It's Not Your Fault. Really. No, Seriously

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I am responsible for everything, in fact,

except for my very responsibility,

for I am not the foundation of my being.

- Jean Paul Sartre


hen I was a young girl attempting to play basketball, I would always dribble backing up so that I could keep my body between my opponents and the ball. I was sure that if I turned around and put the ball out in front of me, someone would steal it and I would look like a fool. Although dribbling backward is a fairly effective defensive strategy, when you have the ball in basketball you are on offense, not defense. And, because humans aren’t very good at running backward, it clearly is not an effective way to navigate down the court. I never got over that tendency and I never got very good at basketball.

Something similar can be said about how people get into trouble psychologically. When their day-to-day decisions are disconnected from their long-term intentions, people tend to back through life. They are not living on purpose. All aspects of their lives, the good and the bad, unfold for the most part by accident. And, as one would expect, the bad aspects start to mount, because when you back through life you stumble over things that you could routinely avoid if you had been facing forward.

What does an accidental life look like? Sometimes it is clear even from the outside that a life is going nowhere when the participant is lost in resignation and despair. Sometimes it is less clear from the outside because unsuccessful lives aren’t always unintentional and successful lives aren’t always intentional. But a life adrift is always clear to the person on the inside. When we are living without direction or intention, we are vulnerable to tripping up in ways that leave us feeling stupid, irresponsible, boring, cowardly, unlovable and lazy. Those are awful things to believe about our self, and they are the hallmark of living by accident.

But it gets worse.

People backing through life have a very lonely secret. They think it is their fault that their lives are going nowhere and they are ashamed of themselves. The self-blame comes from a conviction that they simply lack the strength of character that everyone else seems to have. They may recognize, for example, that they should stop smoking so much pot, look for a better job, lose weight, go back to school, work on their marriage, and so on. They know what needs to change, yet nothing in their lives is changing.

Further, these troubled people can tell you exactly what character flaw is keeping them stuck in immature behavior and stagnant situations. They believe they have an addictive personality or depressive tendencies or a propensity for procrastination or they simply lack talent. They are convinced that they are stupid, irresponsible, boring, cowardly, unlovable and lazy. And because they believe their flaws are inherent, the psychological last straw for people trapped in unintentional lives is that they think that nothing can be done about the fact that they are incapable of directing their own lives.

Why It’s Not Your Fault

Humans aren’t born with a tendency to back through life. This truth cannot be overstated. People back through life due to flaws in their upbringing, not deficits in their character. A flawed upbringing, characterized by missing and distorted life lessons, drops a person off in the land of adulthood with a faulty map and no compass.

The grownups of our childhood are supposed to provide us with reliable guidance in the form of wise, compassionate and thorough mentoring that teaches us very specifically how to foster our individual strengths. When this has been true for us, we come unsurprisingly to rely on ourselves to step up and tackle what’s next in our life. You’ve seen people like this who gracefully move toward success, calmly deal with setbacks and generously connect with the people in their lives. But when our upbringing was deficient, our lives become all about psychological distress and very little about flourishing. Tragically, many, many people do not realize that this is their situation.

Rather than recognizing that their upbringing has led to their current suffering, they believe instead that they have shameful personal weaknesses.

They do not recognize that they were poorly prepared for life by their inept adult world.

Nor do they realize that if they had been adequately prepared, they would be doing just fine right about now. They would be having a fine adult life.

Not that life is easy or success guaranteed. But life without debilitating symptoms is certainly achievable and a good life is truly possible. People have an innate ability to navigate resourcefully along their life journey if they have not been damaged by their upbringing. People also have an innate ability to return to good mental health when the damage created by their childhood has been repaired. Day after day after day in my work as a psychologist I see people willing to risk once more to try to figure out what basic aspects of life they have not yet mastered. I am always touched by their courage and always thrilled by their achievements.

Seriously, Not Your Fault

I can imagine what you are thinking at this point. It’s probably some variation on: “My parents did the best they could,” or “I didn’t have it so bad,” or “My parents had it a lot worse than I did.” Maybe you believe it was your fault from the beginning: “I was a handful,” or “I didn’t do all that well in school,” or “My brother was the smart one.” Or perhaps you are saying to yourself “That’s all behind me now,” or “What can I do about it at this point?” Sadly, people believe – well into adulthood – that they have no right to have expected more than just the minimum from their parents. These low, roof-over-my-head expectations may seem appropriate and forgiving, but they are actually very problematic.

This next point is a little tricky and extremely important.

 

Dance of Intimacy

- Harriet Lerner

I'm OK - You're OK

- Thomas A. Harris

Novels

Crooked Little Heart

- Ann Lamott

The Lovely Bones

- Alice Sebold

The Listener

- Rachel Basch

 

 

Now that I'm an adult, how do I go about fixing the lack of parenting I received early in life?

Your job as an adult is to figure out two things: what you weren't taught growing up and what you were taught incorrectly. This discovery process will happen naturally because we will trip over those two things when we come across them in our daily lives...

 

Humans are designed to change one step at a time, which means we cannot skip steps. If we cannot stand for at least a while on the first step of the stairway toward adulthood, we will fail to step fully into maturity. And the first step is understanding that your parents didn’t do the best job raising you. Nor did your coaches, teachers, ministers and so on. There are no flawless caretakers or flawless childhoods. And while it’s not useful to remain on this first step, you have to step fully on it in order to prepare yourself to take the next step. If you think about it, in the absence of understanding the limitations of our upbringing, we have only ourselves to blame when we screw up. If this is the case, we will remain at the bottom of the stairs in the shame-filled space of self-blame.

Put another way, it is neither correct nor helpful to blame ourselves for not knowing what we don’t know.

How much better would it be if we could look critically at our childhood, figure out those missing or distorted life lessons, and then go to a “life tutor” to help us fill in the blanks.

None of us wants our childhood to have been lousy, and few of us wish to consider our parents, teachers, coaches, ministers, etc. to be poor examples of adulthood. But at some point as you mature, you must cast a very critical eye over those who were in charge of your early life training. Yes, this can be sad, but it is also a very liberating step. Shed the tears of grief and then relief as you shift the responsibility for your lack of training away from yourself and onto the folks who were on duty in your childhood and responsible for raising you. This will free you up to set about finding out what you don’t know that you don’t know. A mystery is a lot more agreeable to star in than is a tragedy.

And while your sense of personal accountability and your eagerness to leave the disappointment of your childhood behind are admirable and will serve you very well in other circumstances, they are not helpful right now. You cannot ignore the role your upbringing is playing in your current distress. For I guarantee that if you are struggling psychologically right now, the odds are very good that you were underserved by adults when you were growing up. Accept that this may well be true, and you will clear the way to uncovering the damage done during your childhood, repairing it, and regaining your natural drive toward self-actualization.

What I needed when I was attempting to master basketball was a coach to both teach and encourage me to turn around and face the defensive player. I would have been supported as I turned over the ball time after time until I learned how to dribble running forward. I still may have never gotten very good at the sport, but it would have been due to lack of interest or talent or perseverance, not lack of knowledge.

If you remain unconvinced that the adults of your childhood left you unprepared for life, I would urge you to continue to explore the possibility that it’s not your fault that you’re stuck right now. It may be that therapy would be helpful, or talking with supportive friends and family.

At the very least, please continue to work your way through the articles on this website, for they are dedicated entirely to helping you come to believe this truth:

If you are backing through your life, it is not your fault.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.