One Person Can Change the System (Part 2)

What if it’s their fault?

“What if my parents don’t cooperate?” A friend asked me this question when I told her about the coaching course I was leading this summer. The course is designed to help adults improve their relationship with their parents, and a number of people expressed similar concerns when they heard my idea. Is it really possible to make a change in a relationship if you’re the only one doing the work? Isn’t that just setting yourself up for pain and disappointment? Why bother investing time and energy into a process that seems destined to fail?  These are fair questions – so I wanted to take this opportunity to offer my thoughts.

[This is Part 2 of a series on the Parent/Child Relationship. Find Part 1 here: “The Dynamics of the Parent/Child Relationship.”]

To begin, we need to see the assumptions that are underneath the questions laid out above. The idea that relationships can’t change without the cooperation of the other party seems like common sense at first, but under scrutiny it starts to break down. This could only be true if ALL the problems in the relationship were 100% THEIR fault. If it’s all THEIR fault, then THEY have to fix them. And if THEY aren’t willing to do so, nothing will change.

I can feel your anxiety rising now as you wait for me to tell you that everything in the relationship is actually YOUR fault, so it’s YOUR responsibility to fix it. Take a deep breath, because that’s not where this is going. Both of these mentalities, opposite though they may seem, are housed within the same way of thinking – let’s call it the SHAME/BLAME mindset. Either it’s MY fault, in which case I feel shame; or it’s YOUR fault, in which case I blame you. There are only two roles available in this drama, “guilty” and “not guilty,” and I’m pretty sure I know which role I want to be cast in!

Where does this shame/blame mindset come from? I suggest that it is the natural consequence of seeing the world through a lens of CAUSE-and-EFFECT. This is a common way of viewing the world, so much so that many of us don’t see it as a way of thinking, but as the only way. It goes like this: He did this, so I did that. The implication being that his action necessitated, or caused, my response. This way of thinking protects us from guilt, because if I can prove that the other person “started it,” I’m not at fault.

Let me give you a (fictional) scenario between a mother and daughter to illustrate how this works. Let’s look at the way each party reports what happened.

The daughter’s report:

My mom made an ignorant commentso I called her out on it, which made her upset, so she started raising her voice, which stirred up my anxiety, so I raised my voice, and pretty soon we were shouting at each other, which made me cry.

The mother’s report:

I was having a lovely conversation with my daughter when, out of nowhere, she started criticizing me and accused me of being a bigot! Which was very upsetting to me, of course, so I told her so, and then she started yelling at me! Which made me lose my cool a bit, obviously, and next thing I know, she’s crying, so of course I’m the bad guy.

Notice how each person spins the story so that the other person is clearly responsible for the catalyzing event (noted in bold), and then narrates each subsequent event (underlined) as the inevitable consequence of what came before. The daughter sees the mom’s comment as the initial cause of the problem, while the mother see the daughter’s criticism as the starting point of the argument. In both cases, their focus is almost completely on what the other person did wrong; they are all but blind to how they might be contributing to the interaction.

What are the larger implications of this way of thinking? First off, it creates a win/lose situation. If you’re guilty, I’m not guilty, and vice versa. Win/lose situations are inherently competitive, and therefore combative. It’s in my best interest to prove that you are the guilty one, which pits me against you. Obviously this is not an ideal way to approach relationship problems! And secondly, I have zero incentive to examine what I might be contributing to the problem. If I acknowledge that I’ve messed up in any way, that just gives you more evidence to prove that I’m the guilty one.

Now let’s open the door for a little nuance, and allow for the possibility that we can share the blame. Maybe it’s not ALL your fault, or ALL my fault. Maybe we can split the blame 50/50. Or 60/40. Or 90/10. This adjustment is slightly less destructive, because at least it asks everyone to take responsibility for something, but it still leaves us keeping score and comparing who is more “at fault.” Ok fine, you concede, maybe I’m 10% of the problemBut look at everything he’s done. I’m clearly the aggrieved party here, it’s his job to make this right. He owes me that, at least. This way of thinking introduces an incredibly unhealthy dynamic in the relationship that makes it all but impossible for things to improve. As long as one party is seen as more responsible for the problem – as long as shame and blame are present to any degree – there won’t be space for the compassion, humility, and courage that healing requires.

Another Way of Thinking

I want to suggest that there is a more helpful way of thinking that dispenses with CAUSE/EFFECT and SHAME/BLAME altogether. In SYSTEMS THINKING, we acknowledge that everyone contributes to the system. When thinking this way, we zoom out to see the larger picture. We look at what everyone is contributing to the relationship (or system of relationships) and see the result as a product of the whole, rather than the effect of one cause or causer.

Instead of thinking of interpersonal interactions as a chain reaction, a more apt analogy is a chemical reaction. If you add vinegar to water, not much happens. If you add baking soda to water, not much happens. But if you add vinegar to baking soda, the result is a volcanic spew. And if you add baking soda to vinegar? It’s the same result. One ingredient can’t be said to be “at fault.” It’s the mixture of the two that creates the explosive outcome.

The mother in the above scenario could make the exact same comment in a different environment, and be met with knowing smiles and nods of approval. Someone else could make that same comment to the daughter, and she might respond with a thoughtful question that ushers them into a mature dialogue. So is neither one at fault? Or are they both at fault? I would suggest the “fault” language is altogether unhelpful. I find it more helpful to say, They are both contributing to the system. From this mindset, instead of moving to blame and shame, we can begin asking questions like: What am I contributing? What is the impact of that contribution? What do I want to be contributing? What steps can I take to move toward my vision? What would be the impact if I could?

The Power of One

Perhaps counterintuitively, this way of thinking provides the underpinning for the idea that “one person can change the system.” Imagine that everyone in your family decides to make soup for dinner one night. Each person is asked to contribute one ingredient. One person provides the broth, another person provides noodles, another person provides vegetables, another person provides spices, etc. The soup will be impacted by each and every person’s choice. And if anyone is unhappy with how it turns out, they can choose to contribute a different ingredient the next time. What if, instead of 1 teaspoon of oregano, I decide to contribute 3 tablespoons of cayenne pepper? Even though I’m only one person contributing one out of many ingredients, that would have a pretty big impact on the soup as a whole. Or what if the person who usually contributes broth decides to withhold their contribution altogether? The soup wouldn’t be very soup-y! But maybe your family actually hates soup, and this would be a welcome change!

Relationships (and systems of relationships) work the same way – the overall result is a factor of every single person involved. And this means that every single person has the power to change the overall result by altering their contribution.

The chart below outlines many of the “ingredients” that we can contribute to a relationship. The right side lists “ways of being” that tend to be more harmful, and the left side lists alternative “ways of being” that will tend to be healthier. Each pair is represented on a spectrum, since our contribution often falls between the two extremes.

Think about a relationship where you struggle with shame and blame. Using the chart, place an X on each line to show where your contribution falls. (You can find a printable PDF here.)

I hope it is clear that “what you’re contributing” can be positive, negative, or somewhere in between. So when you ask yourself What am I contributing to the system? You’re not looking for things to feel bad about – that would be shame/blame thinking. Instead, the goal is to make an honest assessment of everything you’re bringing into the space – helpful, harmful, and neutral. Then you get to decide what you want to do with that new awareness. Are you happy with the result you’re getting? Great – then just keep doing what you’re doing! Are you frustrated with the relationship and want to see change? Great – then consider how you might change your contribution. Maybe you want to bring hope where you’ve previously felt cynical. Maybe you want to seek outside support where you’ve previously been isolated. Maybe you want to grow in patience and contentment, or maybe you want to get into action because your contentment has led to passivity!

When you choose to take responsibility for your contribution, the implication is not that you are responsible for the overall outcome (think of the twisted implications this would have for victims of abuse). Instead, choosing to take responsibility for your contribution is an act of empowerment – my choices do matter, they do have an impact, they can make a difference. And from this mindset, it’s actually in my best interest to gain as much self-awareness as possible! (This is in contrast to shame/blame thinking, where self-awareness is dangerous because it can be used against me.) But within the framework of “systems thinking,” the more I become aware of how I’m contributing to the relationship, the more opportunities I have to “show up” differently. And the more opportunities I have to “show up” differently, the more power I have to be an agent of change.

Does any of this resonate with you? Have you ever been frustrated with a relationship pattern that feels inescapable? What difference would it make if you could see clearly how you could be an agent of change in your relationship with your parents? If you’re interested in exploring what this might look like for you, consider joining our next Parent/Child Relationship cohort. The group will meet weekly for 8 weeks in October and November (ending the week before Thanksgiving). Fill out this brief interest form to see what is a good next step for you.

Reflection Questions

  1. Think about a relationship or situation that you find frustrating. What can you see about what you are contributing?
  2. What would you like to be contributing?
  3. How could you go about changing your contribution?
  4. If you were successful, what difference would that make for you?

Ready for more? Find Part 3 of this series here: Can One Person Always Change the System?