We have a rule in our house: if there is something to be picked up in the area that you're asked to clean, it's your responsibility to pick it up no matter who put it there or in whose room it belongs.

When we introduced this rule, it did not go over well.

“It’s not fair”
“This isn't mine”
“I didn't put it there!”

The pressure heated up and we were ready to consider a policy change: from now on, everyone will only clean up the mess that they themselves made. Fair, straightforward, and simple, right?

Wrong. This made it worse, as clean-up devolved into unending arguments about whose “fault” it is. Turns out that it's not so simple to determine who made what mess. What if two kids played together? What if child 1 took out the toy but it was child 2’s idea? And what if child 3 joined in later but then stopped playing when his friend came? What if child 1’s friend took out a toy that child 2 played with, but only after child 3 and his friend took it from the playroom into the living room that child 1 already cleaned up?

Establishing “fault” can be incredibly complicated.

And yet, that’s what we do all the time. In my practice there is constant talk of fault and blame. Some people blame their parents, some their spouses, some their life circumstances, and many blame themselves.

We want to know where to lay the blame. It feels good to know that suffering can be pinned on a specific cause, and to some degree it gives us an illusion of control amongst the chaos of reality. Sometimes we relish in pointing the blame at others; it's their fault that we are like this and we feel absolved of responsibility. Other times it feels more comforting to blame ourselves. Our being at fault gives us a sense of control; we are able to prevent this from happening again, if only we punish ourselves enough.

The problem with this is that often the focus on fault and blame can set us back and delay our reaching our goals, whether we are laying the blame on ourselves or on others. The righteous indignation feels so good in the moment that it’s hard to see how unhelpful we are to ourselves.

For one thing, the idea that a singular “fault” exists ignores the complexity of reality. There are multiple factors at play in nearly every situation. When we hold on to finding fault and blaming, we become blind to all reasons and causes except the one we choose, missing so much of the larger picture and coming away with an inaccurate understanding of the world.

Blame perpetuates anger, judgment and resentment rather than responsibility, understanding, and change.

Fault and blame also orient us toward who did it rather than what the situation is. This perpetuates anger, judgment and resentment rather than responsibility, understanding, and change. We become more likely to just wait for someone to change rather than to take action ourselves. Keeping the focus on fault and blame also keeps us focused on the past rather than the present and future – not a great way to solve problems. Sometimes we can also fall victim to the need to blame others because we feel that the alternative is for us to blame ourselves and feel guilty. This is often related to the unhelpful belief that someone needs to take the blame, and we’d rather it not be us!

So what's the alternative to blaming? Perhaps it is acknowledgement of the situation, understanding how it came to be, and taking action. The people I meet who feel stuck in various areas of their lives have often been hurt in some significant way earlier on in their life. Our automatic tenancy is to turn our attention toward the wrong that occurred in the past and present and to assign blame, whether to ourselves or to others. It takes effort and training to turn our attention instead to understanding how things became the way they are, and to do this in a way that helps us define what we want and what we need to do in order to get there.

As in life, so in our living room. It won’t help much to get angry about the mess and demand that the one who made it be the one to clean it. To have the best shot at preventing such messes in the future, it’s more helpful to examine the ways in which this mess came to be. And at the end of the day if we want the house to be clean, the most effective way to do this is to bend down and, one at a time, pick up each toy and put it back in the box.