If you grew up in a family where an angry “who did it?” was more important that “what did you learn?” when things got broken, disrupted, or misplaced, you may well be almost phobic about accountability. In families where there’s a constant emphasis on meting out justice in the form of blame and punishment, the kids often learn that to be accountable is to be blamed and to be blamed is dangerous.
Whether they actually did do something wrong, forgot to do something, or didn’t do something correctly, kids in such families learn a number of tactics to ward off parental anger and to reduce or eliminate their own shame: They figure out creative excuses. They create scenarios where they were the victim or at least not at fault. They may decide it’s safer not to do things than to do them and make mistakes. They take on new challenges only in secrecy. Some even figure that it’s more important to finger the other guy than to take responsibility.
Exacerbating their experience in such a family, kids today are growing up in a culture in which there always seems to be someone else to blame for what people do or don’t do. Facebook is full of posts in which politicians and celebrities make excuses for bad behavior. Although kids are often told about the importance of personal responsibility, significant role models are showing them that it’s more effective to declare innocence and get out of the situation rather than take correction and learn. For some of our most public figures, avoiding blame seems to be more important than living decently or learning from mistakes.
The result? Blame shifting is becoming normalized. We adults are in danger of becoming inured to it. Children and teens are being regularly taught that it’s not necessary to be “right” so much as to show that someone else is “wronger.” Sadly, the avoidance skills learned in critical families and that are modeled by the less than honorable rich and famous are the very things that conspire against success as an adult.
Adults who avoid accountability often miss out on important opportunities for growth and for depth in relationships that life has to offer. Regularly finding others to blame when there’s been a mistake erodes others’ trust. Unwillingness to take corrective feedback can lead to failure in school and on the job. Feeling phobic about the possibility of blame is a very difficult way to live.
What to do to get out of the blame game:
If you are an adult who is blame-phobic, make the commitment to train yourself to be a better person than the adults who shaped you. Being an adult often means letting go of less-than-helpful strategies learned if we grew up in a family that was dysfunctional or that simply didn’t know better.
If you are a parent reading this article, please consider the importance of teaching your children these skills:
- If you have harmed someone, it’s important to feel the shame and make things as right as you can but it shouldn’t end there. Think about the situation long and hard with as much honesty as you can muster. Analyze your part in it and resolve to do things differently should a similar situation happen again.
- If you’re afraid of blame, the most important thing you can tell yourself right now and often is that life is not a court of law. Life is an endless opportunity for learning. Make it a mantra. Say it until you really believe it.
- Look boldly at mistakes. If you lie about them, deny them, or find a way to make them someone else’s fault, you’ll miss the opportunity to add to your own competence. Instead, see mistakes as an important opportunity for learning. Figure out what you can take from the experience that will help you in life.
- If someone blames you, resist the temptation to get angry and argue. Instead, do your best to open dialogue. The world will not stop turning if you agree that you messed up. Apologize and fix the problem. If you didn’t do whatever it is that you are being blamed for, calmly present your point of view and ask for suggestions about how to move forward.
- Catch yourself when you find yourself wanting to blame someone else for, well, anything. Ask yourself if blaming will actually make things better. Usually it doesn’t. Once we establish blame we not only still have a problem to solve but the person who is blamed is on the defensive.
- If someone else really is responsible for a problem, do hold them accountable. But preserve the relationship by finding a way to do it that allows them to have some dignity and to participate in problem-solving.
- Focus on what to do next instead of who is to blame. Finding out who broke the window doesn’t get it fixed. Being upset with a friend who is always late doesn’t make her be on time. When family members are in conflict, it doesn’t matter who started it. It matters that they resolve their differences so they can get along and solve the problem.
To make mistakes is only human. Sitting in blame and shame doesn’t help anyone (adult or child; you or anyone else) become a better person nor does it teach them how to make better decisions. Get out of the blame game. Growth comes from forgiveness, compassion and moving on.