Last weekend, my girlfriend and I were watching a TV series called “The Killer Speaks”, where incarcerated murderers go on camera to personally describe their crimes. The show offers a fascinating look at the psychology of a murderer, and gives you an idea of what could have been going on in their heads as they took the life of another human.
What caught my interest the most was a recurring theme in their narratives, that of avoiding responsibility for what they did. For example, one episode featured an elderly man, a former drug dealer, who shot his best friend of 30 years to death (as well as her boyfriend) because she didn’t follow through on a promise to buy him a lawn mower. Over and over again, he would say things like, “If only she’d kept her word, everybody would still be alive right now.” “She knew what I was like; she should have just done what she said she’d do.” I couldn’t help thinking how twisted that was, that he seemed to really believe that it was his friend’s own fault that she got murdered, even though he was the one who chose to pull the trigger.
And yet this kind of thinking is not limited to murderers, or even criminals. I hear this same kind of twisted thinking in normal conversation with ordinary people. Here are some examples. (If you can think of more, write them in the comments section!)
The husband who cheats on his wife because she wasn’t giving him enough sex, even though he was the one who chose to stay in a relationship that wasn’t what he really wanted.
The girl who misses a family dinner because her family didn’t drop what they were doing to pick her up, even though she was the one who chose to go a distant town with her friends without making return arrangements.
The man who whines about his job because his boss is always on his case, even though he’s the one who chooses to continue being lazy and unproductive at work.
The guy who beats his girlfriend and then says he couldn’t control himself because he was drunk, even though he was the one who chose to drink, knowing that he acts that way when he drinks.
This way of thinking is called “victim mode”. You’re in victim mode when:
- you’re blaming other people for your problems
- you’re making excuses for why you can’t do what you know you should do
- you’re rationalizing hurtful behavior to make it seem well-intentioned or otherwise okay
- you’re beating yourself up for not being good enough somehow (which is just another form of excuse-making)
Every one of these is a different method of avoiding responsibility for your own choices. They’re different ways of saying “it’s not my fault”.
There are two important truths that I’d like to share. These may be the most important truths I’ve ever learned. True happiness, not to mention true manliness, will forever elude you unless you accept, believe, and live these truths. Yes, that’s a bold statement, but I firmly believe it because I’ve experienced it for myself.
Important Truth #1: You are 100% responsible for yourself, your life, and your behavior.
And when I say 100%, I mean 100%. Even the things you think you have no control over. Even when something isn’t necessarily your fault, it’s still your responsibility. Even when you drink. Even when you hurt someone. Even when you mean well. In the context of responsibility, “why” is irrelevant. Only the actual behavior matters. Anything more or less than “Yes, I did that” is avoiding responsibility. Even appending “… but I did it because…” is a way of avoiding 100% responsibility.
But guess what? There’s a BIG upside to accepting 100% responsibility. Remember what Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker in the Spider-Man mythology? “With great power comes great responsibility.” It works the other way too. With great responsibility comes great power.
Think about it. You can only change what you have control over. If you are in victim mode, you are essentially claiming that you have no control over the problems in your life. How, then, can you ever expect things to change? You are putting yourself in a position of utter powerlessness. Consigning yourself to a fate of unalterable misery. Hopelessness without reprieve. Who could ever be truly happy that way?
When you accept 100% responsibility for yourself and your actions, you also claim the power to change things according to your own desires. Sure, you may have acted in a way that you later decided you didn’t really like, but you have the power to make amends as best you can, and choose differently from then on. If you will only claim that power by accepting the responsibility.
“Yes, I did that” is a hard thing to say sometimes. We are conditioned to believe in a framework of right/wrong, good/bad. We assign judgments to our own actions, and we believe that if we do certain things, and admit that we actually did them, we must be “bad”. The human mind cannot bear to think of itself as bad. That’s what leads us to make excuses, to blame others, to rationalize and justify our actions. That way, we can continue to think of ourselves as fundamentally “good”. It’s some twisted mental gymnastics, but many people are really good at it.
There’s another way to avoid the unbearable thought that we might be bad, while still accepting 100% responsibility for our actions. That brings me to my other important truth.
Important Truth #2: Making mistakes does not mean you are bad. It means you are learning. It means you are human.
In the book “The Four Agreements”, Don Miguel Ruiz explains this concept best. He says that the only reason we know the thing we sit on is called a “chair” is because others told us that when we were young, and we agreed to it. The idea of using language to label things is a necessary part of being an interactive community of humans, because without it, we’d all call things by different arbitrary names, and we’d all be very confused.
But some labels are useless, and in fact, are very damaging. We learned these labels from others too, while growing up. Whether or not it was a conscious decision, we also agreed to their meaning. Labels like “bad”, “wrong”, “mistake”, “failure”.
Tony Robbins says, “There’s no such thing as failure. There are only results. You always produce a result. If it’s not the one you desire, you can just change your actions and you’ll produce new results.” I like to say it this way: “There are no mistakes. There are only learning experiences.”
Labeling yourself, judging yourself, and beating yourself up are useless reactions. As Miguel Ruiz says, you can make new agreements with yourself. Reframe your thinking, from one of “mistakes” to one of “learning”. Yes, you can still feel regret for actions that turned out to be less than ideal. But it’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re bad. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It doesn’t mean you’ve even necessarily done anything wrong. “Wrong” is a completely subjective label anyway, and that’s my point. Thinking this way gives you the freedom to say, “Yes, I did that”, while not buying into the implied judgment of “bad” or “wrong”.
I know this because I’ve been there. I used to hide and/or deny anything I felt was a mistake, or bad, or wrong. I felt that if anyone found out about my mistakes, they’d also realize what a horrible person I was, and I’d be hated, abandoned, and alone. Eventually the hiding and the lying and the shame spiraled out of control to the point of crisis (“rock bottom”, as the addiction community calls it), and it could no longer be hidden. This is a pretty common Nice Guy pattern, by the way. Change never happened until I accepted 100% responsibility for my actions, and then learned to believe that I’m still okay as a person, even though I’ve done things I didn’t like and which caused harm to others. I can choose to make amends for past behavior and then do better in the future. I still regret that others were hurt through my actions, but I’m grateful for the learning and growth that came out of it.
When you accept this truth, you transform “No, I’m a good person, so it can’t be my fault” into “Yes, I did that, and I’m still okay because I’ll learn from it and choose to do differently in the future.” You are not your actions.
Oh, and if anyone tells you differently, just remember that other people are entitled to their opinion, to their labels, but that doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. The only one who ultimately gets to pass judgment on yourself is you.
Stay Out of Victim Mode
So how do you learn to accept these two important truths? How do you learn to stay out of victim mode, and reframe your “mistake” thinking? Here are some tools to get you started.
- Pay close attention to your language (including your thoughts!). Watch for statements that indicate you’re in victim mode. Look for blaming, excuses, and rationalizing. (For more examples and types of victim mentality, search for “thinking errors” on the internet.) When you catch yourself in victim language, practice rephrasing your statement in a responsible way.
- Whenever you feel unhappy with something in your life, ask yourself, “How did I contribute to this situation? What could I have done differently? What can I learn from this? What can I do to change it?” Keep the focus on yourself.
- Create some powerful affirmations to remind yourself that it’s okay to make mistakes, and doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Write your affirmations on an index card and post it on your bathroom mirror, or front door, or refrigerator, or all of the above. Read them to yourself multiple times every day until they stick. Here are some that I’ve used:
- I am not ashamed of any part of who I am.
- I love and accept myself unconditionally.
- It’s OK to make mistakes. It doesn’t mean I’ve failed. I’m willing to accept my mistakes and learn from them.
- Nobody’s perfect — and I’m learning to go easier on myself.
- It’s OK to be honest with myself about myself, without judgment. It is what it is.
My absolute favorite self-affirmation is below. To this day, I still love reading this frequently to myself, as a reminder of the two Important Truths that I’ve learned. Perhaps it will resonate with you as well.
My Declaration of Self-Esteem
by Virginia Satir
I am Me. In all the world, there is no one else exactly like me. Everything that comes out of me is authentically me, because I alone chose it — I own everything about me: my body, my feelings, my mouth, my voice, all my actions, whether they be to others or myself. I own my fantasies, my dreams, my hopes, my fears. I own my triumphs and successes, all my failures and mistakes. Because I own all of me, I can become intimately acquainted with me. By so doing, I can love me and be friendly with all my parts.
I know there are aspects about myself that puzzle me, and other aspects that I do not know — but as long as I am friendly and loving to myself, I can courageously and hopefully look for solutions to the puzzles and ways to find out more about me. However I look and sound, whatever I say and do, and whatever I think and feel at a given moment in time is authentically me. If later some parts of how I looked, sounded, thought, and felt turn out to be unfitting, I can discard that which is unfitting, keep the rest, and invent something new for that which I discarded. I can see, hear, feel, think, say, and do.
I have the tools to survive, to be close to others, to be productive, and to make sense and order out of the world of people and things outside of me. I own me, and therefore, I can engineer me.
I am Me, and I am Okay.