As a counselor, my goal for all my clients is hopefully by the end of our time together, for them to report feeling more at peace with themselves and the world around them. If treatment goals are met, they will know themselves a bit better and have a greater understanding of their inner psychology. An important part of personal development is learning why we do the things we do; this way, we can understand what got us to this point and what we need to do differently going forward to generate better results.
To get to that end goal, we go through a process where we explore a client’s inner and outer world. We discuss their relationships and other external factors that impact their emotional well-being, yet we also explore their inner world i.e. their self-talk.
An important part of the counseling process is taking ownership of your treatment and more so, of your life as a whole. I cannot reach my clients’ goals for them. It is important they recognize the clinician is the facilitator; they are the ones responsible for their progress and growth. One of the most common mechanisms by which we seek to protect our fragile sense of self is the projection of responsibility, where we place most of the blame for unwanted relationship outcomes squarely on the shoulders of those around us. Except for bouts of major depression, where feelings of worthlessness and excessive guilt might cause us to take on more than our fair share of the responsibility for conflict and dysfunction, we tend to see ourselves as the heroes, the saints, the victims, the innocent bystanders in our life stories. It’s those around us who are the villains, the sinners, the perpetrators, the guilty parties. Very rare does someone view themselves as in the wrong. This is just a part of human nature.
While blaming everything and everyone else for the quality of our relationships might insulate us from undue emotional distress we pay a heavy price because we can only ever influence those aspects of our lives over which we take some modicum of responsibility. Responsibility is the ability to respond. When all that responsibility is placed in the external environment we unwittingly turn ourselves into victims in our own lives. We stop self-reflection in its tracks, we see no reason to change our perceptions, to change our behaviors, to change ourselves. We keep on going in the same way, we keep on getting the same results, and we keep on blaming everybody else for it. (Except in this case of abusive relationships, the old adage that it takes two to tango generally holds true in most relationship conflicts).
In the therapeutic alliance one of the most effective ways to gain some ground and start to make some inroads against the seemingly impermeable barrier of refusing to accept personal responsibility for one’s role in the conflict that exists in their lives, is to gently point out that often we tend to characterize the behaviors of other people in our life in basically the same way. There tends to be a recurring theme in how we describe conflicts in our life with ourselves not being at fault. We might find themes of pettiness, betrayal, envy, anger, abandonment, destructiveness, small-mindedness, or anything else. Regardless of the theme, the powerful insight to present is “The common denominator is you.” You are the person who ALL these different people have in common. Over time this idea, that what all of those similar behaviors of others have in common is the client, usually leads to the dawning realization that there must be something emanating not from out there in the external world but from within. Like attracts like. To a certain extent, we may be drawing to us these unwanted outcomes through our own behavior. A tough pill to swallow, indeed.
Blaming other people is an easy out, and an easy way for us to continue our behaviors, which may be the source of the problem we’re hoping to put on someone else. This denial of responsibility also denies us control of a given situation. If you don’t hold yourself accountable for the consequences of your behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, you get to continue living life thinking that you don’t have any flaws or areas needing improvement.
Carl Jung put it succinctly when he wrote “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” But this understanding can only begin if we become aware of our proclivity to project that which we can’t or won’t accept inside of us. Then we can summon up the courage to start wondering how it is that we tend to pull out the same constellation of behaviors in different people and what we can start doing differently to get more desirable results. It is not easy to accept that we are to blame, but it is empowering to do so. It takes courage and the ability to be vulnerable. But vulnerability is the gateway, the entry point to change, growth, and greater connection–both with ourselves and others.