The science behind why accepting your fault is good for your mental health and overall personal development.
“The editor is racist,” my friend told me through tears of anger. “They rejected my article because I’m from India.”
I looked at her in surprise. A few weeks ago, she’d submitted a piece about writing well to a popular literary magazine. On the previous day, she’d received a letter of rejection. This was devastating, but I thought we had moved on. I didn’t understand why she brought it up again, that too, in such a context.
“What do you mean?” I asked her.
“They published a piece with the exact same message as I’d written just because the author is from the US. See?”
She then proceeded to shove her phone in my face. I read through the article, and yes, the core idea was similar to my friend’s piece, but I could see the formatting and the way the author had presented the concepts were unique and interesting. Sure, this might be because the author was a native English speaker, but the changes weren’t so monumental that my friend couldn’t rework her piece and resubmit. I had published with this magazine before too, and I know the editors aren’t racist, neither do they have a bias against non-native English speakers.
Try as I might, I couldn’t convince my friend that maybe she needed to rethink her approach to the subject and present her ideas differently. “I’m never going to work with them,” she said with conviction, “even if they walk barefoot on broken glass to beg me to write for them. I won’t.”
There was very little I could say or do to convince her after that.
Psychologists often refer to this kind of behavior as blame-shifting— a phenomenon where blame or aggression is placed onto a target who emits a mildly irritating or triggering behavior. Effectively, my friend wasn’t willing to take responsibility for the shortcomings in her article and was prepared to shift the blame on the magazine editors.
Blame-shifting is more commonplace than you’d like to believe. In a 2013 study by the University of Innsbruck, Austria, players in an experimental game had the option to avoid censure by delegating the blame to an intermediary. 55% of the participants chose to pass the blame rather than taking responsibility for their decisions, even though they knew the intermediary was powerless in making the final decision. This goes on to show that individuals can go to any lengths to avoid the perception of culpability by shifting the blame to others.
This is encouraged even more in the “I’m perfect as I am” message permeated by so many self-help gurus and personal development books. But is such a mindset always conducive to your growth?
This article takes a look into what happens when you refuse to take responsibility for your actions. It analyzes the pros and cons of shifting the blame onto others and discusses some science-backed reasons why it’s better to acknowledge your mistakes rather than kick the proverbial dog and assume you’re faultless all the time.
The Science of Blame-Shifting
Blame-shifting is easy to spot. If you ever find yourself pointing fingers at another person or entity for the way you’re currently feeling, pause for a moment and ask yourself: are you really 100% blameless?
Research has found that blame-shifting is often found alongside certain personality traits. For example, narcissists tend to externalize responsibility for their transgressions and blame another person or circumstance every time something goes wrong with their plans. Pessimists also tend to exhibit similar behavior: blaming everything on another person, circumstances, or “the universe”, as Sir Roger Scruton discusses in his book The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope.
Research from the Department of Psychology, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a set of studies conducted by the University of Southern California in collaboration with the Stanford Graduate School of Business has established that blame-shifting has the following effects:
- It lowers your creativity.
- It makes you less likely to indulge in productive risk-taking.
- It lessens your skills and brings down your capabilities to innovate.
- It makes you learn less and perform worse relative to those who own up to their mistakes.
- If you’ve seen people in power shift the blame to others, you’re more likely to do the same yourself, thus proving that blame-shifting is contagious.
This is why it’s important to learn to take responsibility for your mistakes rather than always blaming another person or institution for your failures.
How to Stop Playing the Blame Game
Research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology states that blame-shifting results from people trying to protect their egos. This can act as a contagion that spreads. When you see others focussed on protecting their own self-image, you tend to do the same.
According to Dr. Nathanael Fast, an assistant professor of management at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, here are a few practical steps you can take to own up to your mistakes:
Shift to constructive blaming
Resist the urge to point the finger at others when things don’t go according to plan. Even when you have to do it, shift the focus from the person to the action. Understand that your goal is to learn from the mistakes and never repeat them. Your goal isn't to publicly humiliate the person or burn all bridges with them.
Work on your insecurities
As blame-shifting can be contagious, set a good example for people in your vicinity by confidently taking ownership for failures. Try to foster a chronic sense of inner security and become psychologically secure so rejections can’t affect you enough to start blaming others.
Focus on learning
Rather than wallowing about how things didn’t work out, focus on the lessons learned and how you can move forward with them. Cultivate a culture where learning is the top priority, rather than avoiding mistakes. Normalize that making mistakes is natural. The only way forward is to carve lessons from them and move ahead professionally and personally.
The Benefits of Taking Responsibility for Your Failures
If you stop blame-shifting and learn to hold yourself accountable for your mistakes, you’ll learn to take responsibility when you should. While it might hurt at first, ultimately it will help everyone problem-solve, cooperate, and develop mutual respect. Aside from that here’s how your life will improve:
You won’t be blind to your flaws
Being responsible for your mistakes will open your eyes to everything you had done wrong. If you’re aware of your shortcomings, you’ll also be able to discern what you need to do to make sure those mistakes don’t repeat again. That way, your performance and your outlook towards life will improve.
You’ll up your empathy level
Instead of burning bridges, if you’re more aware of your mistakes, you’ll be more empathetic to the people who reject you. It can help you improve your personal and professional relationships and not close the doors to future collaborations. If you accept that making mistakes is normal, you’ll also learn to forgive yourself easily and move ahead with lessons instead of guilt.
Like my friend, you won’t have to force yourself to say “No” even if the people who rejected your work walk barefoot on broken glass and beg you to work for them.
You’ll be the hero
Shifting blame on others often implies that you’re a victim. But accepting responsibility and making sure the mistakes never repeat again makes you a hero. Accept responsibility, take action, and be the hero of your own story.
My friend was so focussed on accepting herself as she was, that she refused to acknowledge there might be something wrong with her article. It was easier to blame the editors as racist, rather than rework her piece and submit it again.
While it’s definitely healthy to accept yourself as you are, you shouldn’t “love yourself” to the extent that it makes you blind to your faults. Whenever things don’t go according to plan or you face rejection, ask yourself this — “Is there anything I could have done better?” If you can’t arrive at the answer on your own, ask a friend or get a professional second opinion.
If the answer is yes, then do everything in your power to right the wrong. Otherwise, move on and stop thinking about the failure. It’s just one incident. It doesn’t define your life.
Every failure can be an opportunity to unlock the potential in your soul. Don’t let it go to waste by pretending you’re perfect and blaming the other person. As Jordan Gross once told me, “Rejection is redirection for the creative.” You can see this redirection only if you’re willing to accept responsibility for your actions and take concrete measures towards making sure the mistake isn’t repeated.
That’s the power of accepting your flaws: it makes you a better person.