Adam Bergeron is a graduate of the 2015 Newfield Certified Coach Training Program.
Viktor Frankl is (likely incorrectly) attributed with this now-famous quote: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Regardless of who conceived it, the quote itself holds power.
We all have the choice to take responsibility for our responses to external events, whether it be an argument with a loved one or a reaction to something we see on the news.
The freedom to take control of our emotional lives comes when we take responsibility for ourselves. This is no small task, but with practice, we can develop new habits that help us go back to personal responsibility when our reactive side clamors for us to jump right over the “space to choose” and go directly to blaming.
If you’ve made it to adulthood, you have, at some point, blamed someone else for the way you’re feeling. Anger, frustration, and indignation are healthy and appropriate when an event or a person has caused you harm. But, in most cases, there’s more to our emotions than our quick initial reactions give us time to perceive.
I literally cannot count the number of times I have blamed someone or something for how I am feeling. Honestly, I’ve done it in the last week… at least for a few moments before I caught myself doing it again and decided to try a different mindset.
I can think of some major examples (resenting my boss for making me feel undervalued at work) and minor examples (blaming the person driving too slow in traffic for making me angry) of blaming others in my life. No matter how major or minor the event or the impact it had on my life, the underlying issue is the same: I am blaming someone else for how I choose to react and for the emotions that arise in me.
As I said, we all do it. But, what if we took responsibility for our own feelings? I believe that part of the reason we don’t do it is that it can be pretty frightening to do so. If we start to get curious about how we participate in choosing our own feelings and reactions to what someone else said or did, then we begin to see how big our role is in creating our own emotional states.
Once we see our role, we are confronted with the reality that, in the vast majority of situations (let’s not get into the nuances of neurobiology for now – that’s another blog post entirely), our emotional state is completely our responsibility. That’s a big responsibility, and one that most of us would rather not take on because blaming is simply much easier than taking responsibility. But, there is no freedom in blaming. Blaming keeps us locked in a story that things outside of us control our emotions. And, if our emotions and reactions are not under our control, then we are not free to choose our emotional states.
Taking responsibility for our emotions is the path to greater freedom. By bringing awareness to the fact that we have “space to choose” our emotions and reactions in each and every interaction in life, we begin to take our agency back from the disempowerment that occurs when we blame. Again, that freedom comes from taking responsibility, and that can be scary, but it’s what is required to gain your emotional freedom.
Gain More Freedom by Not Blaming Others
It can be hard to know how to start in this process of taking responsibility and gaining freedom. So, let’s try a practice as an introduction that will help bring some awareness to how you might be blaming others. This practice will serve as a resource you can go back to when you need to check in with yourself about whether you’re taking responsibility or giving up your power to choose your own emotions and responses by blaming.
The Blaming Practice
Go back to the last time you blamed someone for making you feel a certain way. Actually place yourself back in that moment – imagine where you were, who you were with, the sounds around you and the sights you were noticing. What feelings are coming up, and what sensations are you noticing in your body (e.g. tightness in your chest, a knot in your stomach or heat in your face), as you take yourself back to that time? Write down what comes up for you.
Now, pause, take four deep breaths, and begin to practice sitting in the “space to choose.” The “space to choose” does not need to be the same for everyone, but for many people, it is a quiet, calm state of being (as calm as you can be if you are working with a difficult memory of blaming). Imagine the event that led you to blame playing out in your mind as you sit in the “space to choose.”
Next, notice the emotions that come up as the event plays out in your mind. Become aware of any reactions that might still be present, such as noticing yourself blaming or feeling the desire to jump back into blaming. Let your emotions arise naturally, don’t resist them, and see how it feels to just be with those emotions. Take four deep breaths as you allow the replay of the event to fade in your mind.
Next, write down answers to the following questions:
- How did the practice feel?
- How was it different from the actual event?
- What do you notice in your emotions?
- What do you feel in your body?
- How would you respond to this person or event now – coming from the “space to choose?”
You can do this practice as many times as you want, trying it in different situations. Try easy minor ones (person driving too slow in front of you) and try major/difficult ones (resenting your boss for feeling undervalued). By doing the practice multiple times, in different situations, you will gain a greater awareness around when you are blaming and how it feels to blame. Through that awareness, you will begin to find more freedom to choose your responses and emotions.
The more you see the choice in front of you, the more you can take responsibility, and the more freedom you will have. And, most importantly, remember to do this all with a sense of kindness to yourself. This is hard work, and the most important person not to blame as you work on it is…you.