The Role of Shame and Blame in Families

by Nathan Chua

It was in the 1980s when a game show called Family Feud caught my attention. It was a game of guessing the top answers that a survey of 100 people revealed. I think what added to the excitement was pitting one family against the other. I remember how this show became something of a cultural exposure for me. I was amazed at how patient and loving the contestants were with each other, even when their family member would give the wrong answer. Of course, there is no telling if the contestants were coached into how they should behave when such misfortunes occur. There are times when the family is split about which answer they think should be given.

I was amazed at how positive everyone was toward each other, even when a member of the family stubbornly went against the wishes of the others. I thought to myself, I find this hard to imagine if my family was playing this game.

I have met many who have shrunk from themselves, and made major life decisions based on the fear of being shamed or blamed by others, especially by family members. This can be even more difficult when decisions involve careers and marriage. It probably is quite common to know that someone makes important decisions, not based on what they want, but on what ought, or what was expected from them.

All this can be traced to the fear of responsibility. This is most evident in people who come to the counseling room with the same questions in mind, “What should I do?” “You are the expert, just tell me what your opinion is and everything will be fine,” are ways to escape responsibility.

In my experience though, this manner of seeking counsel for life’s issues, hardly offers any easy answers, to that thing that they most want to get from a counselor or therapist. In the end, people end up staying with the same issues of indecisiveness and lost lives, or lost selves. People have lost themselves in pursuit of what was expected of them. In exchange for seeking what ought, over what it is that they want, people lose their sense of meaning and purpose in life.

In Kierkegaard’s words,

“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”