacks your brain that making it difficult to quit or feel good without alcohol, you watch how you talk to yourself and try to be kinder and gentler, you find some supportive, compassionate people to help you — friends, family, a support group — because belonging is the antidote to shame. Each of these steps will help you to understand that the responsibility is not as heavy as you thought — and that you can lean on some external resources to make small steps to improve your life.

If you are feeling stuck, consider that you might be in a place of extreme shame or blame. And if you find yourself in one of these extremes, find ways to take responsibility or apply self-compassion to move toward the center of the bell curve so that you can start to make small changes that will positively impact your life.



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