When we experience stress in our lives, our repertoire of actions tend to favor habitual reactions over considered responses. At the same time, our ways of thinking can narrow. Instead of meeting new challenges with open curiosity, we can increasingly want to get to the point, call a spade a spade, and get over it. When this happens, open-ended inquiries such as “What’s going on?” are replaced by leading questions like “What’s wrong?”
In stressful personal relationships, the first – and often only – question that often comes up is short and far from sweet: “What’s wrong with you?” If our stress is connected to our own actions – or lack thereof – this question can ricochet back on ourselves. “What’s wrong with me?” is probably one of the most counterproductive questions we can ask of ourselves. On one hand, it leads to an inhibiting cycle of self-abusive labeling along the lines of “I’m stupid / incompetent / lazy / bad / …”. On the other, it wastes valuable time and energy that could be better spent developing constructive solutions.
Layers of Blame
We are particularly susceptible to focusing on our own personality flaws when we find ourselves facing key life challenges – the loss of a job, the end of a close relationship, a breech of trust or values. And when we’re facing this kind of transition for the first time, the detrimental impact of focusing on flaws inhibits both our level of determination and sense of ability to act effectively.
One example where this effect might most easily be seen is in the layers of blame that build up between young adults and their parents when unfamiliar challenges arise for the first time.
Young adults who stumble in the process of moving out from the structured worlds of school, family and peers can find themselves facing a whole range of new challenges simultaneously. The resulting turn of their critical eye inwards can have a quick and devastating effect on their motivation, self-esteem and relationships with others.
In turn, parents of these young adults often find themselves following a similar path of self-blame. An initial “Where did I go wrong?” spawns litanies of self-incrimination around parenting choices and early family experiences. These self-accusations then alternate with equally unhelpful critiques aimed squarely at their distressed daughter or son; explosions of frustration leading to fresh layers of guilty self-recrimination.
Each of us has within ourselves the ability to break this unproductive habit of finger-pointing. One particularly effect approach involves letting go of our need to be an expert and instead become a facilitator. Posing open-ended questions, either to ourselves or others, can be a great way to start. Our focus shifts to appreciating what we do rather than asking leading questions intent on characterizing what we are. Facilitators ask questions like: “What positive personal skills and strengths are available right now?” “How might current resources like time and money be used more effectively?” “Where can we get help to build motivation, plan actions and provide accountability?”
Questions along this line open the way to options and opportunities that remain obscured as long as we stay stuck in habitual patterns of thinking. They are starting points for transforming difficult and painful experiences into positive, enriching occasions recognizing the inevitability and opportunities setbacks – big or small – offer for working more effectively both in ourselves and with others.
Following this new approach, we – and our relationship with others – change. No longer feeling the need to be experts on ourselves and others, we become facilitators connecting directly to the full range of unique abilities, constructive impulses and productive aims waiting to be discovered within each one of us.