One of the most useful ways of overcoming unresolved anger is by owning up to our own responsibility for our problems. When we do this it actually empowers us by removing the “victim”.Our “victim” holds us back from resolving anger because it keeps wanting to focus on how others are responsible for our problems and pain. Focusing on others gives power away and makes us feel more helpless and therefore more angry. So letting go of the victim and accepting our role in our problems empowers us and therefore resolves anger because it allows us to focus on what we can change. We can change what we did but we can’t change what others did.
So if taking responsibility is so empowering and makes us feel so good why isn’t everyone doing it? Why is everyone still beating around the bush, telling half truths, and above all blaming others? It’s because there is one little feeling which is omnipresent. It is the most powerful of feelings. It controls us. It blinds us from seeing the truth. It forces us into a constant state of denial, sometimes for a lifetime. And that feeling is “shame”.
What is “shame”? Shame is present in everyone. We usually begin to experience it early in life. We have what we call “shaming experiences” which are experiences where someone, usually our caregiver, tells us we have done something wrong. Some of us have healthy shame. Simply stated we develop healthy shame if the message we receive is that we have done something wrong but we are okay. We will develop unhealthy shame, or low self esteem, if the message we receive is that we have done something wrong and we are not okay. Children who grow up experiencing a lot of verbal, physical and/or emotional abuse will usually develop unhealthy shame.
Unhealthy shame is usually the shame which holds us back from really looking at ourselves and owning up to responsibility for our problems. To look at the responsibility would mean looking at ourselves, (something we highly dislike or even loathe) and that is out of the question. Therefore, those of us with unhealthy shame just keep blaming others for everything and continue to deal with the resulting sense of victimization, helplessness and anger.
So how do we break through this downward spiral? Obviously it means we must overcome the shame. The shame keeps us angry at others and stops us from moving forward. We cannot let it control our life this way.
How do we know if we have unhealthy shame? Symptoms of unhealthy shame will include behaviors like keeping a secret, telling others part of the story but leaving out the part which is particularly painful, consistently feeling like our problems are caused by others and/or blaming others for our problems on a consistent basis.
THE FOUR LEVELS OF RESPONSIBILITY (without shame) To help ourselves shed our shame and take full responsibility I am suggesting these four levels. Each level is more difficult because it is less “safe” psychologically for the person to be fully honest and presents a potentially more shaming environment.
LEVEL #1 – Fully own the responsibility in your own mind without unhealthy shame. Tell it to yourself, no one else. If you are a person in denial you may not even be telling it to yourself yet at all or you may be telling it partially to yourself. Let’s say, for example, that you are a person with a drinking problem. All of your biggest problems in life including a failed marriage and loss of your children are due to drinking. You may be blaming and not owning any of the responsibility or you may be partially owning it. Where you want to get to is fully owning the fact that alcohol is destroying your life. Level #1 allows you the safest environment in which to take full responsibility. It allows you to practice taking responsibility while not shaming yourself. Yes, this is something you will probably have to practice because your natural tendency will be to shame yourself. Removing the unhealthy shame requires learning to accept yourself for who you are and who you have been with all of your limitations and imperfections. You will accept that you could have done a lot better but that you are still okay for all you mistakes. You will take responsibility. You will not blame. But you will drop the part where you beat yourself up. Continue with this level until you have owned full responsibility without blaming and you can feel good about yourself for doing it. After this is perfected you can move on to level 2.
LEVEL #2 – Fully own the responsibility to others in a safe setting without unhealthy shame. So you are now telling others what you are ashamed of but you are telling people that would be least likely to judge you. An example of a safe setting for the above person with a drinking problem might be an alcoholics anonymous meeting. These are people who have experienced your struggle. They will hold you accountable, but they won’t judge you. In fact, they will probably have empathy for you. Another safe place might be a therapist’s office. So the goal is to honestly tell your story, take responsibility for your mistakes, own the part of your problem that is self inflicted and avoid blaming others for your plight. You will want to continue on this level until you can fully tell your story and not leave any parts out due to shame. You want to remove the unhealthy shame. You want to tell yourself that you could have done a lot better but you are still okay for all your mistakes. You want to be able to accept yourself for who you are. You want to be able to accept yourself for your limitations and imperfections. You will want to drop the part where you beat yourself up. Continue with this level until you have owned full responsibility without blaming others and you can feel good about yourself for doing it. After this is perfected you can move on to level 3.
LEVEL #3 – Fully own the responsibility to others in an unsafe setting without unhealthy shame. In this level you are telling others who are not likely to understand you and therefore are more likely to judge you or be angry with you. You cannot expect to get empathy from others in this level. This level requires that you be very strong within yourself. It requires that you not expect or need validation or support from others when you tell your story. Level 3 people will be the majority of people in your life. It will be your neighbor. It will be your friend. It will be your acquaintance. It will be your work associate. It will be the storekeeper. It may also be your mother, father, spouse or child. Yes, it’s true that you don’t have to tell most of these people your story. You could argue that it’s none of their business. It’s not their business. But if you don’t tell them you are keeping a secret. It most likely means you have not yet dealt with the shame sufficiently to be able to share your problem at this level. You are not being fully accountable. Fully accountable means being able to share at all levels. At this level the goal is the same. You want to honestly tell your story and not blame others. You want to remove the unhealthy shame from your thoughts. You want to honestly tell yourself that you could have done better but you are still okay for all your mistakes. You want to be able to accept yourself for who you are. You want to be able to accept yourself for your limitations and imperfections. You will want to drop the part where you beat yourself up. Continue with this level until you have owned full responsibility without blaming others and you can feel good about yourself for doing it. After this is perfect you can move on to level 4.
LEVEL #4 – Identify and make amends to those you have hurt without unhealthy shame. Identifying to the best of our ability those that we have hurt can be difficult. It requires empathy on our part to be able to get inside the head of the person and understand how our behavior might have affected them. Once we have identified who we have hurt to the best of our ability, we then want to identify how we have hurt them and how we can make amends. Level 4 is the most active way of owning our responsibility. It is one thing to verbalize our responsibility and quite another to seek someone out that we have hurt and try to fix it. We are quite likely to get judgment and anger from the person we seek out. We can’t expect empathy and validation from them. One of the first ways to make amends might be to fully own to them what we have done and how we may have hurt them. Another way to make amends might be to allow them to fully express how they feel to us without defending ourselves or trying to stop them. Instead we will just listen and validate their feelings. Another way might be to do something for them to help heal their hurt. It might be best to ask them what they want us to do. So the goal here is the same. You want to honestly tell them what you did and how you hurt them without blaming them. You want to remove the unhealthy shame from your thoughts. You want to tell yourself that you could have done better but you are still okay for all your mistakes. You want to be able to accept yourself for who you are. You want to be able to accept yourself for your limitations and imperfections. You will want to drop the part where you beat yourself up. Continue with this level until you have owned full responsibility without defensiveness or blaming others.
Unhealthy shame is the hurt which is at the core of most chronic anger. Therapy can help us greatly to uncover the sources of our unhealthy shame from the past. In addition we can actively use these 4 levels of responsibility in the present to gradually move from shame to empowerment.
QUESTION – Name one way in which you have hurt someone and how you can use these 4 levels to take full responsibility.