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Can You Break Your Habit of Blaming?–and If So, How?

by Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.
No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand . . . the situation will change. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

So, if virtually all human behavior can be seen as ultimately compelled by some “synthesis” of both innate and acquired programming not freely chosen, what does this suggest about how, ideally, you should treat others (not to mention yourself)?
I’ve always believed that though we must–non-blamingly–take responsibility for our behaviors, as well as seek to improve them, that the endeavor to do so may be quite challenging, especially when the inward and outward circumstances of our lives have led us to feel disempowered. As a therapist, I’ve worked with many people unable to invoke any genuinely positive belief in themselves. They were burdened by self-defeating “tapes” that made them expect to fail, thereby sabotaging whatever chances they might otherwise have had to succeed. In such instances, my paramount task has been to assist them in getting out of their own way (which, of course, they’d been “pre-programmed” to do). And in my efforts I’ve needed to prompt them to stop defining themselves according to how their original family treated them, as well as how they’d lived their lives up till now. For it could be said that what was defeating them wasn’t so much their unfortunate earlier experiences as their static, negatively distorted, self-concept based on these past circumstances.

Frankly, it no longer even occurs to me to judge the people I work with, only to put myself in their ill-fitting shoes and appreciate just what’s gotten them to where they are today. Sure, they may repeatedly have made the same bad choices–might not, that is, been able to learn from their mistakes. But assuming they’ve been held in the tight grip of negative assumptions and beliefs about themselves–as well as impulses, appetites, and longings exceeding their internal resources to overcome–their poor decisions hardly caused me to evaluate them unfavorably. Viewing them largely as victims of negative conditioning, I undertook the therapeutic process of helping them get “re-conditioned.”
To be critical of a client for their mistakes or misdeeds strikes me as gratuitous since, once again, I truly believe we’re all doing the best we can–given our genetic endowment, our past history, our psychological defenses, our level of awareness, our special sensitivities, and so on, and so on. In a word, I see it as arbitrary to blame people for their failures, bad judgment, or misconduct when, finally, they’re just trying to “make it” through life in whatever (frequently dysfunctional) ways they’d learned earlier. And, looking toward the future, I like (optimistically, I think) to remind them that since their brain itself can be seen as a bio-computer, then (like computers generally) not only can it be “programmed,” but also “de-programmed” and “re-programmed.”

Moreover, as a therapist I do everything possible to encourage those I work with to be more self-compassionate and forgiving toward themselves. So long as they’ve been “conditioned” to be their own worst enemy, they’re not in much of a position to help themselves. But prompting them to get in touch with the origins of their counter-productive behaviors, those behaviors that have eventuated in their continuing disappointments and failures, enables me to demonstrate that their whole life story (i.e., their fundamental “self-narrative”–by which they’ve been psychologically bound) doesn’t truly reflect who they are or what, potentially, they may become.
And when they’re finally able to grasp that their past doesn’t need to dictate their future, their liberating “self-cure” is well underway. For they’re then able to realize that they no longer have to be held captive to the programming they’ve brought with them into therapy.

To the extent that I can be instrumental in this altered way of thinking, it’s because I so deeply believe that they’re not to blame for whatever has gone wrong with their lives. It’s essentially their maladaptive programming that has made them do whatever hasn’t (or couldn’t) work for them. And if there’s any free will in life at all, it’s in one’s ability to change one’s “personal operating system”–though I’d be obliged to add that the very capacity to alter such programming is yet determined by its nature and severity. To conclude, what I’d like to suggest is that you, too, can start perceiving others in this non-blaming, “non-guiltifying,” way. Then, despite your possible frustration with another’s behavior, you’ll greatly improve the odds of responding to them more compassionately. Yes, some of their behaviors may continue to bother you. But if you can accept these behaviors as programmed, as more or less inevitable, you’ll be giving the other person that much more space to change. (See my post, “How to Confront Others to Confront Themselves,” Parts 1 & 2, as well as my post on giving feedback rather than criticism.).

Quite possibly, you’ll also be creating additional space for you to change, too. For if you recognize that your habit of finding fault with others may be a way of not owning up to–and genuinely accepting–your own limitations or deficiencies, you may be that much more motivated to relinquish altogether your so-tempting habit of blaming others.
If you strive not to judge but to understand–compassionately understand–why another might be compelled to act as they do, you’ll find that your relationships become much smoother and more satisfying. Blame may continue to be tempting (as would any behavior that’s offered you comfort in the past). But that hardly makes it irresistible. Blaming may be a learned behavior for you–even over-learned. But with scrupulous self-monitoring and sufficient determination, there’s no reason you can’t successfully teach yourself to respond differently.
. . . And, I promise, you’ll be glad you did.

NOTE: For those of you who may have missed earlier segments of this piece, Part 1 of this 3-part post discussed why blaming others is such an ineffective way of communicating your grievances to them; and Part 2 theorized as to why blaming others, given the deterministic origins of all human behavior, is finally gratuitous.

Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality.
Vanessa Auditore is the director of Success HQ 
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