I love hosting group workshops. I can never predict what is going to emerge on the day, and they always leave me with new thoughts buzzing. Our recent 'Taming Your Inner Critic' workshop (24 Feb) was no exception. One thing that became quite clear early on was a theme of blaming ourselves for everything - or if not everything, a vast majority of conflict that comes our way. It reminded me of the Jennifer Ament print (see above) hanging in my sister's loo. I've always been drawn to the piece, perhaps because my own inner critic has a history of all-too-quickly assuming I am the one at fault, not the other person, when a disagreement arises. Based on our recent group discussion, this is a familiar 'go to' position for those who have fierce inner critics. Sometimes this is blame we willingly take on ourselves, a familiar pattern. Other times, it is blame forced upon us, often unfairly.
Conversely, there are individuals who are unwilling - or maybe even incapable - of owning their part in any clash. They will use any tactic to deflect responsibility - denial, misdirection, contradiction and even outright lying. At its extreme, this results in 'gaslighting,' a form of emotional manipulation of others. Effectively, gaslighting is a projection or kind of 'transfer' of painful or potentially painful conflict onto victims. Many clients of mine have been subject to this abuse, whether by parents, partners, bosses or other. It is particularly common when the perpetrator is low on empathy and has a vested interest in always being right, qualities often found with people on the narcissism spectrum (a much larger topic beyond the scope of this blog).
The two 'poles' described above and in the Ament artwork are extremes. The reality of any interaction between two or more more people is no one is ever 100% 'right,' nor the other person(s) 100% culpable. Relationships are things we co-create together - a useful reminder to anyone who finds themselves persistently gravitating to one position or the other. That awareness and self-assessment is a pretty important first step in taking emotional responsibility for our actions. But most of us don't live in the extremes - where to from the murky middle?
In client work, and in life, I frequently encounter the natural tendency to ascribe blame elsewhere. The wife who is in therapy 'because my husband is impossible.' The manager who is furious because 'all of my team are useless.' Now sometimes the husband in question really is quite difficult (e.g., see narcissism reference above), or certain employees are indeed dropping the ball. But after a period of venting frustration, I tend to move to the question 'what's your role in this?' Because we have very little power over changing others; getting fixated on doing so leaves us feeling stuck and powerless. It is easy to think of ourselves as innocent victims, but this means living our lives like victims. No good. If we can't control others' actions, nor sometimes even understand them, why not instead shift our attention to what we can - our own thoughts and actions. I call this 'tending to our own business.'
This shift can be very empowering. When we stop blaming others for our situation, we can see our own part in it more clearly. When we stop focusing on others and instead make changes to ourselves, we start to gain back our power. We no longer view life as 'something that happens to us' (both the good and the bad), but something we create for ourselves.
Even if we think the other party is more at fault - whether 99% or 51% responsible - it is far more constructive to hone in on our part. I guess that's the challenge for all of us - tending to our 1%, 49%, or anywhere in between. That work is hard enough. Let the other person handle the rest.