The Difference Between Responsibility and Blame

Our culture has veered into an environment of blame and obstruction of anyone or anything that doesn’t fit our narrow view of the world. This past week it’s become even more divided and violent.

We’re all asking – How did we get here? I could write pages about my perspective on that, but that’s not what this blog is about. I work with individuals who are struggling with the difficulty, or even inability to exercise their own choices on a regular basis; some because of legal constraints and some because of personal relationships and family structure.

What’s going on at the national – and international level has become about power. But that is just mirroring what is going on in our communities. As individuals, it’s imperative that we understand that it’s not about dominating “others” but rather about owning our own personal power to be who we are and to live our lives in the manner we choose while allowing others to make their own choices.

Both in our government and in personal and family relationships, it appears to no longer be possible to just disagree about ideas, or to allow others to have their own beliefs or lifestyle while continuing to honor their right to those. It’s about winning and losing. If we want to keep our freedom (both universally and personally) this HAS to change, and I’m afraid we can’t count on our representatives to do that.

People talk about making things great again, which implies a need to go back to the way things were – sometime in the past.  My belief when I hear this is that people want to go back to a time when white straight males had all the power – and when white people were considered the norm. Well, I’m old; I grew up in the 50’s & 60’s – and I remember those times.  Things weren’t any better than they are now. Those descended from a family with mostly caucasian genes, who might feel disenfranchised now because there are other groups who are gaining some personal power and ability to move up corporate and social ladders are kidding themselves if they think it was better in years past. (I don’t mean to imply that all straight white people feel this way. I fall into that category, and I – and many people I know welcome change and diversity. We recognize that moving forward is a positive direction for our lives).

But there is one thing that I see that was better back then.  Adults seemed to have the ability to be more respectful to each other, and not play immature games of putting each other down if they disagreed. These days, seeing others as equal human beings is being touted as “political correctness.”  By using that phrase, it seems to give the speaker permission to continue with racial and derogatory remarks.  Not that there wasn’t racism and inequality in the past.  We all know that has, and will (in the foreseeable future), continue to be an issue.  But I do wish we could go back to an atmosphere of civility.

I strongly believe the words we use influence our beliefs and behaviors. I also believe we each need to take personal responsibility for our own choices and lives, and I encourage that with my clients. 

Some of my clients get it pretty early and become active in confronting their issues – acknowledging and accepting the reality of what is going on. Once they accept reality, they can move on and feel better relatively quickly. The begin to take back that personal power to make the changes in their own lives.

Others take a little longer, and I can usually tell if that is going to be the case during the first session. How? Much like our elected officials, they are more comfortable with “blame” than with “responsibility”. They blame others for their problems, or they blame themselves and continually beat themselves up emotionally, staying caught up in the intellectual violence of their story. They are more invested in being “right” than in being happy and peaceful.  This keeps them entrenched in the problem, and unless they get out of that mindset, the problem wins – nothing changes – or it gets worse.

Blame is defined as “the action of assigning responsibility for a fault”. The use of the word “fault” implies the negativity of blaming, whether it’s blaming someone else or ourselves.

Responsibility is “the state of being accountable for something; the opportunity or ability to act independently and make decisions without external authorization”.  Another definition: “a moral obligation to behave correctly toward or in respect of . . .”

Responsibility starts with the willingness to experience ourselves as the cause. Responsibility is not a burden, fault, praise, blame, credit, shame or guilt. As implied in the above definition of blame, all of these include judgments and evaluations of good and bad, right and wrong or better and worse. They are not responsibility.

Responsibility also begins with the ability to deal with a situation from the point of view, whether conscious or not, that we are each the source of what we are, what we do, and what we have. This point of view can even extend to include what is done to us – from the perspective that we all put ourselves into situations or around people that will take advantage of us – or around those who will respect and honor us. For fear that I am misunderstood here, I want to be clear: Certainly, I’m not saying that victims of abuse (for example) are responsible for their own abuse and the perpetrator has no responsibility. What I am saying is that we develop patterns from early childhood that draw us to specific situations and people that can eventually be unhealthy for us. In order to break these patterns, we must recognize this and work to understand what within us needs to change.

So again, responsibility is a context of seeing ourselves as the source of our attitudes, feelings, behavior and life. If we are the source, then we are at least able to manage how these turn out. We cannot be responsible for others, but we can be responsible to others, for who we are and for our response to others. There is also some truth to the concept that who we surround ourselves with helps to shape who we become.

I want to believe that most of our elected officials started out responsibly wanting to improve things, regardless of their politics.  But somewhere many of them lost sight of the difference between responsibility and blame.  As individual citizens, we can begin the change ourselves (regardless of who started it) by taking personal responsibility for our rhetoric and behaviors, by showing respect for ourselves and each other and by staying away from blame. 

Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson