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Robert J Maurer Ph.D.

It's Not My Fault!

The challenge of taking responsibility

Arkady Lifshits/stocksnap
Source: Arkady Lifshits/stocksnap

Imagine two colleagues, friends, or lovers having an argument. Odds are, each is trying to convince the other that they are the source of the problem. If only the other person would admit their mistake and apologize, everything would be fine. Does that sound familiar? In last month’s blog, we explored the Drama Triangle as a likely source of our misery, and we discovered that arguments in which both parties persist in blaming one other usually result in unsuccessful and unsatisfying outcomes. As any observer of our political scene can attest, mutually accusatory conflicts seem pervasive, and they seldom lead to effective problem-solving.

Today, let’s add another dimension to our exploration: our human struggle with taking responsibility. If you look up responsibility in a dictionary, the definition reads ”to blame or hold accountable.” If you look up blame, it says: ”to hold responsible.” These definitions are central to our legal system. For example, if you visit a restaurant and you slip and fall on a wet floor while walking to your table, the restaurant owner is often held legally responsible. Many expect the restaurant to pay for any resulting medical bills, or at least to compensate the customer for the inconvenience or injury in some way. Human nature being what it is, as individuals in our daily lives we also tend to hold others responsible when we are not getting our needs met or our goals achieved. It makes sense, of course. If the only option we have is to place blame, it’s much less painful to blame others rather than to beat ourselves up! Outside of the legal system, however, applying this definition of responsibility rarely works well…because usually, the other person or entity is blaming us in return.

What if we could define responsibility in a different way, one that lifts us and, potentially, all those around us? Rather than focusing on blame, consider an alternate definition, one with two key components: the first, taking responsibility for our own emotional response in situations; the second, taking responsibility for making the situation better, no matter who we believe may have caused the problem. Let’s consider these.

Taking Responsibility for One’s Own Emotional Response: We have explored this theme in previous blogs. If I am venting my anger at you in response to a disagreement or perceived hurt, or I am raging at others whose political, business, or ethical views are different than my own, it may help me to feel self-righteous. However, this rarely decreases my frustration and usually does not help to improve the situation or relationship in any way. I can, however, be committed to my point of view, values and principles, while simultaneously working to transform my anger into neutrality, compassion, or curiosity. To say “this is not an easy task” is a momentous understatement! But it is possible, and it is often the only way to get things moving forward in the right direction when two people - or nations - are at an impasse. Human beings are always more likely be creative and constructive when our raging emotional brains are quieted and our conscious, cortical brains are focused on trying to solve the problem. Additionally, the people around us - friend and foe – are better able to hear us, and we them, if we are not shouting.

Taking Responsibility for Making the Situation Better. If we choose the path of blaming others when conflict arises, we have no desire or need to take steps to find solutions. If there is a mess, we think, why not let those who are “responsible” (to blame) clean it up!? At very least, this is not a very interesting way to live; at worst, nothing changes. Imagine, for example, the argument I briefly described in the opening sentences of this blog. What if one or both of these people thought: “I don’t believe I caused this argument, though I do wonder what I could be doing right now to make it better?” Would this make progress possible? I think so. Nelson Mandela did not cause apartheid, but he tried to end it and make peace with his captors. Mother Teresa did not cause poverty, but she tried to reduce it. Irene McGuire won the Nobel Peace Prize for leading marches trying to bring peace to Ireland, despite the fact that her three young nieces were killed during the civil war that was raging, and her sister was later to commit suicide over the overwhelming grief she endured. No one would have faulted McGuire for nurturing a vengeful rage, yet she turned her despair into an effort to prevent further bloodshed. These people are icons because they demonstrate for the rest of us what we are capable for being, of what the human spirit can accomplish. If taking responsibility in situations that do not appear to be of our making were easy, such examples would not be world renown. Yet, they are examples of what anyone – yes, you and I - are capable of at our best.

There is a Zen saying that captures this spirit: “Bless your enemies for they allow you to grow.” If we view the challenging people and situations in our lives as classrooms wherein we can learn to take responsibility for our emotions and learn how to leave other people and situations better than we found them, at those moments we have succeeded in the greatest of all human achievements.

An eye for an eye only ends
up making the whole world blind.

- Mahatma Gandhi


About the Author

Robert Maurer, Ph.D., a professor at UCLA, is the Director of Behavioral Sciences for the Family Practice Residency Program at UCLA. 


Robert Maurer