Habit 2: Choose responsibility over blame
It’s easy to want to find others to blame when we are not happy or feel something has gone wrong and it may be that we can look at our partner and see their faults and think we would be happy if only they would change! But the only way we can truly have a sense of empowerment is when we take responsibility for how we feel and how we respond to that feeling. If one is feeling annoyed at something another is doing it is easy to feel that they are the fault. But if we are in part feeling upset because we are not articulating how we feel we need to accept our part of this dynamic.
I’ve found in the past I’ve felt unhappy with a situation but it has then been my inability to articulate my feelings and needs that has caused a growing annoyance with the other person. The real answer to this wasn’t for the other person to become a mind reader or alter their personality but for me to start articulating what I was feeling. As I feared arguments I tended to hold back but the result was I would then get annoyed over a trivial thing which then didn’t make any sense to the other person, whereas talking about the real issues would have.
As I learn to take responsibility for what I feel I realise that it’s not the job of another to make me feel in any way. If they are behaving in a way I do not like I have a choice to allow it, to say how I am experiencing it or cut off contact from that person. Consequently, avoiding blame does not mean one becomes passive: rather one makes a more active choice in how to interact, knowing that it is always one’s own responsibility to express how one feels but not with the wish to blame the other but instead to create an opportunity for communication, the chance to resolve the dispute, or if it is not possible to do this decide how to move on and if necessary create distance form the person if that is what one needs to feel safe.
A book that was influential on my learning was Non Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. In it he emphasises that when we speak about how we feel we need to own our experience through what we say. His way of phrasing it is to:
- observe in a neutral way the other persons behaviour: “Just now when you shouted...”
- say what you feel: “I felt scared...” Notice it is not “you make me feel”, as the same behaviour might have a different impact on someone else, but we are expressing how it impacts on us.
- Express what you need: “because I need to feel safe...”
- Make a request for action: “...so please talk without raising your voice.”
The question is thus not who should I blame but what do I need now in order to move on or engage with the situation. Years ago when I was mugged for the one and only time in my 9 years living in London it was NVC that saved me form more harm. The man had hit me to the ground and was on top of me and was about to hit me again in the face. I simply looked him in the eyes and said ” I’m scared, please don’t hit me” It wasn’t perfect NVC but it worked. He calmed down and was almost gentle as he softly said “Its Ok, all I want is your money. It’s OK” as if he were talking to a frightened child.
After the attack I was faced with a choice of blaming the man for making me afraid to walk home from the tube at night, to be angry and resentful, or to find a way of feeling safe again. I was not in a position to talk to him or see justice done as he disappeared into the night. Everyone deserves to feel safe and to be free from violence. So this is not to excuse his actions in any way, and his actions were wrong – but I could not be consumed by anger at this. My path back to confidence lay in finding a sense of strength in myself that his actions could not destroy. For me this was to turn to my meditation practice and in particular the Loving Kindness practice.
I sat with the feeling of fear and resentment towards him every day and gradually started to be able to hold it. As I did this he lost his power over me. I started to reflect on how his action was a one off, a memory, not happening now and that I was now free from it, but that he had to live with the life he was creating for himself, that this was a cold and harsh life where he had destroyed what makes one human – the capacity for empathy. For how do you knock someone to the ground and go through their pockets if you have not destroyed something in you that feels for the suffering of others? I reflected that he may have needed the money for drugs, or to pay people he owed money to and that his life was one of lack and absence whereas I felt full and abundant. I therefore was able to start to have a sense of compassion for him as a being who was suffering and was making poor choices that would have harmful consequences for him in this life and the next. I then wrote a short story, imagining him setting out on his journey that night from a squalid flat, the life he was living, his unhappiness and pain.
This all came from a decision to feel responsible for how I felt rather than let his actions hang like a shadow over me for months and years. This is the power of meditation practice to shift one’s experience.
To read more about NVC click here