If I had a nickel for every time somebody in couples therapy assigned blame to their partner for their relationship difficulties, I'd be a very wealthy lady.
It's human nature to want to avoid seeing ourselves in a negative light. We want to protect our self-image whenever possible.
It could be about something dumb and minor (leaving the milk out) or something major (having an affair). When we feel like we've made a mistake somehow, our reflex reaction is to deny it or find some evidence to justify our behavior. I am no exception.
So why do we do this? Why is it so hard to just say "oops I was wrong"?
A little something called cognitive dissonance. This is the discomfort we feel when our self-image is threatened by evidence that goes against how we see ourselves or would like to be perceived by others.
For example, if I see myself as a responsible person and I get a speeding ticket, I might deny that I was going too fast and tell myself that the officer was being unreasonable. Or I will try to minimize my wrongdoing and justify my actions by telling myself I was speeding for a good reason- to get to work on time (which is more in line with my self-concept of me being a responsible person).
But at the end of the day, I was wrong. I was going above the speed limit. This doesn't make me an overall irresponsible person like my brain is trying to make me believe, it just means I'm human and I made a mistake.
When we're not aware that this is going on, when we don't hold ourselves accountable or accept responsibility for our actions, we just stay stuck in our own narcissistic need to be "right." We are not able to grow as people. And if our mistakes involved hurting someone else and we refuse to acknowledge this, we're basically saying, "I value my self-image more than I value you."
Not the greatest message to send the people you care about, right?
The other reason we find this so challenging is that we live in a culture where we praise infallibility, as unrealistic as it is. To admit fault is to show vulnerability and we've been conditioned to believe that vulnerability equals weakness.
Which is interesting, because it turns out that the opposite is true- those who are unwilling to admit wrongdoing when it is clear that they have done wrong are perceived as having lower self-confidence. Because it's so challenging to do, we actually tend to view others who admit wrongdoing as having a strong character and a higher level of self-confidence.
Since it's inevitable that we're going to mess up a lot in our lives, how do we work on acknowledging our mistakes?
Well the first step is noticing when cognitive dissonance is coming up for us. This can feel like guilt, shame, embarrassment, confusion, fear, defensiveness.
We can also notice when the familiar justifications start popping up:
"Well if you hadn't....I wouldn't have..."
"I was only trying to..."
"My intentions were good."
These thoughts and feelings don't necessarily mean we are indeed 100% "wrong", but it gives us a chance to give space to the possibility that we might be. We can be more objective, and work on our empathy and compassion (towards others and ourselves), rather than just rushing straight to blind denial or desperate attempts of justification.
We can also remind ourselves that being at fault for something does NOT mean we are terrible people. And that making mistakes and learning from them is a gift, an amazing opportunity to be better.
In my therapy office, on Facebook, and in the sociopolitical realm, I can't begin to describe the damage that's being done because people are unwilling to confront the discomfort that comes with acknowledging that they've made a mistake.
I know it's a tall order, but if we could all try a little harder to put aside our pride, show some humility, and recognize the role we play in the problems we face, we could be a lot better off in our families and in our world.