A common source of suffering and distress is blaming oneself for bad outcomes that one has unwittingly contributed to. You know the kind of thing: if I’d offered him a lift he wouldn’t have been on the train that crashed; if I hadn’t invited her out she wouldn’t have got food poisoning; if I hadn’t introduced my colleague to my partner they wouldn’t have had the affair; and so on.
The pattern of thinking underlying this sense of guilt is something like: “If I hadn’t done this, that wouldn’t have happened, therefore it’s my fault.” This is founded on a good impulse, as it’s certainly advisable to take responsibility for our actions and their consequences. But is self-blame justified in these cases?
It reminds me of the running joke in Father Ted, in which Ted phones Father Larry Duff’s mobile while the latter is in the middle of some dangerous activity, invariably leading to serious injury. It would be true to say that had Ted not called, the accident wouldn’t have occurred, but it is clearly wrong to imply it was his fault that it did.
Still, as is often the case, understanding this won’t necessarily lead to feeling better about it, especially when the consequences have been very unfortunate. Some things are as logically clear as they are psychologically hard to shift. So what else can you do?
You could chip away at it, reminding yourself that you may be overstating the importance of the part you played. It’s easy for our overactive imaginations to make everything hinge on some action we did or failed to do. But we’re not masters of the universe. We are only one of many factors that contributed to a certain outcome.
So rather than focus on control, we could more modestly dwell on the fact that a lot of big things in life are determined less by decisions than by chance, luck or coincidence. This kind of outlook may knock us off our pedestal and make us feel less powerful, but it could also provide some comfort in the realisation that we are not responsible for every consequence of each of our actions.
In one of the most celebrated scenes in British comedy, Basil Fawlty gives his broken-down car a “damn good thrashing” with a tree branch. He tells his 1972 Austin that it has “tried it on just once too often” and so when it refuses to start yet again, he unleashes his righteous fury upon it.
Literally speaking, it was the car’s fault: it had a fault and so it wouldn’t start. But, of course, that’s not the kind of fault that merits blame or punishment. Perhaps that is why when we try to deny that something is our fault, we present our own failings as though they were of the same kind.
For example, we might think that we too fail because of flaws in our design or construction, and since we did not build or design ourselves, those can’t be our responsibility. If we cannot resist certain temptations, for example, it’s because we weren’t born with sufficient “resistors” in our neural circuitry.
Other deficiencies can be put down to nurture and environment. If we are too clingy, it’s simply the consequence of growing up in an insecure family environment. If we fiddled our expenses, that was just because everyone else was doing it and we’d be showing others up if we didn’t too.
In all these cases, we hide behind the causes of our failings which are beyond our control, avoiding thoughts of how we might now deal with them. But our faults are nonetheless real for being unchosen. What distinguishes us from machines is that we can do something about them, not that we created them in the first place.
Thrashing ourselves with branches might not be the most sensible way of acknowledging our failings, but nor is disowning them. Understanding that we are not the sole authors of all our defects can help us to be compassionate and forgiving, to ourselves and others. But it should not be an excuse for allowing our malfunctions to persist uncorrected. Our faults do not need to be our fault for us to take responsibility for correcting them.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England