It's a scene we've watched a hundred times: A public figure glares into the camera with an expression of outraged innocence and declares, "I am not a crook!" or "It was dehydration, not a drug overdose!" or "I have never had an affair!" Most of us in the viewing audience used to give these folks the benefit of the doubt, but not anymore. We've grown jaded watching a succession of well-known people make bold disclaimers that later proved to be flat-out falsehoods.
Of course, this always makes me conscious of my own weasel-ish tendencies. It's so easy to commit the occasional sin of omission, to tell the little white lie that conveniently precludes taking the blame for my mistakes. But even when I'm doing this, I know it's a short-term solution with disastrous long-term effects. Avoiding responsibility for our actions is the single most effective way to get stuck—or stay stuck—in a life that doesn't work. It turns all the energy we might use for problem solving into keeping us insulated from the very experiences and information we most need to learn and grow. Recognize when it's not your fault.
While some folks avoid blame, others apologize for everything, from their allergies to global warming to the Spanish Inquisition. Accepting blame for things over which we have no control is just as counterproductive as dodging the blame we deserve. It's not surprising that many people take the blame when it doesn't belong to them. We females, in particular, are often socialized to hold ourselves responsible for other people's feelings and behavior, thinking that if we don't take care of them physically and emotionally, their bad moods or reprehensible actions are our fault. Watch your language.
If, like yours truly, you sometimes get confused about what is or is not your responsibility, you might want to use a very simple and effective method of differentiating between things you can't control and things you can. All you have to do is pay close attention to the way you talk—specifically, the way you use the phrases "I have to" and "I can't." Pretend you're wearing a shock collar and you get zapped every time you use these phrases when they aren't literally, physically true. When you sound like a passive victim of circumstance, you come to act and think the way victims do.
The power to determine your own thoughts and actions goes out the window—and with it, your chance at a fulfilling life. Try this verbal discipline for a week or so. Instead of saying "I can't," substitute more accurate phrases like "I choose not to" or "I don't want to." Rather than "I have to," say "I choose to" or "I've decided to," or simply "I'm going to." Suddenly, you'll see a wide range of choices and options available to you in situations where you once felt powerless. This isn't always comfortable, but it is incredibly liberating.
Taking the blame stings, like most disinfectants. But the longer you wait to deal with your mistake, the more miserable the process is going to be. Better to accept responsibility the way you'd clean a wound: quickly, thoroughly, with no nonsense whatsoever. This means fully admitting a mistake, apologizing to anyone you may have harmed by your actions, and making any amends you possibly can, without wallowing in shame or acting pathetic in a bid for leniency.
If you take the blame this way, the results will be far more positive than you'd expect.
Martha Beck is the author of Finding Your Own North Star
More Insight From Martha Beck
From the January 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine