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


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, childish, 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, childish, 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 psychological 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 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.

Human school

I want to take a moment here to make a distinction between what I would call a social curriculum and an existential curriculum. Many parents do an excellent job educating their children to be sophisticated and effective participants in our social and perhaps professional worlds. But very few parents see that their job also includes teaching the child how to be a human at the foundational level. True, parents may present ad hoc lessons in being mortal, for example when a neighbor dies, or lessons in learning right from wrong when a child breaks a rule, but we don’t intentionally give our kids lessons in how to be a lucid-living human. But this needs to be put on the table – to be a true adult human, each person must be able to see the big picture existentially, a picture which incorporates those truths that cannot be escaped. And further, since all the big questions precipitated by the big picture are personal, if we don’t learn why we must face them and how we must face them, our personal questions can remain unarticulated and thus unresolved.

Those big personal questions are as follows: Who am I exactly? How do I know what to choose from moment to moment? What was I designed to be successful doing? Am I lucky or unlucky? Do people really like me? When will my time be up?


Dance of Intimacy

- Harriet Lerner

I'm OK - You're OK

- Thomas A. Harris


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...


Nearly every article on this website incorporates strategies to acknowledge and work with these tough – and to a large extent – unanswerable questions. Suffice it to say here: parents can only be skilled at providing existentially savvy lessons to their children if they themselves have come to understand that a talented person in any aspect of contemporary existence is one who is good at being a person first.

Aside: I think the need for human school is a large part of what can make grandparents extremely valuable. Fate will step in and teach us about the givens of existence if our families of origin failed to do so, meaning that by the time we reach old age, most of us have a clearer sense of what it means at that foundational level to live a coherent life. Grandparents can often be counted on, therefore, to give those proactive existential lessons. Along with, of course, the occasional, delectable snickerdoodle.

My hope in writing the material on this website is to provide a straightforward (albeit lengthy) curriculum for human school. One that is designed to create a great life for you – one worthy of a thinking person.

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 both a little tricky and extremely important.

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. What that last sentence describes is the self-construction process. It can be achieved through effective therapy, self-directed learning or, less efficiently, through the Fate-directed, hit-or-miss process of the school of hard knocks.

Not their fault

Let me pause here to again point out that we don't necessarily need to vilify the adults in our past for their spotty training of us. While there are many cruel and violent parents out there who deserve our condemnation, most parents do their best. Their ability to provide us with a thorough curriculum for life skills will be limited for the same reasons our ability is spotty. It's not their fault, either, but we need to hold them accountable in their role as guides as we take that first, crucial step toward healing.

Action Items

Right this moment inside your mind one of two things is true: either you can see clearly that your childhood was problematic, that it set you up to believe falsely that your missteps are the result of a weak character and that this article makes sense to you; or, you still are convinced that your life struggles are all your fault, you are just not a great person and this article is just trying to cheer you up.

If you are in the former mindset, your task right now is to sincerely sit with that truth. Practice repeating the phrase “It’s not my fault” over and over until both your heart and your head resonate with this mantra. For the next few days, try out the superhero stance accompanied by the mantra. You’ll be surprised by how solidly empowered you can feel. Maybe you could get in the habit of greeting every morning with this winning practice in order to seat your new values in your easily accessible repertoire.

If you are in the latter mindset, your task is to work through the following thought process: if you were actually gaslit by your upbringing, wouldn’t it be difficult to uncover that plot all on your own? So, wouldn’t it make sense to continue reading through this material, keeping your mind open to the possibility that it’s not your fault that your adults didn’t always know what they were doing? And, finally, other than time, is there anything to lose in continuing to work on self-construction? All you need to be able to say is this: When I stumbled in life, maybe I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and perhaps that's because my caretakers weren’t able to teach me.

Get out of my head

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. You have to develop existential intelligence in order to correct the inadequate lessons you were taught. This may mean kicking your parents’ voices completely out of your head. 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. Wouldn't you prefer to be the protagonist in a mystery rather than in 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 God's honest truth:

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

© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.