Taking Personal Responsibility Without Shame
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | May 2, 2022
Over our life times we will make hundreds of thousands of mistakes. A healthy relationship with failure is crucial for continued personal development. Life is complicated and we are going to stumble over and over again. Sometimes, certainly, we should have know better. Our resiliency relies on integrating the failures, treating the skinned knees, and confidently moving forward with our heads held high.
Yet, way too often, we get bogged down by the emotions of the mistake. We pine over our perceived wrongs, criticize our stupidity, and get stuck in the swamps of self-condemning emotion. We blame ourselves and then self punish.
On Being Human
Like most psychological concepts, toxicity of a behavior or practice evolves from an evolved survival skill. Learning from mistakes requires reflection on personal errors, and planning new responses in the future. This practice, however, easily morphs into a more sinister habit of vicious self condemnation.
In self-condemnation, we often shift from examining behaviors to terrorizing our self image by ruminating on character traits. "I'm so stupid, " we chide after a normal human mistake.
The internet is flooded with success stories. We are bombarded by evidence that we can become anything we wish to become is we put forth enough effort. These feel good stories, however, mislead. The reality for the vast majority is quite different. Many of our life stories are laced with disappointments and regrets.
No one wants to read, publish or write a story titled "The Man that Almost Made It." Because of the tainted presentation of untarnished success, most of us view our lives as failures.
Yet most people, when viewing their lives, do not think that they are winners. They have a life story about why they didn't exactly get the kind of work or job that would have really fulfilled them, the kind of life partner that they had fantasized about, or the kind of children and friends who would treat them the way that they had hoped to be treated.
We ruthlessly interrogate our choices and character seeking answers for failure to climb the perfect ladder of success. Comparing the reality of our lives to this perfectionist view leads to disappointment; and when we identify choices we could of made better, we self blame and suffer regret.
Michael Learner, cited above, wrote, "instead of understanding the complex forces operating in our society that make work so stressful to most people, families so unstable and often unfulfilling, and friendship so tainted by the ethos of me-firstism that predominates in the capitalistic marketplace, people are encouraged to blame themselves" (2018).
We perceive failure self blame then depress.
Taking Personal Responsibility
Identifying personal causes for failure is not a disease. When self examination spurs healthy correction, it serves us well. Throwing a blind eye to personal contributions to disappointing life results in matters we could change, often causes continued sorrows and stress. Yet, for many, examining personal failures is painful and defense mechanisms kick in to protect the ego rather than guiding the person to a better life.
T. Franklin Murphy wrote, "organisms avoid pain. Yet, the inherited distaste for displeasure in a complex world of trade-offs and ambiguous rewards provides inexact guidance. Many long-term gains require short-term discomfort. And short-term pleasure often has long-term costs" (2018).
Self Blame and Inaction
Taking personal responsibility for failures, no matter how large the error, has limitations. Pelting our psyche with harsh judgements doesn't motivate change. If our judgmental slams knock us beyond our window of tolerance, we begin to shut-down.
T. Franklin Murphy wrote "the problem with harshness is it diminishes internal resources rather than recruit effective action" (2018). Even when taking personal responsibility, we need gentleness.
We can accept responsibility, offer self compassion, and still address the crime. Ronnie Janoff-Bulman suggested the kind of internal attribution given for bad outcomes matters. She distinguished "between blame directed at one's character" and "blame directed at one's behavior" (1981). Attributing disappointment to personal character, she theorized, was more likely to lead to depression.
In many cases, failures are not directly attributed to personal failings, we either are innocent victims to the complex workings of life, or only a small contributor. We can't perfectly predict the future. We can't identify the countless contributors to consequences. We make educated guesses and cross our fingers.
When we over estimate personal responsibility, engaging in ongoing self blame over failures, we create a sense of helplessness. Ofer Sharone found that for job seekers during the 2008 recession, those that blamed themselves for their job loss frequently ceased or greatly reduced their search for new employment (2009).
Failure to find employment during a time when there were far less jobs than people out of work, is less about the person and more about the circumstance. If we were to unfairly self blame for repeated rejection, then our bruised ego is likely to proactively protect itself by pulling back efforts.
A Few Final Thoughts on Self Blame
Self blame and personal responsibility are labels for the reflective process, examining the cause of failure and disappointment. Identifying our roll in the unfolding of experience can be enlightening, providing essential information for self improvement. However, this self examination process can go seriously wrong, depressing our souls and inhibiting change.
We must accept our humanness. Accept errors a part of growth. With a little self directed kindness, we can see the errors, make improvements, and enjoy better futures.
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Lerner, Michael. "Self-Blaming Is Sometimes Appropriate." Tikkun 23.1 (2008): 33-35.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2018). Courage to Change. Flourishing Life Society. Published 9-2018. Accessed 4-30-2022.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2018). Punishing Imperfection. Flourishing Life Society. Published 12-2018. Accessed 4-30-2022
Nicolle, Antoinette, Dominik R. Bach, Chris Frith, and Raymond J. Dolan. "Amygdala involvement in self-blame regret." Social Neuroscience 6.2 (2010): 178-189.
Peterson, Christopher; Schwartz, Stanley M.; Seligman, Martin E. (1981) Self-blame and depressive symptoms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 253-259.
Sharone, Ofer (2009) Self-Blame and Self-Help. Tikkun 24.5 (2009): 42-43.
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