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Why Some People Think Everything Is Their Fault

Taking themselves out of the spotlight is a good start.

Key points

  • People tend to split painful experience into two categories: it's our fault, or we're innocent victims.
  • Both of these perspectives place us at the center of the action—in other words, they're self-centered.
  • Taking ourselves out of the center makes it possible to see other explanations and find better solutions.

Jason* had been dating a woman for a few weeks. Everything seemed to be going well, and then she suddenly stopped responding to his texts. “I’ve tried calling and emailing, too. It seems she’s ghosted me. I keep going over everything I said and did to try to figure out what I did wrong.”

Rob’s* supervisor called him into his office to say that his pattern of arriving to work up to a half-hour late every day wasn’t acceptable. “He told me that this was a warning. The next time it will be a reprimand, which is much more serious. And if I get three reprimands for it, he said, I will be let go. But what does he want me to do? I can’t control the subways or the buses. Sometimes there’s just a delay, and it’s not fair that I’m being punished for it.”

Sylvia* was furious with her work team after trying to get them to finish a job that was due that day. “I’m the one who stayed up late last night pulling it all together, checking everyone’s grammar, making sure it was professional. I’m always the one doing all the work,” she said. “And then the team gets the credit—even the people who don’t do anything. It’s really not fair.”

Why do some people see everything as their own fault? Why do others see everything as someone else’s? And is there a middle ground?

British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein believed that we tend to split the world into two perspectives. She called one the “depressive position,” in which we take everything that happens as the result of something that is wrong with us or something that we’ve done wrong, and the other the “paranoid position,” in which we see everything as being done to us, by others who are bad or hurtful.

Klein believed that a healthy position was one in which we could integrate the two different points of view, or at least move back and forth between them. That’s a difficult enough goal. But there’s another factor at work: self-centeredness.

Taking all the responsibility for something that goes wrong and seeing another person as fully responsible and potentially behaving badly or hurtfully toward us are equally self-centered ways of looking at life experiences.

Looking at these experiences from a less self-centered perspective can make them easier to manage. But since each of us takes in information from our own point of view, it’s not always easy to step back from any situation to see it from a wider angle, one in which we are not at the center. In fact, you might think you already do that, especially if you take pride in never being unkind or hurting another person or never slacking in your own responsibilities, no matter how unpleasant.

Let’s take the three common examples above. What would be a less self-centered and more wide-angled perspective on each situation? And how could it be useful to think about them in this way?

When You Think It's All Your Fault

When Jason went back over his time with the woman who had ghosted him, he first thought about how comfortable they had been together. “We had so much in common,” he said. “We’re both vegan, like jazz, and don’t care much about movies. I assumed she was feeling like I was. Maybe she felt crowded by me. Or like I was taking too much for granted.”

I asked him to tell me the story again, this time without the lens that everything was his fault. He said, “Well, she did tell me that she had been badly burned in a relationship and wasn’t eager to get involved again. Even if she didn’t feel crowded by me, she might have felt uncomfortable with how easy it was for us to be with each other. Maybe she was afraid we were getting too close too quickly and this was the only way she could stop the process. It would have been nice if she could have explained it to me, if that’s what it was. Maybe she didn’t think I’d accept her explanation. But that just shows that she didn’t really know me. I’m pretty good at taking somebody else at their word.”

Taking himself off center stage and recognizing that the other person in the story had her own perspective and might have been playing out some of her own issues made it possible for Jason to take responsibility for his own behavior without blaming himself for the situation. He learned something important from exploring another potential perspective.

“I wish she had told me what was going on for her,” he said. “Next time I’ll be a little more proactive. I’ll ask how things are going and won’t just take things for granted.”

Making space for another point of view is a great way to learn from any experience.

When You Think You Didn't Do Anything Wrong

When Rob finished his story, I asked him if the subways were always late. He looked a little sheepish and said, “Well, no, I guess I sometimes have a little trouble catching the train that would get me to work on time.”

I asked him what he thought his supervisor would say if he told him that he was having trouble getting out of the house on time, and he said, “Well, most likely he’d tell me to leave earlier. Maybe he’d understand if I explain I’m getting my son ready for school, but it’ll be better if I can also let him know that I’m working on the problem.”

When You Feel Like You're Doing the Work and Someone Else Is Getting the Credit

When Sylvia took herself out of the center of her team’s attitude, she told me, “Some of them are quite young and inexperienced. Maybe they’re afraid it won’t be good enough if they take on some of the tasks.” She began experimenting with ways to support their strengths and help them do work at which they could excel. Team projects improved, as did team spirit; and within a year, she was promoted to team leader.

Taking yourself out of the spotlight isn’t always easy, but combined with looking at other, less obvious (to you, at least) perspectives, it is a great way to take appropriate responsibility without becoming resentful.

*Names and identifying info changed to protect privacy.

Copyright @fdbarth2022.

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