Taking the Blame

It’s a scene we’ve watched a hundred times: A public figure glares into the camera with an expression of outraged innocence and declares, “I am not a crook!” or “It was dehydration, not a drug overdose!” or “I have never had an affair!” Most of us in the viewing audience used to give these folks the benefit of the doubt, but not anymore. We’ve grown jaded watching a succession of well-known people make bold disclaimers that later proved to be flat-out falsehoods.

Of course, this always makes me conscious of my own weasel-ish tendencies. It’s so easy to commit the occasional sin of omission, to tell the little white lie that conveniently precludes taking the blame for my mistakes. But even when I’m doing this, I know it’s a short-term solution with disastrous long-term effects. Avoiding responsibility for our actions is the single most effective way to get stuck—or stay stuck—in a life that doesn’t work. It turns all the energy we might use for problem solving into keeping us insulated from the very experiences and information we most need to learn and grow.

Recognize when it’s not your fault. While some folks avoid blame, others apologize for everything, from their allergies to global warming to the Spanish Inquisition. Accepting blame for things over which we have no control is just as counterproductive as dodging the blame we deserve. It’s not surprising that many people take the blame when it doesn’t belong to them. Females, in particular, are often socialized to hold ourselves responsible for other people’s feelings and behavior, thinking that if we don’t take care of them physically and emotionally, their bad moods or reprehensible actions are our fault.

Watch your language. If, like yours truly, you sometimes get confused about what is or is not your responsibility, you might want to use a very simple and effective method of differentiating between things you can’t control and things you can. All you have to do is pay close attention to the way you talk—specifically, the way you use the phrases “I have to” and “I can’t.” Pretend you’re wearing a shock collar and you get zapped every time you use these phrases when they aren’t literally, physically true.

“I have to finish this report.” Zap! No you don’t. Take it from me: If you really put your mind to it, you can go a long, long time without finishing anything. The truth is that you’re choosing to finish the report because that will create positive consequences.

“I can’t say no.” Zap! You just said it, so we know you have the physical ability to pronounce the word. What you mean is that you’re reluctant to say no because you’re afraid how other people might react.

“I can’t make it to the meeting; I have to go to the dentist.” Zap! Zap! The dentist isn’t abducting you at gunpoint. You could cancel the appointment and attend the meeting if you really wanted to – but you don’t and that’s okay.

Being this ridiculously literal may seem like splitting hairs, but these weasel words can be deadly when used without awareness. When you sound like a passive victim of circumstance, you come to act and think the way victims do. The power to determine your own thoughts and actions goes out the window—and with it, your chance at a fulfilling life.

Try this verbal discipline for a week or so. Instead of saying “I can’t,” substitute more accurate phrases like “I choose not to” or “I don’t want to.” Rather than “I have to,” say “I choose to” or “I’ve decided to,” or simply “I’m going to.” Suddenly, you’ll see a wide range of choices and options available to you in situations where you once felt powerless. This isn’t always comfortable, but it is incredibly liberating. Instead of nice, fuzzy cheesecloth of excuses, you’ll be staring at some hard realities: Sometimes you make mistakes. Sometimes you make choices you later realize were just plan stupid. Sometimes you know a choice is stupid right from the get-go and you make it anyway. Ouch.

Taking the blame stings, like most disinfectants. But the longer you wait to deal with your mistake, the more miserable the process is going to be. Better to accept responsibility the way you’d clean a wound: quickly, thoroughly, with no nonsense whatsoever. This means fully admitting a mistake, apologizing to anyone you may have harmed by your actions, and making any amends you possibly can, without wallowing in shame or acting pathetic in a bid for leniency.

If you take the blame this way, the results will be far more positive than you’d expect. I’ve almost begun to look forward to taking the blame and I’ve become acutely aware of how much easier life is when I’m getting useful feedback, instead of pouring my energy into excuses and cover-ups. Compared to facing new challenges and learning effective ways to shape your own life, the Weasel Dance is boring and repetitive. What’s more, everyone looks terrible doing it. I’ve wasted way too much time on it myself – and make no mistake about it, I have only myself to blame.

0 replies
  1. Kristi
    Kristi says:

    I have a question about taking responsibility and how it relates to adult victims of abuse and exploitation. There’s an assumption that, because the victim was an adult, they “consented” to being in an abusive situation, they had “choice.” But there are many situations in which the power dynamic is such that the victim was not able to give authentic consent and instead complied with or submitted to the abuser—quite different from giving consent. (Consider clergy and therapist abuse.) Now, I believe in personal responsibility and owning one’s choices. But that’s a very confusing situation to come out of because the victims don’t really understand whether they consented or not, and the tendency is for them to blame themselves for getting into an abusive situation and not getting out. We don’t want to say that they “chose” the abuse. But it’s very hard to move out of victim mentality without taking some kind of responsibility—and without blaming themselves for something that was not their fault. I realize this is a very challenging topic, but I’d be interested in hearing any insights. Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    Martha, first of all, you’ve saved my life many times and in many ways. Thank you. Someday I’ll write it all out in the book-length thank-you you deserve.

    What you say about language here thrills me. I have gotten much better about the Weasel business because, as you say, it’s a bad use of energy. Now I need to work on the victimy language. In particular, I’ve recently started to take charge of my time by putting several blocks of un-spoken-for time in my calendar each week, at random. At a glance (by me or others) it looks like that time is booked, so I don’t make appointments during those hours. This has helped me get from Insanely Overscheduled to Actually Spending Time on Things That Matter. Huge! But now I’d like to change the way I communicate with people who ask for my time (life) in bits and pieces for stupid committee work and silly meetings that predictibly end with nothing new accomplished. I’d like to stop saying “I’m sorry, I can’t meet at that time.” I’d LOVE to say “I’m choosing not to . . . ” or “I don’t want to . . . ” but I don’t think I’m quite ready to blast that wall open. What I CAN do at this point is say “My next open time slot is [date three weeks away]” or “I’m not adding anything else to my schedule for the rest of the month.” I actually have the freedom in my job to say things like this. Why the hell I haven’t been doing it all along is a mystery.

    Even practicing these messages in this comment makes me feel less victimy and helpless! Thank you again, and all good wishes to you.

    Reply
  3. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    PS to the above: along with “can’t” and “I’m not able,” I’m also going to stop using “sorry” and “afraid” with regards to my schedule, as in “I’m sorry I’m not available . . .” and “I’m afraid I can’t make it at that time.” Taking charge of my time, I feel a hell of a lot LESS sorry and afraid!

    Reply
  4. zeyna
    zeyna says:

    easier said than done. In my job I don’t have the freedom to say anything I like and if I really want to I might as well write my resignation letter first. I keep reading all these things about positive thinking and talking but when everthing comes down to real life nothing seems to work. I guess all this negativity is enough.

    Reply

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