Whilst going through a really stressful time recently and suffering a great deal of guilt and the physical symptoms of insecurity and fear, a good friend observed that my default action in times of stress seems to be to 'blame myself before I'd had a chance to accept responsibility'. In the days afterwards, I thought long and hard about what he might have meant by that. Because surely blaming myself was the same as accepting responsibility wasn't it? The same thing as saying "Mea culpa!" and then throwing myself on the mercy of the court and accepting my punishment? The more I thought about it though, the more I started to wonder if this was true.
When I blame myself for something, it seems to me that there is very little time or opportunity for growth. What there is a lot of is nausea, dry mouth and self-flagellation, and all the other physical symptoms that go along with the emotion we like to label 'shame'. There's no need to me to examine too carefully what's happened or how it's happened, because I'm way too busy dealing with the fact that it's 'all my fault' and that I am a very very bad person and don't deserve any sympathy. Accepting responsibility rather than blame can be a very different experience though. Accepting that I am responsible for something turns me from a chastened child into an adult who is willing to examine her part, and decide if or how I need to make amends.
So if I accept that blaming myself rather than taking responsibility is not a great way to move forward, what about when - rather then blaming myself - I choose to blame others? I thought about this part of the equation for a few days while driving, and decided that if the same reasoning was applied to my blaming others, by doing so I was still avoiding something fundamentally important.
When I turn blame outwards towards others without examining my own culpability, I'm also losing out. Throwing blame outwards - like projectile vomit - seems like a really effective way of avoiding experiencing any of those nasty feelings I've described that go with guilt and shame, but in doing so it turns me from an adult into a child with no agency in the world. Without agency I have no way to change anything, no way to evolve or adapt the skills I use to survive in the world, I'm effectively lying belly-up in the dirt while pointing an accusatory finger at the rock I just tripped over.
Accepting responsibility means understanding I had a part to play, and that my actions had consequences. It also allows me to evaluate whether it was my action alone, or a combination of mine and others than was the cause. And no, this isn't the same as apportioning blame, because the part that doesn't belong to me doesn't need someone else to put up their hand and say "shit man, yes, my bad", it's just the part I had no control over (normally the other person's emotions). I'm someone who's very used to accepting or apportioning blame rather than taking or giving responsibility, so it's going to take me some time to get the hang of this, but so far so good. So far I've found that being responsible for my actions doesn't make me feel bad ... or sick ... or shaky ... or hot and cold all over. It makes me feel like a grown-up, which for me is a new and knd of exciting experience!