It’s Not Your Fault (but now it’s your responsibility)

So many clients come to counseling to get help from a therapist for reactions that they no longer want to perpetuate. As adults, trying to navigate the world and especially relationships with others, they begin to see patterns and responses in ourselves that are at times unsavory. Perhaps they yell at their children, get insecure with a partner, or use passive aggression to hurt the people close to them. For most of these behaviors, as we work together, we can see a direct link to events or dynamics that occurred in their formative years or beyond.

We are invariably shaped by our experiences, relationships and influences. The cause-and-effect is not formulaic, but generally we can identify the root of challenging behaviors as a result of prior exposure.

People tend to:

Repeat behaviors they were exposed to

Avoid certain behaviors entirely and do the opposite, or

Respond to others in a way that assumes a behavior that they were habituated to expect in another context.

If your mom yelled at you fiercely as a child, it is not surprising that you yell at your kids (despite most likely having sworn that you would never do the same thing). Conversely, if your mom yelled at you fiercely as a child, it is also not surprising if you avoid correcting or disciplining your own children entirely.

If your first boyfriend devolved into a controlling, critical and jealous monster, you may quite intentionally (or unconsciously) avoid men. Conversely, if your first boyfriend was a controlling, critical and jealous monster, it is also possible that you accept reprehensible or alarming behavior from men because it is not “as bad” as what you grew accustomed to.

If your adolescence was fraught with teasing, exclusion and bullying, you may scramble socially to maintain “Queen bee” status as an adult, regardless of whether or not you like the people whose acceptance you are vying for. Conversely, you may use relational aggression and subtle manipulation to make those around you feel small, thereby securing your social power. And of course another possibility is that you include everyone in the fold of your social life, actively seeking out those rejected or marginalized.

If your dad left when you were ten, you may see rejection and abandonment where it doesn’t exist. Your partner is late again; you are certain the relationship is over. Conversely, you may build a persona that is “fiercely independent,” so that no one can ever abandon you again After all, how can you be abandoned if you didn’t need them in the first place?

Sometimes these reactive responses are adaptive and healthy; we see what happened to us and we consciously build a different experience.

Sometimes, though, these responses render us disabled. We want to connect with others, we want authentic relationships, we want to be free from the kneejerk reactions we’ve developed over a lifetime… but we feel enslaved to them.

As a therapist, I have seen some variation of the following exchange in hundreds of counseling sessions:

“I do (certain behavior) and my (spouse, children, boss, future partner, etc) doesn’t like it, but I do it because (of someone else’s behavior from years prior).”

Or,

“I’m aware that (this behavior) might limit me in certain ways (including developing intimacy, fulfilling a life dream, experiencing peace, etc), but I do it because (of someone else’s behavior from years prior).”

Identifying the source of dysfunctional behavior is an essential step in therapy and can be validating to people who finally connect the dots of their kneejerk reactions. We can see how adaptive some of these things were in previous experiences or recognize that we came by it naturally. To see the root of our reactions and understand them better can reassure us that whatever it is, it’s not our fault.

But, friends, it can not end there.

Identifying the source of dysfunctional behavior is merely the first step. Once you understand how your inner world works, it is up to you to begin to change these responses and create a different possibility for yourself.

Whatever happened to you, it is not your fault. But it is now your responsibility.

After a name-calling, low-blowing argument with your spouse, it is not acceptable to say, “I get that way because my father was that way,” and call it a day. An explanation is not an excuse. After the same argument, you may start by recognizing where that kneejerk response comes from, but if you have any desire at all to have a healthy relationship with your spouse and begin to heal some of the damage of your own father’s rage, it is your responsibility to take steps to stop that pattern.

It is not easy.

For most of us, it means years of practice, self-awareness, counseling, prayer, humility and even more practice. We may never get it fully “right.” But we can’t throw up our hands and say, “I am like this because of what happened to me,” as if the story ends there. That is not sufficient, and it is not fair to yourself. You are not a helpless victim. You may have been victimized at one point, but accepting the response to that as your life-long limitation merely perpetuates the pain inflicted on you years ago.

Don’t let your previous circumstances dictate your entire future.

It wasn’t your fault; but it’s now your responsibility.

Published by Angela Dora Dobrzynski

My name is Angela Dora Dobrzynski. I'm a professional counselor, and am passionate for all things personal development and human behavior. I specialize in grief and life transitions, with a special interest in health and stress psychology, emotional resilience and utilizing strengths as the basis of personal development. I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in the state of Pennsylvania. I have a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Rosemont College and a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Stockton University. Additionally, I hold a certificate in Holistic Health Coaching from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and was granted a certificate in NonProfit Leadership From Arcadia University’s School of Continuing Education as well as a certificate in Nonprofit Executive Leadership from Bryn Mawr School of Social Work. My professional experience includes work in the hospice of a major local healthcare system, Women's Resource Center, The Renfrew Center, Manor College and Children’s Crisis Treatment Center. I am a member of Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology. In my personal life I spend time kayaking, writing, gardening and connecting with my loved ones.

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