The problem with Blame
The common concept of blame has been inadvertently used to erode the personal interactions in our lives. This notion of blame has also been working against our personal development efforts. I know these are pretty broad and bold statements. But blame is often a critical ingredient in our destructive self-talk and inner dialog. Replacing it with a better concept has been long overdue, in my humble opinion. I’ve been thinking of this, on and off, for a few years and believe I have a solution that will resonate with most of us. I think most of us can benefit by eliminating blame from our thinking where it does a lot of unseen damage, especially in handling ourselves.
Let’s dig into the blame model a little before I propose what could be a better way of seeing and handling things. Hold your judgment for now until you understand the full proposal below. You be the judge of whether the proposed replacement for blame is any better than the idea of blame itself.
What is Blame and what’s wrong with it
Most dictionaries have a similar definition of Blame:
• an act of attributing fault; censure; reproof: “The judge said he found nothing to justify blame in the accident.”
• Responsibility for anything deserving of censure: “We must all share the blame for this deplorable condition.”
Inherent in this definition is the indication of “fault”, “censure”, “reproof” or some form of negative judgment being applied to yourself or another. Blame is a typical ingredient for destructive and scarring self-dialog that reduces our potential, or turns us into victims. We can often hear “blame” statements such as “It’s all my (your) fault”, “I (you) always do this badly”, “I am (you are) not reliable”, “I (you) did it AGAIN”. Our imperfect thinking, coupled with such language, can easily label ourselves or others and create internal patterns that stall or impede our growth.
This is not the end of the damage that the blame approach to thinking causes. We are also encouraged to treat mistakes and misjudgments as evil things that should not happen.
Characteristic of both blame and the view suggested below, is the idea that a mistake or a misjudgment has occurred and that one or more people must own this misjudgment or mistake. This is not a bad thing. To correct anything, we must acknowledge, in some way, that it needs correction. Others who have been affected by our mistake or misjudgment need to know that the blunder belongs to us. And it is our responsibility to let them know this. So mistakes can sometimes be serious business.
But mistakes are also the fodder for success, unless we treat them differently. Blaming ourselves or others delicately misaligns mistakes to be inherently wrong instead of an essential part of our learning. And the improper handling of mistakes (e.g. labeling ourselves with the mistakes) will make our goals harder to achieve, if we achieve them at all.
The unfortunate choices that constitute our mistakes or misjudgments are made because we don’t know any better. And the consequences of these choices will keep occurring until we learn to make better choices, or at least different ones. Once our lessons are learned and integrated into our lives, resulting in better choices, those consequences will dissolve (sometimes slowly) from our lives. Mistakes are unavoidable because learning is unavoidable. Doing something and getting it wrong is considerably more productive than doing nothing. And blaming ourselves for mistakes is like blaming a child for coming home muddy after playing in the mud.
Responsibility instead of blame
The common definition of responsibility: the state or fact of being responsible, answerable, or accountable for something within one’s power, control, or management. The negative aspects of admonition and disapproval are absent from this definition. Responsibility forms the basis for empowerment in the face of our challenges. Instead of the “blame statements” above, examples of “responsibility statements” include “I can do better than that”, “Let’s try something different the next time”, “How can I get a different result”, “How can I break this pattern”, “How can I prevent this from happening again”, etc.
With responsibility, we still expect ourselves and others to be accountable for their role in undesirable outcomes. Without blaming or accusing others, we can be creative in asking them to take responsibility for their effects and choice consequences. The effort is very much worthwhile, if you desire to grow and nourish the people around you.
To understand this responsibility approach better, consider the following tenet. We are all becoming. By “becoming”, I mean that we are all becoming something different than we are at the current moment. Change is inevitable. Let’s assume that this “becoming” is pointed in directions that will ultimately serve us better than our current state and what we are becoming is better than what we were. If so, this process must involve learning. True learning requires trial and error experience to get it right. Trial and error experience actually requires mistakes. Mistakes are the stepping stones of success in getting anything right and developing wisdom with it. I have many examples of this in my own life where significant gain ultimately came from the learning from my mistakes, especially the patterned or habitual mistakes.
You are always doing the best you can, even when you think you are not
I know this sounds contradictory (or at least controversial). After all, when you know you are making poor choices in your actions or feelings, how can it be said that you are doing your best? Please indulge me as I ponder this just a little bit more.
If I, for example, decide to be dishonest, am I doing my best? After all, we all feel that dishonesty and the idea of doing your best mix about as well oil and vinegar. However, we decide to be dishonest when the motivation for dishonesty is stronger than the motivation for honesty, assuming we stop to think about it. One of the reasons the motivation for dishonesty may win out over honesty is because we don’t fully appreciate the consequences of dishonesty in our lives. These consequences are both long and short term, affecting both our world affairs and our personal peace. Until I learn to value and respect these consequences, I will continue to find opportunities for dishonesty, which will increase its negative effects on my life and affairs. To free myself of these consequences, I must move beyond or free myself from the dishonesty causing them. So in this case, “The best I can” is being limited by my under-developed value system that doesn’t quite appreciate the damage that dishonesty will cause in my life. I am reminded of where our good judgment comes from – bad judgment.
Note: when mistakes or misjudgments hurt other people, we must take responsibility for that damage. This is part of the responsibility approach – to understand your effect on others and act accordingly.
Others will blame you and say “It’s your fault”. Take responsibility for your role. Own it. But point to the future where any resolution is needed. Indicate the sincere intent to improve the situation moving forward, and do so. It is important to become aware of and understand our role in any undesirable events we encounter. Without that awareness and understanding, we are powerless to do better, since we cannot fix what we cannot see. Do not get into the negative talk of blame, especially within your own self-talk dialogs. Instead, seek to improve the situation going forward. Be responsible for better.
Blame versus Responsibility
Many see blame as just a different kind of responsibility, or a different flavor of responsibility. After all, they are similar in that both are responses to our role (or another’s role) in some event – usually an undesirable one. But understanding your role in current events is different than blaming yourself for those circumstances. Why? Because intrinsic within the idea of blame is the past. Blame is behind you. Although the past contains our conditioning and important lessons, and learning from the past is vital to our growth, it is all essentially behind us.
Just as intrinsically, responsibility is ahead of you and concerned with future outcomes and how they will turn out. What will happen up ahead will test what we have learned, make good the wrongs done, and create better patterns for ourselves and others. Blaming yourself can leave scars in the form of labels and self-created boxes. Taking responsibility empowers you to do better. And doing better is really what our lives are all about. You can influence upcoming events, but cannot change past events.
The Blame approach treats mistakes and misjudgments as bad things that shouldn’t occur, while the Responsibility approach emphasizes the learning that should be a part of every mistake or misjudgment.
If this seems like a good idea to you, then the first thing we have to confront are the habits we’ve developed that integrate the notion of Blame into our thinking. Depending on your comments, this will be the topic of a future blog. I think you will like what it says. I’m looking forward to writing it.