Whenever something goes wrong many of us have a tendency to blame someone else. It’s human nature. Guy cuts you off while driving? What an asshole! Boss makes you angry? He’s a dick! Get into a fight with a friend or family member? They did x,y, and z to me!
It seems like every time something disrupts our peace of mind we always have an excuse or person to point the finger at to justify why we feel how we do.
While we might be able to rationalize our own anger, frustration, anxiety, whatever it may be, the one thing that we do have control over is the way that we react to these situations.
Although someone may have pissed you off, and although you very well may be justified in your response, that doesn’t mean that you have to respond in the way that you do.
You can take ownership over your reactions, and choose to respond differently.
It’s always much easier to say it’s someone else’s fault than to take a hard look at ourselves and ask, “What could I have done differently in that situation?”
For example, the biggest learnings curve I’ve been through in this past year has been from a leadership perspective. I have never managed a team of any kind, yet this year I hired 5 people to work for me. I was now managing a group of individuals who were mostly older and more experienced than myself, and I was the one who was responsible for holding them accountable for their work.
Unsurprisingly, I had a lot of shortcomings here when I look back on how things unfolded. Tasks weren’t executed on properly, I had to constantly repeat the same things over and over, people were working on projects that weren’t the top priority, and so on. I found myself beating my head against a wall wondering why things weren’t getting done how I wanted them to be done.
At first, I took the normal route of pointing the finger. They didn’t listen, they weren’t thorough, they didn’t manage time well, etc. etc. So what did I do? I began having weekly meetings with team members. Then something interesting happened.
I noticed throughout my calls that many of them simply had a lack of direction. It’s not that they weren’t competent, weren’t listening, or didn’t thoroughly complete the work.
On the contrary, I didn’t clearly provide them with the direction that they needed to successfully execute. I realized that the gaps in their completion were due to the fact that I never clearly laid out expectations. Their lack of execution was due to my lack of expectation setting.
It was my fault.
Now whenever something goes wrong I blame myself. I take ownership for what happened and I focus on what I can do to improve the situation.
If someone doesn’t complete a project, I look back on the directions I provided to them and find where the gaps in understanding happened.
If someone frustrates me and a communication breakdown happens, I tell myself that it happened because I didn’t communicate effectively with that individual person.
In reality, placing blame on ourselves is a much more productive way of handling relationships, work, anything. When we take a hard look at ourselves and say “what could I have done to improve the situation?” we take responsibility for shortcomings and focus on how to improve for the future. When we blame others, we fail to scrutinize ourselves and thus we don’t improve our ability to handle similar situations in the future.
It has also helped me to notice when other people do it. For example, the other day a teammate of mine was telling me about a person whom he tried to connect with. His response to me was “She’s really flaky, head is in a million different directions, incredibly difficult to get a hold of and even harder to get her to execute on what was discussed in the meeting!”
Let’s break down what happened here. My teammate failed to connect with a potential business partner, and in doing so placed the blame on her.
He had a whole list of reasons why that person wasn’t easy to deal with, instead of talking about himself and where he went wrong in building the relationship.
If we were to flip it, and if he were to place blame on himself, he could have said something along the lines of, “I didn’t do a good job following up with her and it was difficult to execute on what we discussed. She is a really busy person with a lot of projects to handle, and I could have done a better job of making it easier for her to act on what I proposed. I followed up with her 2–3x and then lost track of the conversation.”
This shift in perspective also affects how we deal with the people whom we come into contact with.
If I would have taken my business partner’s word as truth, I would have approached the conversation with an attitude of “She’s flaky”, instead of “she is really busy, make it easy for her to work with you.” This could have lead to a vicious cycle of blaming her instead of focusing on what I could do to make sure that we create the relationship and build in the right direction of our goals.
When one person holds themselves accountable, it also has a ripple effect on everyone else. If you are the one consistently shouldering the blame when problems surface, it has a tendency to make others say the same.
It becomes easier for other people to own up and say, “you know what, while you didn’t provide me with clear directions I could have done a better job at expressing to you that I need more direction. I should have asked for further clarification before jumping into the project.” The attitude of ownership creates a culture of everyone owning up to their own shortcomings.
I have also begun to apply this to some of the more macro situations that we come across on a daily basis, such as relationships with friends and family. For example, given my international lifestyle its difficult to keep in touch with all of my friends back home, and throughout the years I feel as if many of these relationships have begun to slip.
At one point I went through a period of saying to myself “If they cared about me and were genuinely interested in my life they would reach out”, and with this attitude I rarely spoke to many people who I care about.
Over the last few months however, I’ve shifted the blame onto myself and said “you don’t reach out to people enough and these relationships are slipping due to your own lack of communication”. With that I have actively sent messages to more people, tried to keep the communications alive, and in doing so it has had a positive affect with others reciprocating the reach out.
While this is a great mindset and attitude to adopt, it also does come with dangers. Shouldering the blame all of the time has the potential to create a lot of stress and anxiety, especially for people who are naturally hard on themselves (like myself).
There are many instances where we might not be the ones who are at fault, and coming up with tenuous ways of blaming yourself has the potential to be equally dangerous.
For example if someone steals from you, or does something that many would deem “unforgivable”, trying to find ways of blaming yourself isn’t always a fruitful exercise. While you can ask yourself how you could have avoided the situation, sometimes the blame does fall on the other person.
In these situations I like to think of ways that I can prevent myself from associating with these types of people in the future, but in general, this is a delicate exercise in balance of judgement that I am still trying to figure out.
Long winded examples aside, when we take ownership over our own actions rather than placing the blame on others we can improve our relationships dramatically.
Rather than getting angry and frustrated with other people, we can focus on our own improvement, create actionable ways of handling similar situations in the future, and live a happier, more fulfilling life.
If more of us took an attitude of “it was my fault”, we create a society where we all actively take a look at ourselves and our shortcomings to find ways of being more compassionate and forgiving of each other. We encourage each other to treat each other with more kindness, rather than resentment and animosity.
So the next time you find yourself blaming someone else for a negative situation, try this exercise and see if it helps you break out of negative thought patterns :)
Thoughts? Similar experiences? Let me know in the comments below!
Originally published at Troy Erstling.