Why Mea Culpa Matters

07 Apr

Did you grow up with siblings? Remember when Mom or Dad broke up a fight? How about the finger pointing and choruses of “He started it,”  “Noooooooo…SHE did. NO FAIR!”  Or maybe you discovered the blame game in the schoolyard or on the playing field.

Small wonder that as adults we find it hard to take responsibility for our actions in a relationship. Who wants to be the bad guy? Who wants to take the blame? Who wants a time out?

The good news is that there is a big difference between taking blame and accepting responsibility. Blame means being shamed and scolded by another person. Responsibility means holding yourself accountable for your own actions. Blame leaves you feeling weak, while taking responsibility strengthens you.

One of the most difficult lessons I have had to learn as an adult is that accepting responsibility for one’s actions doesn’t mean a punishing trip to the principal’s office or a lonely weekend of grounding.  Owning up, apologizing and offering compensation lead you out of trouble, not into it.

When I first encountered this idea, in a book I was reading for advice on loving an alcoholic, my response was outrage. “What do you mean I have to take responsibility for MY actions in this relationship? No fair. He started it. He’s the drunk. He’s the screamer. He’s the one who breaks promises.”

Clearly I had not learned the difference between taking responsibility and blaming. I was angry because I thought the book was telling me that I had to blame, shame and punish myself. Actually, the advice was just the opposite.

The epiphany that arrived at last is that when recovery gurus talk about taking responsibility, they are talking about looking out for yourself. Taking responsibility doesn’t mean beating up on yourself. It means recognizing the part you play, which is the part you can change in order to take care of and protect yourself. Taking responsibility gives you the power to change the things you can–a core precept of  the Alcoholics Anonymous program.

When you blame, you let out your anger, but beyond that you leave yourself in the role of a helpless victim. If it is HIS fault then you are at HIS mercy. Only he can make things better.

There are other benefits to taking responsibility for your actions. If you apologize for being wrong, you alleviate feelings of guilt. If you don’t admit when you are wrong, you open yourself up to all sorts of negative feelings from the other person and from within. If you apologize for the mistakes you have made you will feel good about yourself no matter what the other person says or does.

Best of all, because you are a grownup, there won’t be any parents, or hall monitors, to scold you. You won’t miss your dinner or be sent to a corner for a time out.

You will feel like an adult, and a sane one at that.


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