How to Look Inward, Without Turning on Yourself

You can't change others, but you can do this
April 13, 2017 Updated: February 11, 2020
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So many things bother us—people, mostly. Anything has the power to upset our basic sense of well-being, if we let it.

Our tendency, when things bother us, is to blame another person for getting it wrong and thus causing our suffering. Once we have identified what we consider to be the cause of our disturbance, we usually set out to try to fix it. We attempt to change the other person’s behavior into something we consider right, or that at least will not bother us.

Self-investigation, the step that creates real freedom from suffering, has nothing to do with blame.

There is nothing wrong with trying to change a situation that we don’t like or that makes us unhappy. Such efforts are wise, adaptive, and a way of exercising agency in our lives. But this article is not about how to more skillfully change others around us. This is about what happens when we can’t change them and instead use the situation as an opportunity to learn about ourselves.

I guess you could call it Plan B.

When we cannot change the cause of our suffering, many of us continue to blame the other person or situation. This may provide us with some relief, for a while. But what happens when blaming does not make us feel better? Where do we go when we have run out of moves?

Freedom from the blaming/fixing cycle, ironically, comes from moving our attention away from the person we think is to blame and instead turning it toward ourselves. When you hear that it’s time to look at yourself, you may assume that I’m telling you to discover how you are also at fault. This assumption would be false.

I am not suggesting that you are to blame for anything, nor am I suggesting that you search yourself for fault. Self-investigation, the step that creates real freedom from suffering, has nothing to do with blame.

Escaping the Blame Cycle

To turn your attention toward yourself is to ask questions: What does this situation or person’s behavior trigger in me? What pain is generated in me when I am confronted with this behavior or reality?

I was in a relationship with a “blamer” for years. The problems in his life were always someone else’s fault, and the dialogue never moved much further than that. For years, I tried to change him, encouraging him to be curious and to use the situations of suffering as opportunities to shed light on undiscovered truths.

Through the process, sadly, I too became entrenched in blame. I blamed his attitude for my own suffering. “If only he weren’t a blamer,” I thought, “I wouldn’t be in pain.” But in the end, he didn’t change, I didn’t change, and the situation didn’t change.

And then I started to take my own advice: I took my focus off of the other and got curious about my own experience. This was not about what I was also doing (wrong) to cause the situation, but rather what experiences, feelings, memories, or beliefs in me were triggered by his behavior. What was I experiencing that made the blaming so hard to bear?

(Tananyaa Pithi/SHUTTERSTOCK)
(Tananyaa Pithi/SHUTTERSTOCK)

What I discovered was simple but profound—and healing. I found the center of my own truth. Interestingly, finding what made the blaming so painful for me did not change my partner’s behavior. What it did do, however, was ease the excruciating suffering that existed for me in the situation.

Rather than letting his behavior set off a screeching fire alarm inside me—a code-red emergency—I could witness the behavior, know what it put me in touch with, and stay calm and nonreactive. I didn’t need to escape some unknowable but unbearable experience inside myself. I could say to myself, with kindness, “Oh right, this blaming triggers such-and-such in me, which has a history of its own and is understandable.”

We can’t control anyone else’s behavior, but we can always make the choice to shift our attention inward.

And then, oddly, the whole thing was over. The experience that was so threatening, and the cause of so much pain, was deactivated. Its wires were cut. The emergency of making the situation or behavior stop eased when the inarguable truth of what was happening inside me was clear. The suffering doesn’t need much more than that.

As we all know, we can’t control anyone else’s behavior, and we can’t make another person want to change. But we can always make the choice to shift our attention inward, to focus the lens of curiosity on ourselves. And remember, by investigating our own experience, we are not condoning the behavior that triggers our suffering, nor are we assuming responsibility for having caused it.

Getting curious about what is happening inside us in a particular situation—then naming it, understanding it, unpacking its history, and bringing compassion to it—is the surest path to freeing oneself from the cycle of blame and the need to change what we don’t like. Ultimately, self-awareness is the most powerful and profound antidote to suffering.

Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, and workshop leader. A regular blogger for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post, she has also authored several books on mindfulness and personal growth. Colier is available for individual psychotherapy, mindfulness training, spiritual counseling, public speaking, and workshops, and also works with clients via Skype around the world. For more information, visit NancyColier.com