The antidote to an excessive tendency to blame ourselves is to realize that:
The issue is not guilt, fault or blame; the issue is human imperfection.
We are still worthwhile human beings in spite of what happened.
It was not a crime and we are not guilty. A more appropriate emotion would be regret, which is the wish that things were other than they are.
If there are appropriate consequences of our imperfect behavior we are prepared to accept them. Inappropriate consequences are not acceptable, they make things worse for everyone.
We can choose not to take the consequences personally, Consequences are not a reflection of our worth as a person. If you are, for example, habitually twenty minutes late, your companion can choose to leave without you. No hard feelings. If you do not care for this consequence, it is up to you to do something constructive about it. This is not between you and your companion, it is between you and you.
You are not required to assume the fault and guilt of others. If a loved one breaks a dish, catch yourself about to assume fault. (“Oh, I shouldn’t have left it so close to the edge.”) This is an absurd waste of your time and energy. Life is too short for such carryovers from our childhood roles.
Imperfect people break dishes all the time. It is no ones fault when they do. What if he meant to break the dish? Do we say “It’s your fault?” Would it help if we did? If this mistake makes us angry, we can do an anger homework. We can stop reacting and express our feelings appropriately: “It makes me angry when you do that!” We can impose a logical consequence, such as having him pay for a replacement. This is a much more effective payoff for this provocative behavior and better then the sideshow you used to put on.
When we are angry at a negative situation, we can choose to ask ourselves if we are angrier than the reality situation requires us to be. We want to identify the excess so we can get it out of our way. The excess anger can drive us over the edge. An example of this extreme fault-finding is the distraught father whose child died in a school shooting who was heard screaming at his wife, “Why didn’t you keep her home today?” This implication of failure to predict and prevent the future is absurd, but it is understandable as a non-rational, desperate effect to relieve unbearable grief through “problem solving” in ways that do not make sense.
If we see ourselves in a similar position, we can choose to shift our gears from the old modus operandi of looking for inappropriate fault and, instead, to express our legitimate anger appropriately as we have learned to do. We can say, “I’m angry and hurt by everything that has happened.”
If we must go on and on in that vein, we can write out our anger and grief. We can choose to catch ourselves looking for guilt, fault and blame and remind ourselves that there will be time later to address issues of culpability and responsibility when the emotional storm has passed.
Our ambition to “improve” ourselves by correcting flaws in others or ourselves may seem like a positive one, but it is not. It is a negative ambition that arises out of our self doubt. The desire is not so much to look superior as it is to avoid looking inferior. In the end, we wind up looking no better than people without self respect. Self-respecting people do not define their worth in terms of being fault free. They respect themselves in spite of their lapses and foibles. Their self-respect shows are ones that high strung, frantic strivers for perfection cannot achieve.
Breaking glass image available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 4 Aug 2013