Reflections on Blame and Shame: Part 3

I was lying on the treatment table for a lymphatic massage, naked except for the covering sheet, feeling open and relaxed. When my therapist came in, I shared I was feeling sad and worried that a family friend had a recurrence of breast cancer, this time stage 4, 12 years after the first time. She was in the best shape of her life, running with her husband, eating very healthy.

My massage therapist’s first response? “I wonder what she did to trigger it coming back.”

I tried to take that in, but ended up in furious tears, outraged at the blame and bewildered by the delusion that we humans can consciously control every aspect of our lives and health. Would she blame me if I had a recurrence? I felt no empathy from her for my friend, only detachment and judgment.

Why do people imply you are responsible?

It’s frightening to be faced with news of illness in another person. It can be hard to know what to say and how to connect. “In some cases the easiest way to approach the illness is to blame the victim” (Marla Morris, Teaching through the Ill Body).

Here are 5 of the reasons I believe people (often unconsciously) blame the victim of an illness:

  1. They want to connect but don’t know what to say. They want an easy answer to the question of why scary and unpredictable things happen in the world.
  2. They want to distance themselves from feeling their own vulnerability especially about their bodies and mortality. If they can assign cause, especially one not connected to themselves, they feel safe.
  3. Unconscious Aggression. People walk around with a lot of aggression, often hidden, often unconscious. Here’s a moment when you are vulnerable and you can become a target. For example, when a friend was diagnosed, her mother’s best friend called her to offer “sympathy” and then exclaimed:,“See what happens when you don’t get over your anger towards your mother!”
  4. It lets them distance themselves from you. Maybe your relationship was not very close or in a good place. It’s easier to move away emotionally if they can think of how you brought this on yourself.
  5. They are angry (often rightly so) at how our environment and food has become polluted. They are trying to avoid contamination and if you are ill, it can be reassuring for them to think you must not have done a very good job of having a perfect diet or lifestyle that would protect you.
  6. People like to feel one up. Look at how people delight in the struggles of reality show stars and celebrities. If someone is suffering and they can be blamed, people feel better about themselves and reassured that it won’t happen to them.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on Blame and Shame: Part 3”

  1. Yikes! It is all so negative! But Cancer is so scary. I learned how to respond from my doctors and my family and friends who supported me. I even had a friend tell me that he admired my courage. I had no thought of such a thing until he mentioned it.

    I do have a friend who blames her cancer on her family’s treatment of her. I am sorry she feels that way, as it seems she carries that anger around with her and will be unable to heal.

  2. Thank Goddess you are putting this message out there, Indra
    …for education and support of those of us who find ourselves being judged in our vulnerability
    and also,
    to educate people who have Bad Boundaries.


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