Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash

Even with the best of intentions, things don’t always go according to a plan. Sometimes we mess up and at other times it’s our complex interdependent environment that can make us behave in unproductive ways. 

Either way, when it comes to answering what we did or did not do well, it’s hard to accept the reality of our situation. Mistakes become synonymous with accepting defeat. We worry that mistakes will reflect on our competence and others will judge us and find us less worthy if we acknowledge our faults. 

With the desire to protect our self-esteem, our goal shifts from finding the right answers to being right. Denying and justifying our behavior is not only damaging to people around us, it can stall our own growth. Getting mired up in negative emotions can lead to destructive patterns of behavior where we rely on blame and other excuses to ignore the consequences of our decisions. When we believe that someone or something else beyond our control is the cause of our issues, we fail to see our part in it. We refuse to learn from our situation and take corrective steps towards improvement.  

To shift from blame to problem-solving, you need better control over your own thought process and that starts with asking the right questions. 

1. What emotion do I feel?

Your emotion plays a key role in determining whether you react to your circumstances or act with intention. Unmet expectations or undesirable results will usually make you gravitate towards negative emotions.

Recognize those moments of discomfort when you feel a strong emotion. Take time to define exactly what you are feeling – anger, disappointment, sadness, embarrassment, hopelessness, anxiety, or frustration? 

Don’t disregard your feelings, acknowledge them. At the same time don’t give in to those feelings by questioning them:

  • What makes me feel this way?
  • How is this emotion clouding my judgment?
  • Is it only a creation of my mind? How does it connect to reality?

2. What’s the story I am telling myself?

Elliot Aronson, a social psychologist, describes self-justification as “lying to ourselves.” In his book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), he writes “Self-justification not only minimizes our mistakes and bad decisions…It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done. In fact, come to think of it, it was the right thing.” 

By letting self-justification interfere with your ability to think clearly, you not only deny your role that contributed to your situation, but you also give away an opportunity to learn and fix it. Dodging accountability and shifting responsibility may give you temporary relief by shifting the focus to events beyond your control, but it does nothing to advance you in the direction of your goals. 

Run through your internal dialogue to catch if your entire story is structured around blaming something or someone else for your problem. Then question your story:

  • What’s the story I am not telling myself?
  • Why am I so afraid to accept the reality of my situation?
  • What’s the worst that can happen if I take responsibility?
  • What opportunities will I miss if I don’t take responsibility? 

3. What’s under my control?

Ryan Holiday writes in The Obstacle Is the Way, “You will come across obstacles in life—fair and unfair. And you will discover, time and time again, that what matters most is not what these obstacles are but how we see them, how we react to them, and whether we keep our composure. You will learn that this reaction determines how successful we will be in overcoming—or possibly thriving because of—them.”

You cannot control how others behave and act. What you do have control over is your own decisions and how to react to various events. Instead of feeling helpless and hopeless about your situation and pushing blame externally, look inward to the part of the story that you can control. 

When you miss a deadline, instead of saying “My boss gave unrealistic timelines. I tried my best,” think about “What could I have done to meet my timelines?”

When you lose a deal, instead of criticizing others “You messed this up,” ask “How can we create a better sales pitch next time?”

By adopting a problem-solving attitude, you will identify that there are plenty of things you could have done to prevent the situation from happening or things you can still do now to get back on track. 

4. What caused this to occur?

By feeling in control of your own emotions and story, you will be empowered to fix the problem. Real work starts now. Use humility and curiosity to shift from obvious and superficial reasons to get to the underlying root cause. 

If you try to fix the symptom, the problem will keep presenting itself over and over again, but once you attack the source of the problem, you can nip it in the bud. Don’t speed through the analysis without any significant conclusions. Ask questions and only accept an answer that clarifies what you could have done to prevent the problem from occurring:

  • Am I solving the right problem or do I need to dig deeper? 
  • What could I have done to prevent it from happening?
  • What can I do to fix it now?
  • What does this teach me about myself?

By learning to shift from blame to problem-solving, you will practice and build the skill to turn negative experiences into positive opportunities. The skill will give you the power to be the architect of your own life as opposed to feeling like a victim of your circumstances. 

Give these strategies a try and let me know if you feel empowered to take responsibility and push ahead with the desire to learn and grow.