Though our society says that no crime should go unpunished, that when we make our bed, we must then lie in it, and that strength comes from “sucking it up, buttercup,” I’m going to advocate for something radical:
Self-blame stops us from taking responsibility for our actions.
This idea seemed crazy to me as recently as 6 months ago. At that time, I was all about the self-blame.
The Familiar Pattern
See, I’ve always been someone who’s striven to become a better version of myself. To me, that’s always meant trying to do what’s right. Trying to improve myself. Trying to have a more meaningful impact on the world. Trying to take responsibility when I make a mess of things.
But the ugly doppelgänger of all that good intention is, I can be hypercritical at times. Of people, of situations, and mostly of myself. And when I get in that mode, if I or anyone else falls short of my impossible standards, I can become judgemental, impatient, and think–or even say–mean, hurtful things. Not my proudest moments, but they’ve happened. (A lot.)
This is where self-blame has always kicked in. I’d watch myself judging, criticizing, being negative and mean, and I’d hate myself for it. I’d think, Cindy, you’re a horrible, mean person. Any decent human would never be this hateful and nasty. So much for trying to be a compassionate person; I guess you’re just a bad egg.
There’d also be some desperate grab for self-preservation: Bite your tongue next time. Better not let anyone see what kind of person you really are.
And yet, the very next week, or day, or even minute (!) I’d watch myself do the same thing all over again.
I’m willing to bet this pattern of act-poorly, cause-harm, berate-self, commit-to-doing-better, mess-up-again has probably happened to you too. (If not, congrats. I guess you can stop reading now?)
The Radical Experiment
In it, she shares some advice she gave a man who came to her for help. He suffered from frequent, uncontrolled fits of rage, and always ended up saying extremely hurtful, harmful things to his wife and kids. He hated himself for it, but he couldn’t seem to help himself. (Well that sounds familiar, I thought.)
What shocked me was her advice to him. She told him to say to himself, “It’s not my fault.” She said, if someone were to ask him whether he wanted to hurt his family or not, he’d obviously say no, and mean it. Therefore, he hadn’t really been at choice when he’d been cruel to them.
Part of me thought this was the worst advice ever. I could hardly even fathom telling myself that all my meanness and judginess were somehow “not my fault.” I don’t deserve to be let off the hook like that. If I stop thinking it’s my fault, I won’t take responsibility for changing things, and then I’ll act like this forever!
But another part of me had to admit that my self-blame cycle wasn’t going anywhere, either. No matter how much I yelled at my doppelgänger, tried to hide her ugliness from everyone else, hoped she wouldn’t rear her evil head and embarrass me, none of that seemed to give me any more control over her.
So although telling myself it wasn’t my fault felt radical, even dangerous, I used my meditation practice to give it a try.
One of the great things about meditation (or coaching, or therapy for that matter) is that it gives you a low-risk, low-cost opportunity to try out a radical idea. I would sit down and say to myself, For the next 10 minutes, I’m just going to entertain the possibility that “it’s not my fault,” and see what comes up for me. If I don’t like where it leads, I’ll just go back to my usual stance once those 10 minutes are up.
What happened next was revelatory. When I really started to absorb and accept the statement of “It’s not my fault,” I began to see that judgmental part of myself differently.
I saw that, in part, she was grumpy because she was just really exhausted from long workdays and parenting, and was running on near-empty.
I also noticed that she was really afraid of getting hurt, of being vulnerable, to the actions of other people. She’d been burned in the past by people she gave her heart to, who hadn’t taken care of it. Criticizing was a way of trying to protect herself and control the actions of others.
I also realized that she herself had been criticized by certain grownups around her when she was a kid, and had learned that this was the way to improve, to survive, and to be accepted. So part of her actually believed she was being helpful to other people when she shared her criticisms with them.
I could clearly see the mechanisms of her pain, her fears, her actions, and her impact. And seeing all this, I felt compassion for her that I’d never felt before.
Sure, I could still see how harmful her actions were. And I could see how ineffective her actions were in getting her what she really wanted. But I could also see through her flaws and understand her suffering.
And that’s put me in the position to make better choices for her (a.k.a. me) going forward. I’m making it a bigger priority to give myself time to rest and recover when I need it. In situations that feel risky, I can communicate my concerns and needs more openly, rather than attacking other people. And when I want to help others, I try to find ways that are less hurtful and more encouraging.
And what’s more, even my doppelgänger has begun to de-escalate. When I started to have compassion for her, I could literally feel her (er, me) relax with relief. Finally, someone understands me! I don’t have to fight all by myself. For the first time, she knew I had her back. And that inner shift has been profound.
The Power of Paradox
So how did what felt like throwing responsibility out the window end up being the key to really taking responsibility for the first time?
I believe this is because of the power of paradox. Dictionary.com defines a paradox as:
A statement that seems contradictory or absurd but is actually valid or true.
Many paradoxes operate in our lives, and my mindfulness practice has led me to discover several of them (which look forward to sharing more of in this blog). Often, what feels like taking a step in the exact opposite direction as where we want to go turns out to be the best path to getting there.
Releasing self-blame, or blame in general, feels like a radical message in this day and age. Most of the time, it seems like if you f*** up, you’ve lost your right to empathy or respect. But I believe that attitude does more harm than good. Does it ever actually encourage people to make better choices?
But don’t take my word for it. I’d love for you to try it for yourself. What’s something you always blame yourself for? What happens if you entertain the possiblity that it’s “not your fault”?