Responsibility and blame

Desire for personal growth, and the kind of change that comes with it, is usually driven by a recognition that things as they are now are somehow unsatisfactory, problematic, or just more difficult than we want them to be. Somewhere there is a situation that needs changing, a problem to be resolved, a challenge to be met, or a task to be completed. I am a strong proponent of personal change. Not a surprising sentiment, coming from a therapist. I tend to believe that my life and your lives, all of the time, are chock full of issues to be addressed, things needing to be resolved, barriers to be overcome, which are all great justification for personal change. I have explained in other blogs and in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter, how we must first acknowledge a problem in order to be able to solve it. This blog is more specific—it explains how responsibility plays a crucial role in the identification of the causes of a problem and how this is necessary for personal growth. In relationships with others, allocation of responsibility amounts to acting on the proverb: “own what you own, don’t own what you don’t own.”

Every law student takes a class called “Torts.” It is the class that teaches them about “liability” for various things like car accidents, medical malpractice, and other forms of personal injury. The word “tort” in the legal sense (not to be confused with Torte, which is a dessert food) comes from Latin via Old French, meaning “wrong or injustice.” When things go wrong, we (all people) tend to want to know whom to blame for it. Certainly, blame and liability can be taken too far. As you may know, I used to be a trial attorney. I once was involved in a jury trial when taking blame too far became a real problem for me (and my client). I was polling the jury pool before the trial began to see if they might have a problem with awarding money to my client if we proved the other side had done something wrong (take my word for it, they had—done something wrong). One juror mentioned the then recent case of the person who sued McDonald’s when she spilled coffee on herself because, even though she spilled the coffee, and knew it was hot when she did it, she claimed the coffee was hotter than it should have been. The rest of the jury pool laughed, and I think I did as well. Just my luck to get a jury trial going right after the infamous McDonald’s coffee case. Fortunately, we were able to overcome this juror’s concerns about frivolous blaming and prevailed in our lawsuit. Thank you very much!

Looking for someone to blame when things go wrong is not just common—it seems to be universal. It’s human nature. And it makes sense at a certain level. Whenever we encounter any kind of problem, we want to know how it happened so it isn’t repeated, so it can be avoided next time. Makes a lot of sense. In the law, we want to attribute “fault” so we know who should or should not get compensated and who should suffer the cost of that compensation. Without getting into the details, the law can actually be quite complicated in its allocation of “fault,” especially when there are more than two parties involved. I used to be involved in construction litigation cases that involved more than 10 separate companies, some or all of whom may have shared a percentage of ultimate liability for the problem that gave rise to the lawsuit.

When we step away from the law, and just look at human interactions, human living day to day, the structure of human relationships, or even just communication between people, finding “fault” doesn’t do much good. Fault is about blame. Fault is about who should pay or who should be punished—to make things “right” so we feel better about what happened, so justice has been done. Fault doesn’t get us anywhere toward actually solving a problem. Fault is limited to looking back into the past. Personal growth and change is about looking into the future, while being mindful of how we got to where we are. When my clients in their sessions tend toward attributing fault, I encourage them instead to think in terms of responsibility. Fault says, “YOU did this thing and YOU were wrong.” Responsibility says, “you did THIS THING and it needs to change.” Both statements might be true, but the emphasis and intent are different. Responsibility is more directed at behavior and its consequences, whereas fault is directed at the moral character of the person.

Responsibility, rather than fault, is necessary to solving our problems. If we don’t learn to take responsibility for our behaviors, we cannot learn from our mistakes. And we all make mistakes. As the saying goes, “Those who cannot remember (or acknowledge or understand) the past are condemned to repeat it.” Responsibility is about paying attention to your part in how you got to where you are, either on your own or with others, so you at least know what not to do the next time.

Let’s take an all too common, and difficult, therapy situation to explain how thinking in terms of responsibility instead of fault is a more effective way to solve problems and achieve personal growth. Michelle and Andy come into therapy after their teenage daughter Lila has been admitted to a drug treatment program. They are fighting over how Lila became involved in drugs—they are blaming each other, accusing the other of various kinds of things: “you were not paying enough attention,” “you were too lenient with her,” “you were too strict,” or “you wanted to send Lila to a school known to have problems with drugs.” All of these things might actually be true, meaning they each played some part in how Lila ended up in treatment. Fighting over who’s fault it is, however, will get them nowhere, and will actually increase the likelihood of further harm to the whole family.

If Michelle and Andy are both able to re-orient their thinking from blame and fault to responsibility and how they can actually change, they will be in a much better position to be supportive of each other and Lila. Michelle has been travelling extensively for work, leaving it to Andy to carry the lion’s share of input into Lila’s daily activity. Andy wanted to send Lila to a smaller charter school because his friend Peter’s son had encountered similar problems at the same school Lila is now attending. After talking about how to change their levels and type of input into the problem (in other words their own respective responsibility for the problem and how to change it), Michelle says she plans to tell her supervisor at work that she needs to cut down on travel, to delegate some of that work elsewhere, at least for a while. Andy tells Michelle he knows Lila is open and eager to switching to a smaller more focused school where she may be less overwhelmed than she is at her current school. Michelle is glad to hear this from Andy, not having realized how much Lila has been dreading going to her current school each morning. They both want to be more open with each other about their concerns for Lila and Lila’s needs. They agree to allow Lila to participate in choosing a new school if she is also willing to agree to seek out new support resources for her drug issues. They plan to bring her along to the next session so we can talk about these issues with her directly in a supportive solution-focused way.

The breakthrough in this couple’s work could not have happened unless both Andy and Michelle were willing to take a look at their own responsibility for the problem. It is not likely either of them would have been willing to look at themselves if they hadn’t stopped blaming each other. Looking at problems through identification of responsibility rather than fault tends invites everyone to look at their contribution to a problem because it less charged, less threatening. Talking about fault and blame creates hostility, defensiveness, and entrenchment. Talking about responsibility opens up possibilities for doing things differently.

Responsibility can also mean power—the power to change. As in, “I had the power to do (this problematic thing), so I must also have the power to change (and do something differently).” I want my clients to take responsibility for themselves, to grab this power to change, and use it’s recognition as both an incentive for change and as a way to learn how to solve whatever problem they might be having. If we refuse to take responsibility for our own conduct, if we blame others for our own situation, we then give up power to change what we can change ourselves and become unable or unwilling to see patterns that could be hindering our growth and happiness.

Chris has had many short-term relationships, frequently suffering breakups for various reasons. Chris blames the other person in each of these relationships for the breakup, finding reasons (some of them deserved) that the other person caused the breakup. What Chris doesn’t realize is her part in each of the breakups—that she finds reasons to quit the relationship and then creates circumstances that contribute to the breakup, all so she can avoid rejection and abandonment when things start to become a little unstable or difficult. Until Chris realizes her part in sabotaging her relationships, she won’t be able to parse out the fear of abandonment that drives her destructive behavior or the ways she creates circumstances that lead to the breakup. Until she takes responsibility for her own issues and behavior, Chris will likely continue the pattern of short-term relationships that end in painful breakups when what she really wants is stability. If Chris continues to blame others completely for these breakups, she will be forced to continue to wait for the ideal partner (who will never come) who does everything exactly right so she can finally have a stable relationship.

Don’t get me wrong. I do want my clients to hold others in their lives responsible when doing so is both deserved and reasonable. Only then can they make the decision about whether the other person is willing or able to change and how to respond. If that person is willing to change, they can work together toward that change. If that person is not willing or able to take responsibility, including the need to change, my client can decide how to react to bring about whatever change they can make on her or his own (e.g. accept the other person as things are or distance themselves).

It kind of goes without saying that taking responsibility for our own behaviors, attitudes, and decisions is a good idea simply because it is the right thing to do. When we acknowledge our participation in a problem, especially if we also acknowledge the need to do things differently in the future, we reassure others that we have integrity. We can also relieve ourselves of the guilt we might feel if we didn’t take responsibility for what we did.

Most of the time, it is a good idea to acknowledge our own responsibility even when others do not acknowledge their responsibility for an issue. It rarely costs us much to do so, as long as we are not falling into a pattern of taking responsibility for what others have done or expecting them to take responsibility for their part solely because we did (even when we think they should). Balancing our own responsibility against the responsibility of others can be one of the thorniest issues in all of our relationships. It seems possible to achieve this balance only if we are first willing and able to identify our own responsibility and what we need to change before we consider and identify the responsibility of others and then hold them accountable for their responsibility, regardless of whether they are willing to do the same. This becomes easier over time, but always starts with “own what you own” before you “don’t own what you don’t own.”