Freeing Ourselves From the Blame Game

July 30, 2015 Updated: July 30, 2015

We owe a debt of gratitude to Albert Ellis for uncovering the “musts” in our lives in his classic book “A New Guide for Rational Living.” He contends that we can undermine our effectiveness with words such as should, have to, need to, ought to, and must. For example:

  • I have to go to the gym and work out.
  • We must improve our customer service.
  • He shouldn’t speak to me like that.
  • You should pay more attention to your work.
  • We had to downsize because of the economy.
  • We have to raise taxes—we have no choice.

Our behaviour today, while strongly influenced by the past, is the direct result of our present decisions. This is especially evident in the way we talk to ourselves about ourselves.

Our behaviour today, while strongly influenced by the past, is the direct result of our present decisions.

When people say, “I have to go to the gym,” they imply they have no choice.

If you belong to a fitness club, do you have to work out? No! If you are in a position of power in government, do you have to raise taxes? No!

Most people accept these contentions as true, but ask these questions: “Why make such a big deal of it? What difference does it make if I use words such as ‘should’ and ‘have to’? It’s harmless. Besides, everyone knows what I mean.”

This reaction reminds me of the story of two cowboys sitting around a fire. One cowpoke pulls off his boots and sighs, “These boots sure are tight.” This goes on for days, until his partner asks, “If your boots are so tight, why don’t you get a bigger pair?” His buddy replies, “I could, but it feels so good when I take them off!” (Brilliant logic, isn’t it?)

I learned the importance of eliminating “should” and “have to” while teaching Dale Carnegie classes. Instructors were in the habit of giving what I call “sermons” on the importance of supplemental reading. But some people still didn’t read the books we supplied. After discovering Albert Ellis’s work, I changed my approach, telling participants: “You don’t have to do the reading. You don’t have to do anything! It’s in your best interest to read the books. You’ll gain much more if you do—but you don’t have to read them.”

Applying raw willpower is a losing battle, while accepting full responsibility frees us from the blame game’s grip.

Participants did more reading. Other instructors asked, “How do you get people to do the reading?” They were surprised at my answer: “Tell them they don’t have to.”

Check your emotional reaction to these statements:

  • What happens must happen. 
  • Things should be as they are.
  • Everything is as it should be. 
  • People should act the way they do.

I’ll bet you felt a twinge in response to a least one of these phrases! If you’re in business, you don’t have to provide excellent customer service, but it’s better if you do. It’s a choice, not an obligation.

I align with the “comfort zone” concept as developed by James W. Newman, who coined the term, but I prefer to call this zone “familiar.” One man told me he drank a bottle of antacid each day just to manage stress. Would you call this comfortable? His behaviour became familiar to him, but not comfortable.

It is important to push ourselves beyond this familiar zone, but for most of us, the process is uncomfortable. When we hesitate to take reasonable risks, we might blame our lack of “willpower” by saying, “I can’t help it, I just don’t have the willpower to change.” Applying raw willpower is a losing battle, while accepting full responsibility frees us from the blame game’s grip.

We don’t have to do this, but it’s better if we do.