When you think everything is someone else’s fault, you will suffer a lot.
~ Dalai Lama
I would extend this to one’s own self, too: When you think everything is your own fault, you will suffer a lot.
So, the problem isn’t whom you blame, but that you blame someone, period.
Twelve years ago, I learned the concept that changed my world view in this regard—that the source of feeling bad and things going badly is something called learned distress. It’s the feeling that “there is something wrong with me being just the way that I am.”
You absorbed learned distress from the people around you—how they felt about being human—from conception until the age of two-and-a-half. This sponge-like time was the process that developed your sense of self or how you feel about being your unique self.
So, it would seem that if you absorbed this negative feeling from those around you, you could blame them for your negative moments since then, right? Nope.
Think back to when you were two years old. Did you choose to absorb the feeling that there was something wrong with being human back then? You probably don’t remember, so I can help you with the answer. It is: “No.” You couldn’t have chosen, because the part of your brain that allows you to choose wasn’t operating yet. Your rational brain starts to develop around the age of two-and-a-half, so before that point, your little brain is just a sensory sponge, absorbing how it feels to be human.
So, if you didn’t choose these negative feelings that are the source of your negative moments, your parents couldn’t have chosen theirs, either.
They absorbed learned distress from their parents, who absorbed it from their parents, and on back. So there’s no blame associated with this passing of learned distress on from generation to generation.
After the age of two-and-a-half, your brain starts to use learned distress and well-being, the good feeling stored in your sense of self, to automatically generate the moments and situations in your life. It’s the automatic work of energy described by Sir Isaac Newton: For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, the action was learned distress being absorbed (coming in), and now your brain puts this energy back out (opposite) as moments that feel the same (equal) as the moments when you absorbed those feelings.
Your rational brain gives you a way to cope with or control your moments, but the feeling you experience in the negative ones will still be “there is something wrong with me.”
Your parents were doing the best they were able with what they had absorbed—just as you are and just as everyone else in the world is. And, despite everyone’s best efforts, learned distress keeps getting absorbed by little, sponge-like brains. So, you can’t blame your parents for your stuff.
But what about blaming one’s spouse for getting angry and ruining a dinner party? Or someone blaming her assistant for forgetting to tell her about an important meeting? Or something more difficult, like when a drunk driver killed one of my best friends five years ago? Here are some important points:
- If something feels bad for you, it is being generated, in part, by your learned distress.
- If someone else is involved, their learned distress is also a generating force.
- This framework never excuses someone else’s bad behavior or the consequences they may face, as a result.
Number one is the only thing you can do anything about, so that’s what I focus on entirely with my clients. The researcher who discovered learned distress also discovered a way to peel away layers of it permanently. This brings us to personal responsibility vs. blame.
Owning your “stuff” and doing whatever you can about it is so different from lashing out at others or beating yourself up.
Sometimes, it’s hard to see past the blame game that we’ve played. For example, a client’s supervisor forced her to ask all of her co-workers for feedback on her performance and the mood in which she conducted herself at work. She was the only person told to do this. It would be easy to blame the supervisor for unethical behavior towards my client, and indeed, I think it’s fair to say he was unethical and unfair in his treatment of her.
But, what was important to me was to uncover the learned distress that generated this situation for her.
This client has a strong history of abuse by men, which will put into place and repeatedly reinforce the feeling for her that she doesn’t matter. On top of that, she also feels strongly that there is something wrong with her unless she does things perfectly. Her working conditions made it impossible to come anywhere near perfection, so every work day, she was feeling strongly that there was something wrong with her in that way, also. Her brain put together “I don’t matter” and “I’m not perfect enough,” along with this specific pattern of abuse by men, and generated this awful work situation.
As she peeled away layers of this mixture of learned distress, work got better for her on a couple of fronts. A new co-worker discovered talents of my client that hadn’t been recognized, and leveraged those to get my client better working conditions. Not only did she feel that she mattered more, but she was able to work in an environment that allowed her to perform up to her standards. The more surprising thing was that the supervisor’s behavior towards her changed. When she needed to restructure her schedule, he said that the company would support her in any way possible because she was vital to the organization!
And perhaps best of all, she found out how much power she really has in her own life and was able to move beyond the place of blaming herself (not perfect enough) or her supervisor for the situation.
Where do you tend to place blame? Do you beat yourself up, or do you blame others? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments!
Editor: Lynn Hasselberger