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Blame and Responsibility Part 2

June 16, 2019

Blame or Responsibility as a Paradigm

 

Before I continue on this topic I want to stop and explain that when I'm talking about blame and responsibility, I'm not talking about them as applied to every single situation and institution, but about using a filter of blame or responsibility as part of a personal paradigm. What do I mean by this? 

 

 

A paradigm is a way of viewing the world. It is like a lens or window through which we filter the information we receive. We all have paradigms, we don't usually notice most of them because we assume they are part of the thing we are looking at when in fact they are an extension of us. Understanding what a paradigm is and how it works is super important because when you realize that a paradigm is a filter that is your lens you also realize that other people have different filters and that none are necessarily right or wrong, but they are different. You also realize that you have the ability to change your paradigm if you choose. The change can be temporary (if you want to understand something from someone else's perspective or multiple perspectives) or more permanent (if you see a new perspective that is more functional for you and decide to adopt it). However, if you don't realize that you are looking through a filter at the world you have no control of that filter or awareness that everyone else is also looking through their own filters.

 

The problem here is that you assume that everyone sees the same thing when in fact they don't. This leads to confusion because if you see something a certain way you assume others see it the same way and should react in the same way you do, if they react differently and you don't have an idea of how paradigms or filters work then you can easily jump to the assumption that one or both of you is bad or faulty or wrong. Doing this can lead you to label an individual or group (or yourself) with an identity based on that action and define them as wrong when in fact you are reacting to completely different things. 

 

I'll give a more concrete example:

Let's say someone cuts you off in traffic and your perspective of that event is that the other person did it because they are rude or at the very least careless and going too fast. You assume from a (blame-based paradigm) that you are in the right (because you did nothing wrong) and they are in the wrong (because if there is a non-ideal situation someone must be at fault and since it isn't you it has to be them) and that the reason they acted that way was because of some flaw either in their action or character. In this situation if you are using a blame based lens you will feel like they have acted unfairly and should be punished so you get angry and send them negative thoughts or a negative label or if you take it far enough take an action like yelling, flipping them off or tail-gating them. 

 

Now let's look at he perspective of the person who cut you off.

The reality of the situation is that there are a number of reasons that they did it. It could be that you are right and they were being rude or careless. It could also be that you were going way below the speed limit and they were in a hurry for what they deemed to be a valid reason. It could also be that they noticed the car in the next lane swerving into theirs and had to move out of that car's way to avoid an accident or that they were a new driver with a lot of anxiety who panicked when they had to make a turn... and yes you can find a dozen ways to prove your point and say that they are still in the wrong, but that's not really the point. The point is that the two perspectives are different and the person who cut you off in this situation probably does not see themselves as rude or careless-- even if they acknowledge that the action they took was. If you decide to scream and chase them and flip them off they probably don't see you as being justified, but as being angry and over-reactive. In truth neither of you are likely any of these characteristics all the time. You could both be having bad days. 

 

Now here is the thing about paradigms, they are usually subtle. So in the example I gave I used parenthesis to explain some of the underlying thoughts and values based on a blame based justice perspective. This time I'll go back and do it from a responsibility based justice perspective. 

 

So same situations, someone cuts you off in traffic and your perspective is that the other person did it because they are rude or careless or going too fast. This time, though, you put a responsibility-based filter over the situation. This is what happens. You have the same non-ideal  physiological and emotional response as you would with the previous example (so you feel panic and then anger, your heart rate escalates, your chest tightens, your breathing becomes shallow and you go into flight or fight mode). You may still assume that you were right (because you did nothing wrong) and that they are wrong, but you also realize that it doesn't matter (responsibility isn't focused on finding a culprit). Maybe you were right and they were wrong, maybe you were wrong (were you paying attention prior to that incident? had they been trying to get into your lane for a while and you kept blocking them without realizing it?). Maybe you were both wrong, maybe neither of you were wrong (could there have been a road hazard in their lane that they were trying to avoid?).

 

It doesn't matter because from this perspective you don't need someone to blame what you need to do is assess the situation. So instead of assuming someone is at fault and getting mad at it, you assess what happened. What happened was that someone cut you off and you found it upsetting because it scared you and set off the uncomfortable panic response in your body, but there wasn't an actual accident. Since there wasn't an accident you don't have to keep playing out all the scenarios that could have taken place and building an emotional response of increased anxiety and anger because of the accident that could have (but didn't) occur. Instead you can look at what did occur and what part of that occurrence you can now respond to. 

 

Remember, responsibility is about what you have power over. It is your response based on what you have the ability to do or not do. You can't control how the other person drives, so they don't need to be your focus at the moment. What you can control is your response to what happened. In this case the disruption you feel is actually within you (because there was no accident-- if there was an accident there would be an external situation for you to respond to, but since there wasn't all the discomfort you feel is inside of you). So where do you feel discomfort?

 

You feel it in your body (escalated heart rate, shallow breaths, tense muscles, contracted chest). Can you respond to this? Yes. You can take some deep breaths, roll your shoulders to loosen them, and do some simple stretching to relieve some of the tension.

 

You feel it in your emotions (panic followed by lingering anxiety and possibly anger at what could have happened). Can you respond to that? Yes. You can comfort yourself by reminding yourself that even though that was scary it is now done and nothing horrible actually happened. You can acknowledge your emotions and let them out (by shouting or sighing or breathing) and then reassure yourself by noticing that you now (thanks to that flight or fight response) have the ability to be more aware of your surroundings (greater sense of sight, sound, and faster reaction time). You can also use the moment to show gratitude for the fact that even though something bad could have happened, it didn't and remember that though danger is inherent in driving you have driven many times without anything bad happening, so you can reason that just because danger is possible you do not have to be guarded and terrified as though it will always occur-- it usually doesn't. 

 

You feel it in your thoughts (what was the driver thinking? That was so dangerous, they could have caused an accident! They could have killed me or might kill someone else! Why are idiots allowed to drive? How can people be so careless... etc). Can you respond to these? Yes. You can either address each thought individually as they come up:

 

What was the driver thinking? --I don't actually know. It seems careless to me but maybe they had a lot on their mind. I'll never really know what they thought, but does that have to impact my reaction? 

 

That was so dangerous, they could have caused an accident--- that was dangerous and they could have caused an accident which is why I am scared and upset, but they didn't cause an accident so I don't need to respond as though they did. 

 

They could have killed me or might kill someone else-- again that is true, but not likely and also not what actually happened. Even if it had been an accident it probably wouldn't have been fatal and I don't need to spend time and energy feeling terrified about something that didn't happen. I hope they don't kill someone else in the future, but there is nothing I can do at this moment to prevent that. If I believe in a higher power or prayers and intentions then I can pray or send positive intentions for their safety and the safety of others on the road and that they become more aware of the risks they take when they drive like that, but in the end they are responsible for their driving and me worrying about how they might kill someone else in the future doesn't prevent that from happening it only makes me less focused on my own driving and makes me feel more angry and scared. 

 

You could also decide to address all the thoughts that come up in quick succession with the use of thought stopping by acknowledging that they show you your fears and concerns but that focusing on those things isn't helpful. Instead you can choose to focus on your breath or re-direct your thoughts toward sending prayers and hopes for safety, or finding a way to flip the situation to make it more positive for you-- wow I was starting to zone out but now I'm really paying attention. It's good that it only took that moment of alarm and not an actual accident to get my attention, now I'm less likely to get into an accident for the duration of this drive. 

 

 

So.. I kind of went on a tangent while giving these examples because I was only going to use the original one to point out differences in perspectives of different people, but it also seemed like a good way to show how noticing your own perspective and changing it could change your reaction to the situation and illustrate the blame vs responsibility paradigms that I wanted to talk about. I hope that it made sense. 

 

Here is the summary of what I was trying to say: 

A paradigm is the lens through which we view the world. This lens is usually so closely attached to us that we don't notice it is there and assume that what we see is "objective" reality, when in fact what we see is almost always "subjective". Believing we see something objectively when we don't is dangerous because it puts us in a position where we assume we are right and anyone who disagrees is wrong. This plays out in a number of stereotypes, conflicts, and misunderstandings. Realizing that our view is only one possible view allows us to step back and choose to look at the same situation from other perspectives to find which one is most helpful for ourselves or others. We can then choose to adopt a new paradigm or not, or choose to oscillate between multiple paradigms. 

 

The blame version of justice is one example of a paradigm which at its root says that when something goes wrong someone is at fault and justice is only served when that person or thing has been punished. From this perspective your mind automatically looks for someone or thing to blame and then all the reasons why that person or thing is in the wrong and deserving of blame or punishment. If you are using this perspective and the suggestion that the person or thing you are blaming is not actually to blame or that there is no need to blame anyone you will usually feel outraged or defensive and come up with a bunch of reasons why that suggestion is wrong (because from this paradigm someone has to be wrong in order for justice to be served and emotions to be balanced). 

 

The responsibility version of justice doesn't inherently care who is at fault. It can acknowledge that someone or thing may have caused a situation, but finding and punishing that person or thing is not the primary goal. The goal is to assess the situation, understand what about it is currently dysfunctional and take appropriate actions to resolve the dysfunction. From this perspective it is only important to identify the culprit if doing so will allow you to prevent another dysfunctional situation in the future-- so if you are a police officer and notice someone frequently cutting people off you can pull them over and see why they are driving like that-- but if you inherently have no power over the other person's driving then you just focus on your current situation, your driving, and your physiological, emotional, and cognitive responses.

 

You focus only on you in this case not because you are wrong or at fault, but because that is actually the only part of the equation that you currently have the power to address. If you try to claim power over something that you don't have power over you will likely end up creating more distress and failing to resolve the situation.

 

The focus in this situation is on resolution and if possible improvement, not on blame and punishment. In this perspective you are also responsible for your perspective so if someone tells you that your view is wrong you can choose to hear them out (or choose not to) and then choose to agree with them and adopt all or part of their perspective instead, or disagree with them and keep your perspective, or come up with a completely different view altogether. Again it isn't about right or wrong but about your choice to control or not control what you actually have power over which includes the lens through which you filter any given scenario. 

 

I think that is long enough for this section.

 

I'll have more examples of direct applications in my own life in the next post-- including how this change in perspective has helped me manage my feelings anxiety, guilt, and cope with the voices in my head and things that I see, so if you or someone you know is struggling with emotions or mental health symptoms like those, please read the next post; maybe some of the things I've learned and applied can be used to benefit you in your situation as well. 

 

Thanks for reading, 

Jaime 

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