How To Move Past The Blame Game And Start Fixing Your Problems

It’s easy to blame someone (or something) else for your problems. You don’t control everything, and the world always finds a way to make your life harder. But the problem with placing blame is it doesn’t fix anything.

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Sometimes, your situation is legitimately out of your control. I’ve been in situations where I was poor, psychologically impaired and subject to systemic disadvantages. Blame is a useful tool for diagnosing where a problem originates. When it comes to serious offences, it’s worth finding out who’s at fault and calling it out.

At the same time, blame often leads to anger with no outlet, feelings of hopelessness or general animosity towards the people around you. This isn’t constructive. Knowing the problem isn’t the same as having the solution. Here’s how to move past the (sometimes justified) blame step and start solving things.

Blame Is Only Useful for Finding the Underlying Problems

When I was battling depression (among other development issues) as a child, there was a lot of blame going around. I blamed doctors for not listening to what I had to say, family for not understanding me, friends for not caring enough, and the universe for cursing me with a broken brain. This type of blame wasn’t very useful. In fact, it often resulted in alienating people who were trying to help. Eventually, I started to ask myself: “Is this person/thing really to blame for my issues?”

Sometimes the answer to that question was “Yes.” For example, I attended special education schools when I was younger that included the use of seclusion rooms. This involved placing a child in a small, windowless concrete room for potentially hours. Practices like this, I later learnt, either inhibited my psychological progress, and in some cases made it much, much worse.

Blaming the systems I’d grown up in was easy. In fact, it was also correct. I later learnt that, shortly after I’d graduated, a student took his own life in a room like the ones I’d been in. This eventually led to the practice being banned in my state. In that instance, blame was used constructively. The act of placing an emotionally unstable child and putting them in an isolated, featureless room was determined to be too risky to the safety of the child and concrete actions were taken to prevent it in the future.

I wasn’t in a position at the time to call for change in the system I was a student of, but others were. They found out what rules were to blame and solved the problem. In my own life, I had to learn that this was the way that blame is most effectively used. If I blame an external entity for my problems but don’t do anything with that information, it will drag me down. However, if I use it to find out the source of a problem and change it, things can get better. Placing blame in the right place is the first step towards making your situation better.

Distinguish What You Can Change From What You Can’t

It’s an unfortunate limitation of mankind that we are not all powerful masters of our own existence. As a result, you’ll frequently find yourself in situations that cause you harm and that you can’t control. A job that doesn’t pay well enough, a toxic relationship or the circumstances of your birth. Some things you can adapt to, others will simply always be that way.

Once you’ve identified a problem, it can go into one of these two categories. Knowing the difference is essential to your own peace of mind, as well as finding a solution. It may sound cheesy, bordering on clichè (this idea has already been codified in an early 20th century prayer after all). However, you won’t be as effective at changing the things you can control if you don’t have the ability to accept (even if temporarily) the things you can’t control.

Zen Habits, an appropriately named blog for this concept, describes how to go with the flow when things happen that you can’t control. Most tips involve getting through the moment until you can arrive at a point that you can actually change something (which we’ll come back to later), but one trick that I’ve personally found universally helpful is to laugh:

It helps me to see things as funny, rather than frustrating. Car broke down in the middle of traffic and I have no cell phone or spare tire? Laugh at my own incompetence. Laugh at the absurdity of the situation. That requires a certain amount of detachment — you can laugh at the situation if you’re above it, but not within it. And that detachment is a good thing. If you can learn to laugh at things, you’ve come a long way. Try laughing even if you don’t think it’s funny — it will most likely become funny.

There are a lot of situations in which laughing is entirely the wrong reaction at the moment, (for example, I sure wasn’t laughing whenever I was placed in one of those seclusion rooms). However, when you’re stressing about how to overcome something you can’t change, finding that detachment, even if it’s ironic self-effacing laughter, can interrupt the cycle of frustration and anger. It’s not about finding the humour in humourless things exactly. It’s about breaking the habit of focusing on the blame. It’s easier to move from laughing about getting fired to looking for a new job than it is if your starting point is misery.

Of course, the things you can change are actionable. Ideally, this will be your focus point. You don’t like your situation and you want to change it, right? Start by finding the things you have a choice on. It may not be everything you want to change, but it’s something. Maybe you can’t quit your job, but you can study on the side. You can’t make yourself taller, but you can dress in a way that makes you feel more confident. Make a list of things you can change and start there.

Phase 1: Change Yourself

Society likes to make a lot of hoopla about “being yourself”, and it’s great advice if you interpret it as being comfortable in your own skin and valuing who you are. However, there are exceptions. Making changes within yourself is actually a really neat shortcut that allows you to change some of your circumstances indirectly. You can’t magic your way into a new job, but you can catch up on the career ladder. You can’t force people to find you attractive, but you can learn to dress better or practise being interesting when meeting new people. You won’t become less lazy by wishing for it, but you can trick your brain into developing new habits.

A lot of this clicked for me was when I was dating. In my early years, I had terrible luck finding a date. I tried to be nice and wanted to be a good boyfriend, but it didn’t really work. I got frustrated and blamed everything around me, until I asked a simple question: Am I actually worth dating? As writer Chelsea Fagan points out, we have high expectations for what we want in others, but rarely turn that type of analysis inwards:

Everyone has a checklist. Whether it’s got three points or three hundred, we all have various things we look for in another person before engaging in a serious relationship. If we really got down to it, most of us would say that the most important are “makes me laugh and treats me well,” but there is no limit to the amount of asterisks we can put on the things we want. They should be tall, hot, smart, witty, motivated, live in a nice apartment, have good taste in sweaters, own a golden retriever named “Kennedy” or some other such yuppie nonsense, etc. But few of us take the time to look at the qualities we possess individually to see how many checks we could tick off on someone else’s list. When it comes to us, we all want to be judged as human beings with flaws, someone who is in a constant state of evolution. It never feels good to think of yourself as being “good on paper,” or not meeting an arbitrary standard — and yet, we are happy to do it with every prospect who pops up on our OKCupid homepage.

Once I started looking inwards, I realised some things that I could change. Sure, I thought I was a nice guy, but that didn’t entitle me to guaranteed dates. So I changed up my wardrobe, cut my ridiculously overgrown hair and learnt about a few topics so I could have conversations (or at least practised pretending to). The result was that more people became interested in being around me. My situation sucked, but I was able to change the part of it I could control and make it better.

Phase 2: Change Your Circumstances

Changing your own personal habits is the easiest way to start fixing things, but it only goes so far. Sometimes there are situations that put undue stress on your life no matter what you change and you just need to get out. This can be harder, but it’s rarely impossible that you can’t change anything.

Changing your situation can range from quitting a job to leaving an unhealthy relationship. These are necessarily harder because they involve something that changing yourself doesn’t: other people. Because bad circumstances tend to involve other people, you have one of two options: persuading others to change, or, failing that, leaving.

There’s no one right answer in this area, but generally speaking, persuading others is a useful first step. If you have a hostile work environment, you can try rallying like-minded coworkers or appealing to higher authorities. If a relationship is stressing you out, move past arguing and try to address your relationship problems. Persuading others is the first step.

Unfortunately, trying to work things out with others doesn’t always work. Sometimes, you have to throw in the towel and quit your job. Or a relationship moves from problematic to abusive. If a situation arises where you can’t live or work without risking your safety or sanity, it may be time to leave.

It’s also essential to note that, especially in extreme and abusive cases, it’s not your fault. Taking control and changing things doesn’t mean that you’re the one to blame, nor does it mean that you bring the consequences of leaving on yourself. It can’t be stressed enough that abusive relationships (and work environments!) will often guilt you into staying or threaten you if you leave. And it’s always a difficult thing to leave. You need this pay, you’re worried about the kids or you’re scared of upsetting someone. These are all perfectly valid concerns. However, there’s always help. If you need to escape a bad circumstance, reach out. This guide has some excellent information on identifying and escaping domestic abuse.

Phase 3: Change Society

There’s one other category of things that can be changed that you don’t have direct control over — society as a whole. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that you can cure overnight, and in fact many things may never change in your lifetime. Changing society is important to mention here though, because it’s a nice bucket where you can store all that blame you couldn’t deal with when you started accepting things you can’t change.

Here’s an uncomfortable truth: societal change happens slowly. Certain things are accepted culturally that probably shouldn’t be and we can’t change them all at once. Some of those things you can’t control will be due to things that should change, like racism, sexism or just general systematic oppression. If you’ve divided up the blame for your problems into the appropriate categories, done what you can to improve your own situation and there’s still stuff left to do, it might be time to start funnelling that into some societal change.

There’s no right way to do this. Often, change is more possible with a group than it is on your own. However, in my personal experience, even being persuasive in the small discussions matters.

You probably won’t be able to single-handedly change the world. However, cultural change does happen over time. A hundred years ago, society had not yet fully agreed to allow women to vote, permitted all kinds of discrimination based on race and gender, and did very little to protect the rights of workers. Some of these things changed faster than others, but they can change. The bad news is that the negative consequences of society may still hurt you. But if you can adapt and make it through, you can help make the world better for others in the future.

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