QUESTION: My best friend never admits when he’s wrong. It’s always somebody else’s fault. Why can’t he just be honest and accept his blame?
ANSWER: There are many stumbling blocks to finding happiness. Worry anticipates problems before they occur, frustration bemoans setbacks while they occur, and guilt accepts blame after they occur. However, unlike the other two, guilt is not always bad. The stumbling block to your search for happiness is when people either refuse to accept blame, or when guilt turns into shame.
1. FEAR OF REJECTION: Acceptance of blame is a lost art. Why? Well, all people feel somewhat insecure. The most insecure person fears being exposed as a fake, and so hides behind a mask of superiority. As accepting blame means taking off that mask and risking rejection, some people become masters of deceit.
Once confronted, they may deny having anything to do with it, or try to rationalize their way out of a jam, bombarding you with excuses as to why they did what they did. Finally, they may project the blame to someone else, angrily proclaiming their innocence by stating that it was “the other guy’s fault,” or that they are the victims of abusive parents, a demanding boss, or a “bitchy wife.”
2. GUILT AND SHAME: Rather than ducking blame, guilt is an intellectual admission of doing something wrong; it is taking responsibility for your own behavior. Shame, however, is an emotional response to guilt, a feeling of having failed to live up to your potential.
Feeling humbled by your shame, the hope is that you face your problem and grow, but others try all the more to hide their blame, fearing being spotted as a “loser.” But the road to growth is paved with honesty, so that when you courageously reveal the “real you,” you can be pleasantly surprised to discover that people like you less for what you do, and more for who you are.
But, if shame makes you feel that you are no longer worthy of another shot at happiness, then you become stuck. You need to free yourself up by forgiving yourself. If you are guilty, you may think that you are not worthy of forgiveness, but as you will see, we all are.
3. FORGIVENESS: You are forgiven not only because the person forgiving you is nice, but also and primarily because you have the potential (the power) to change. Who you are is more than the sum of what you do. So, once you admit being wrong, you have taken the first step in the right direction. Hiding the truth by denying guilt only puts up a wall between you and others, condemning you to the isolation that you wanted to avoid in the first place.
4. CREATING A CONSCIENCE: If you have a friend who is dodging guilt, he may also dodge talking to someone prone to tell him to face the truth. To get him to listen to you, you must first lay a foundation to your relationship by being accepting, nonjudgmental, and empathic. This does not mean approving of sinful behavior (what he did), but does show your recognition that your friend can change (who he is). Harsh, “fire and brimstone” sermons only result in resistance and defensiveness. Your friend needs to see that adhering to social norms will bring him happiness and closeness with others, not simply pleasing his parents, spouse, or you.
You enable your friend to work through his growth by asking him questions that draw out his own thinking, and, thereby, making him own his answers. The ideas become his versus yours, as they are not pumped into him by a stern lecture, but drawn out of his own thinking. You help him harness his own power to grow by helping him see the consequences of his behavior. If he refuses to cooperate, the consequences of his resistance will be his also, the punishment for being selfish being to remain selfish, divided off from you, his good friend.