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Whose Fault Is It, Anyway?

Regular readers of this newsletter know that I am on a crusade to help people rewrite their relationships with their inner critic. This mental experience is the one that, at its worst, shames us and undermines our best efforts, and pours salt into the wounds of our failures.

This is the "it’s all my fault"side of the performance spectrum. This is the most common (dare I say) mindset error that high achievers make. When the outcome is everything, and you are invested in making it happen, taking responsibility for everything can make some sense, even as it sets us up for pain and suffering at the hands of our own harsh taskmaster.

While very common, this is not the only way performers cope with difficulty.

It’s All Their Fault

I recently worked with an organisational team who had a member with the opposite problem. This team member, Bruce, was armed with the "it’s all their fault" solution to every problem. Late to a meeting? You should have seen the traffic out there! Conflict with a co-worker? She’s so unreasonable and never listens! Poor performance review? My boss had it out for me.

This, too, is Bev, the athlete who isn’t willing to take responsibility for poor performance. The officiating was so biased! The crowd was so loud, I couldn't think straight. If only X had passed to my feet instead of behind me...

Compared to having a caustic inner critic, playing the victim card makes things easy - and feels so much better. If it’s not about me, I don’t have to grapple with the sometimes painful implications that I need to change or am wrong.

The dark side of this coping strategy is two-fold.

First, it’s hell on anyone who depends on you. Bruce’s teammates grew tired of the excuses when work wasn’t completed, found it hard to trust his word, and questioned his integrity. Over time, his supervisor commenced performance management strategies in an attempt to enforce accountability. Eventually, Bruce was let go.

The second problem with victimhood is the effect it has on us.

Consider this model:

There are things we control (that’s the middle circle). What we eat; for athletes, how we train, and what we choose to do with our time are examples. Then there are the things we do not control per se, but maybe we can influence. We can perhaps persuade our partner to go to a different restaurant. Our encouragement may buoy a teammate’s flagging confidence. Finally, there’s the rest of it. The stuff we can’t do anything about - the weather, our opponents, performance outcomes are some examples - and have to learn to co-exist with. Hopefully cheerfully.

When we over-invest in victimhood, however, we start to literally shrink our own sense of agency, which can end up looking something like this:

If we are not careful, this mindset can eat away at us and literally shrink our world. This is the athlete who says, I thought about trying out for the team, but know that I wouldn’t make it, so figure why bother? This is the relative of mine who recently said, It would be cool to come to visit you in Australia, but I don’t think I’m a traveler. Staying home is easier.

Of course, there are situations when, in fact, we are legitimate victims. When the situational deck, for whatever reason, IS stacked against us. The trick to knowing if that’s true or not is mindful awareness. Checking in - is how I am seeing the situation true, or is it about something else? For the chronic victim, the “something else” usually is about fear.

As well, we may have specific areas of competence that we over-index (or under-index) on. Alice, for example, was a soccer player who took great pride in her defensive abilities and held herself to scorched earth account when she made a mistake. At the same time, she rebuffed any suggestion that she was leadership material, afraid that she’d let the team down. So it’s not an all-or-nothing.

Before I crack on about what we can do to reclaim our agency—that’s for next time—I invite you to consider where you sit on that spectrum from It’s All My Fault to It’s All their Fault. Are you “all-in” on one end or the other? Or, do you find that it depends on the situation?


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