The Second Transition: Responsibility

The transition from chapter 2 to chapter 3 is in this line: “It is my fault.”

The key word here is fault.

As a psychologist, I have come to dislike this word. Too many people believe “fault” means “placing complete responsibility for my actions on the person who showed or taught me how to do this unproductive behavior.”

Here’s an example of Jennifer’s (not her real name) mistaken, fault-finding thinking:

1) I just got really upset with my husband and ate a bag of potato chips.
2) Whose fault is that? Who taught me how to eat potato chips when upset?
3) When I was a child, every time my mother was upset, she would eat potato chips.
4) I learned how to eat when upset from my mother.**
5) Therefore, it is my mother’s fault that I eat potato chips when upset.

Here’s the good news: the thinking above does reveal who contributed to Jennifer being in the hole.

She is absolutely clear that her mother gave her misleading information, demonstrated unhealthy patterns, and told her lies about food, health, appearance, and the magnificence of her body.

It may be your college cross-country coach, fitness magazines, or an ex-girlfriend: if you are serious about learning more about your relationship with food, it is wise to learn who and what shaped that relationship. Knowing how you got into the hole helps you make sense of the past and wisely consider your options in the present.

Here’s the bad news: Jennifer’s thinking hides an important truth about her present and future. What’s the mistake?

Jennifer assumes that the person who helped her get into the hole (her mother) is a necessary part of getting her out!

No mater from whom you learned your unwanted, painful, unproductive habits, one thing remains true: if you are the one in pain who wishes things were different, that means YOU are the person who is in the hole. That means YOU have the responsibility (that is, the ability to respond differently) to get out of the hole.

This is true even if you are certain someone talked you into the hole.
This is true even if you are certain someone pushed you into the hole.

If I could restate Nelson’s poem, the line “It is my fault” would read “It is my responsibility.”

Save yourself years of misery, resentment, and bitterness: do not assume that the people and/or situations that contributed to you getting into the hole are necessary in order for you to get out.

You can get out of the hole even if the other person is deceased, distracted, or out of your life.
You can get out of the hole if the other person doesn’t believe s/he had anything to do with you being in the hole.
You can get out of the hole even if the other person doesn’t think you’re in a hole!

I invite you to re-read Nelson’s poem, consider the difference between fault and responsibility, and explore the questions:

Who and what contributed to me being in the hole?
Whom have I been holding responsible for getting me out of the hole?

**Notice that eating chips when you’re upset is just a pattern—it’s not inherently good or bad. A pattern only becomes a problem when you become dissatisfied with the results. The moment you decide the pattern isn’t taking you to your desired destination, then the pattern has become a problem.