A few weeks ago, I shared with someone whom I look to as a mentor, that I had noticed the lack of individuals willing to take personal responsibility for their problems. As I spent more time thinking about this, I realized, of course (!), that I was not taking personal responsibility for my own corner of the world. It is so easy, and really quite soothing to find someone to blame when things don’t go my way. To fixate on another person, institution, or “they” fools me into believing, in all my self-righteousness that I am guilty of nothing. When, of course, underneath all of my whining, bemoaning, persecuted, almost martyr like way to sainthood attitude, there I am – guilty, guilty, and guilty of what I so knowingly diagnosed in the world.
It is a good thing that I can laugh at my own folly – I mean there really is no alternative, I guess I could cry, but that has a way of making me look all puffy, wet and red- eyed, without having solved the problem. I took some time to dissect my process of eschewing personal responsibility and I discovered there is a lot of work that goes into doing a good job – here’s how it goes: First, you have to identify your target; this is easy; you can pick your partner, your parents, your boss, or even the “economy” to start the process. The next step is a bit harder; you have to decide what to blame them for. I usually seem to blame someone else for the most ridiculous things – often the issue makes no sense at all, which should have been the first sign that I was barking up the wrong tree.
Next, I spend a lot of time concocting evidence of how they have wreaked havoc in my life. Then, when they look at me as if I just crawled out from some forgotten cave, I blame them for not hearing my completely accurate identification of all of their errors. I blame them some more (why not, I have to make them take ownership!). Then out of nowhere I suddenly feel the pain of isolation (who wants to be around the blamer, right?), since it is lonely to be alone, I invent a new transgression, top that with a bit of superiority and I am at the top of my game, right? Of course not and here is where I end up: on the bottom of a heap of negative energy.
I admit is has taken me a long time to even notice this pattern of behavior. I’ve begun to notice that it typically occurs when I am scared of something. Maybe scared of trying new things, or of life changing in some way that I haven’t fully accepted. Maybe I am scared that those that I believe love me will suddenly stop, and in order for me to not lose their love I need to make myself present to them – by being really noisy and blaming. (How’s that for a paradox?).
Sometimes it is just that I find something I don’t like about myself – and rather than accept that and work to change it – I take a little break from self-recrimination and place it on someone else, where it looks so good, at least for a moment. In many ways the negativity and blame that I sprinkle around transforms in to a boomerang that hits me just in the right spot, causing me to finally pay attention and take responsibility.
I think a lot about the clients I see and how their pain is often centered on what they feel is “being done to them”. In many ways, their way through the world is fraught with feeling the arrows and barbs flung upon them (they believe) by someone else. I know how painful it can be to carry the negativity, to write the list of grievances, and to spout the multitude of wrongs. I know all too well the burden I carry when I do not take personal responsibility. I could assume that since I have recognized all this in myself that I am now an “expert”, and that I have knowledge that is so valuable that it must be shouted from the highest perch. Instead, it is the quiet part of me that grows, and for which I am grateful. I believe I am starting to take personal responsibility for my life. I know that sometimes the old behaviors; blaming, whining and striving for sainthood will return. Now I will meet them at the door and send them on their way.
Kathy Renfree is a counselor in a community mental health setting, teaches in a graduate counseling program as needed, and is looking forward to building a private practice.