So there I am, letting my infant son eat ricotta cheese right out of the container -- yes, it is still lodged within the crevasses of his highchair and no, my wife has still not forgiven me -- and suddenly, he wants out. While taking the tray off I accidentally pinch his tiny hand in the locking mechanism. He lets out a scream so loud it makes my teeth itch. I scoop him up and comfort him in my arms, apologizing profusely. Seconds later, he is smiling and cooing as if nothing had happened.
How did he bounce back so quickly? Obviously, this was an accident, but did he know that? Does choosing who we blame for what happens to us make us more resilient?
If my son had blamed me for pinching his finger, would he have been as quick to forgive and forget? Imagine, just for a moment, being a baby. If you were tiny and helpless and completely reliant on these strange, benevolent giants for sustenance and protection, what would you do if you thought that they hurt you intentionally? Could you go on with the will and confidence to explore and create? Probably not. In fact, you'd almost certainly become fearful and despondent. Can we make choices about who we blame for our pain that will help hasten our healing?
Let's look at the options:
Option #1: "I am to blame."
In this scenario, we choose to believe that the world and our caregivers are generally benevolent but we, as bumbling infants and toddlers, must have done something to deserve the pain. As adults, this usually results in A.) Being hard on ourselves and becoming depressed when things go wrong, or B.) Trying to anticipate every possible pitfall so that we don't get hurt in the future.
Option #2: "They are to blame."
As kids, this goes something like this: "My mom must be bad for not protecting me from that sidewalk that jumped up and tripped my scooter, and she caused me to scrape my knee." Or, "My grandfather is incompetent if he can't speed up time to get me my 'Pirate's Booty' right now." As adults, this leads to the feeling that no one is trustworthy, and the belief that the world is filled with bad or incompetent people. This can result in an oppositional and at times, antisocial approach: "Damn the world! I will take what's mine."
Option #3: "No one is to blame."
It's all random. As kids and adults, this approach can lead us to feel that the world is an unpredictable place, and we have no control over what happens to us. We can be going about our business, and suddenly we are in searing pain from a pinched finger for no apparent reason. Relying exclusively on the randomness idea may lead you to feel despondent or to have paranoid thoughts in trying to find some hidden pattern to the randomness.
Relying exclusively on one of these strategies doesn't work. But what if you could make choices about how to assign the blame? Since this is largely a matter of perspective, if you make different choices, you might have better outcomes.
For example, if I get fired from my job, I can choose to believe that it was because I was lousy at my job ("I am to blame"). I could also choose to believe that my company is filled with jerks that abandoned me after years of loyal service ("They are to blame"). Of course, I can also choose to believe that I was fired because the world economy is stagnant, consumers aren't buying my company's products and although my company desperately wanted to keep me, they had to make some cuts, and it just so happened that my job was one that got cut ("No one is to blame").
Any or all of these may be true, but what really matters is what you believe is true. Taking all the blame on yourself will probably leave you feeling defeated and depleted. You may start to think that you will never get a job as good as the one you had, and if/when you do, you will live in constant fear of being fired. If you choose to believe that "they are to blame" you may become bitter and cynical, which probably won't help you get a new job, nor is it a nice way of approaching each day. Finally, if you choose to believe that the firing was random, you may give up in despair or approach each new opportunity with fear and skepticism. So what should you do? If you take a more flexible approach to assigning responsibility you may be more likely to bounce back from the setback.
For example, immediately after getting fired, it may make sense to blame "them." Your ego will be battered and bruised from the shock of having the rug pulled out from under you, not to mention the impact on your wallet. This will also probably leave you with enough energy and resolve to tackle the next step, which is to go out there and look for -- or even better, create -- a new job. As you find or develop this new opportunity, you may consider moving to the "It's nobody's fault" strategy. There is some randomness, good and bad, that seems to settle on all of our lives, and acknowledging that all the hard work that you do may not yield the exact results that you wanted may allow you to let go of some of the bad feelings that inevitably accompany bad news.
Finally, once you have settled into your new job, consider taking more of the blame and responsibility for the firing onto yourself -- not necessarily because it was your fault, but looking at what happened from a safer place will allow you to actually see what contributions you made to your circumstances. This will help you to make the changes necessary to grow from the experience. If you didn't just get fired from a job, but are struggling with another problem or obstacle, try tailoring the spirit of these suggestions to your own situation.
If you can be flexible in how you assign responsibility for the rain that falls in your life, you can ride the storm out with confidence and prepare for the next bright day. Being happy and productive isn't just about what happens to you, but about how you respond to what happens. Depending on your point of view, a pinched finger and dried ricotta cheese in your hair might just be the start to a great day.
Follow Ben Michaelis, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drbenmichaelis