Responsibility and Blame
Much of what we experience in our lives is out of our direct control. We cannot determine where we are born, when and to whom. As children we have little choice about the environment we grow up in. Even as adults living in a generally democratic and free society, we may feel powerless at times about the government, social issues and perhaps how things are changing or perhaps how things are staying the same. Internally, we cannot directly control much of our own thoughts that pop up in our mind or even what emotions we feel.
And yet, despite all of this, we are still responsible for our lives and we probably have more control than we imagine. We cannot always control what does or doesn't happen to us, but we always have the freedom to choose how we make sense of things. As a result we can learn from our experiences and choose how we respond to them. Responsibility is empowering and frees us from being a pawn to fate and unconsciously reacting to events around us. Responsibility reminds us that we have free will and of our duty as adults to look after our own needs and those dependent upon as a critical precondition for health in ourselves, and health in society at large.
One possible hinderance to us taking greater responsibility for our lives is that we often confuse responsibility for blame. This is an unhelpful misunderstanding, but one that is easy to fall into. When things go wrong, it often triggers strong emotional responses in us including feelings of anger, hatred, jealousy, hurt and fear. It doesn’t help that we live in an increasingly litigious society and as humans generally when we are in groups, we are quick to look for scapegoats and who is to blame when things go wrong; you can see this in the media all the time across the political spectrum.
Blaming is particularly rife in highly stressful situations such as divorce and breakups, financial and money problems, family problems, being made redundant and issues at work amongst many others. When in that stressed state it can be hard to think clearly and it is easy to fall into reacting to things rather than more consciously choosing how to make sense of things and our actions.
For some people, it can be particularly appealing to blame and punish other people when things go wrong. For others this won't be the case, but instead they will direct their blame inwards and punish themselves. Both are different sides of the same coin though.
Having a strong tendency to blame can lead to people avoiding taking responsibility for their lives as they don't want to be blamed or to blame themselves if things go wrong when they exercise their responsibility. For example, often people stay in jobs they are ambivalent about or even ones they don't like, because they fear if they actually tried to go for what they wanted and it didn't work out they would blame themselves for failing. This can be seen as a fear of failure but it is also a result of confusing responsibility with blame. Because of this then they don’t end up choosing actions to move towards what could be better for them.
The psychological payoff of blaming is that it simplifies the complex nature of life and allows us to avoid facing feelings and the reality of existence, which both could be frightening and disturbing to look at. The payoff is in the short term though and outweighed by the negatives.
The negative consequence of blaming is that whilst easy, it simplifies the complex interconnected nature of existence into a black and white way of thinking, with little scope for understanding everything that doesn't fit into that mold. It’s very rare that one event is all the fault of one individual or one specific group of people. The more you see the world in a polarised way, the more you are detached from the nature of things. Consequently, the choices that you make are more likely to not deliver the outcomes you wish for if they are based on faulty knowledge.
When we blame others we avoid looking at ourselves and whilst this may be more comfortable for us, it then makes it harder to learn from our own mistakes. And if we don’t learn from our mistakes we are doomed to repeat them.
Blaming reinforces the idea that you are a victim to life, that you have no control over events and that mistakes must be punished. This isn’t a good place to be and it's hard to make your life better from this state.
So what does this mean practically? How can we live with more self responsibility and less blame? One thing to start with is to notice when you have an urge to blame or are indeed blaming, whether that be blaming someone else or yourself. When you start to notice when you are blaming you open up space to choose responsibility instead. Get interested about what that need to blame really is about and how you are in that moment. Consider what state of mind you are experiencing? Are you stressed? If so can you do anything to help comfort and look after yourself that isn't harmful to you or others? In that way you begin to exercise self-responsibility for your emotions.
Another way to help you take greater responsibility for your life is through counselling. Counselling can help you to understand how you make sense of the world and relations with others. It can provide you with an opportunity to experiment with different ways of seeing and interacting with things. Gestalt Therapy in particular has a heavy focus on helping people to take greater responsibility for their lives in a way that is supportive and creative.