[This post is part of a series on overcoming guilt and blame for good. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
This post summarizes and completes my thread on guilt and blame (edit: I added another post on the topic). The first few posts covered where guilt and blame come from. In my experience, the more we understand the emotions’ origins, the more resilient we are to experiencing them at all or managing them if we do feel them.
Basically, I proposed the model that everybody does their best all the time; nobody intends to hurt you. If things seem otherwise, it’s only because you don’t see their perspective and you have different abilities. If you did, you’d see they did the best they could. Poof! There goes blame. The same goes for you in the past. Poof! There goes guilt.
I also proposed the strategy not to look for blame but to take responsibility for making things better to the extent you can.
The last post covered one behavioral tactic to reduce guilt and blame: be curious about people’s intent. Don’t assume they intended to hurt you. The more curious you are, the more you’ll discover any harm was unintentional or incidental and the less you’ll blame others or yourself.
The last tactic is to build experience not blaming people, experiencing how rewarding “Don’t look for blame but take responsibility for making things better to the extent you can” can be. As with much meaningful personal change, you begin by practicing the behavior you want to assume, accepting you will feel unnatural or fake at times, experiencing the reward of the new behavior, and recognizing how relatively unrewarding the old behavior was.
In other words: “fake it ’till you make it” — it’s how personal change happens.
That’s not to say the old behavior didn’t have some element of reward. Blaming others for your problems or your past self is palliative — it makes you feel better for not assuming responsibility — but at a huge cost: you sacrifice your ability to improve things. Also you appear self-righteous to people, which tends to repel them, especially the ones you blame.
If you blame others and your past self a lot, it can be difficult to change. You lose that palliative abdication of responsibility. You lose your moral high ground. But the change is worth it. It may take a while, but eventually you realize you acquire the ability to improve your life.
So next time you feel like blaming someone, no matter how justified you feel, think first about improving the situation. If you can’t let go of blaming at the beginning, remind yourself that the situation is the way it is, however it got that way. No matter how much you blame another or your past self, the past remains the past. You can always act on blaming later.
Crowd out your focus on the past by focusing on improving things now. Take responsibility for the present and future. Even if you feel someone else is responsible for the past and therefore should be improving things, you still benefit from improving things for yourself.
- If someone walking slowly kept you from catching your train, instead of blaming them or angrily stewing in your juices, recognize a) you still have time to kill on the platform and b) the other person probably didn’t know you were there. Maybe they should have known better, but they didn’t. Get out your book or your phone on the platform and do what you can while you’re waiting. Once you get started, you’ll probably forget the problem.
- If someone cuts you off in traffic, instead of yelling or gesturing at them, assume they didn’t mean you harm. If you have to, conceive of ways it could have been unintentional. Instead, focus on driving safely. Maybe wish them compassion for whatever is taking their focus from safe driving themselves.
- When congress passes a law you don’t like, instead of dwelling on how bad a job they are doing, consider thinking about whether it affects you or any of your communities or not. If it doesn’t, assume your representatives are doing the best they can and focus on things that do affect you and your communities. If it does affect you or your communities, still assume they did the best they could and think of how to improve things: run for office, organize affected people, write letters, act in civil disobedience, etc. Bring about the change you want.
- When you’re sick and tired of something, instead of figuring out what made you that way, find something to make you healthy and energetic. Say you want to examine the past to prevent feeling sick and tired in the future. If you feel you must, go back and examine after you’ve improved things. You’ll learn more when you don’t feel sick and tired. You may also find solutions to avoid the problems in the first place.
- Think of examples where you blamed others or your past self recently. Without dwelling in who is responsible for the past, think of what you could have done to improve things. Like an athlete visualizing a successful outcome, visualize yourself creating a guiltless, blameless outcome.
Better than postponing acting on your feelings of blame is to be curious about others’ intent, as the last post mentioned.
Most of all, recognize how you’re improving your life by taking responsibility. I submit that the more you do so, the less you’ll care about what happened before and the more you’ll enjoy the better life.
With the reward an improved life gives you, you may not care about revisiting the past after you’ve improved your life. You will have crowded out dwelling on the past. Or, once calmer, you may find yourself recognizing the other person’s benign or neutral intent that you thought was neutral.
Experiencing reward for behavior tends to reinforce it and the beliefs that enabled it. Even if you had to fake it at first, you’ll make it. You’ll become someone who solves problems instead of finding them, doesn’t blame, and is empowered. It’s attractive so people will like you more and it’s effective so you’ll improve your life.
Learn to make Meaningful Connections
with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.
- Step by step instructions
- Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
- An excerpt from my book