plaid winter coat

The Blame Game.

My sister recently shared the observation (borrowed in part from a book she has been reading on nonviolent communication) that when there is a problem in life, people tend to do one of four things: blame others, blame themselves, sense their needs and feelings, or sense the needs and feelings of others. “The ideal,” she said, “is to hold three and four in either hand and realize that both deserve empathy.”

I was shook! Such an astute reading. For many years — from childhood through my twenties, I think — I blamed myself for most unpleasant or painful situations that arose. I will never forget the day I was parallel parking in a tight spot in Chicago’s beautiful Lincoln Park neighborhood, right in front of Floriole on Webster Avenue, when a man in an enormous SUV made a big show of being in a rush: accelerating too fast, slamming on the breaks behind me, gesticulating out the window, and then — after I took too long finagling my way into the spot, sweating bullets the entire time — he careened around me into oncoming traffic, rolled down his window, and gave me the finger, yelling something disgusting in his wake as he sped off. I was, in a different and far worse way, shook. No one had ever spoken to me that way, or given me the finger for that matter. The casual cruelty of it! I was flustered for the entire day and prone to sweat-inducing flashbacks whenever I attempted to park on a busy street for weeks to come. But when I reported the incident to Mr. Magpie in a tone of righteous rage — how dare he! — I was sharply aware that I was only miming indignation. It was the hardened exterior shell protecting the softer inner feelings of shame and frustration at having caused someone inconvenience or angst. Maybe I had lingered too long trying to angle my car in? It was a crowded street! Maybe I had stolen his spot without realizing it? I should be more aware! I should have given up after that first try, I guess? I really need to learn how to park better. The accusations came fast and furious. It was much harder for me to say, and believe, that I had simply been dealing with an enormous prick.

There are other stories like this, too personal and tender to share here, that coagulate around my guilt and self-reproach over failures in relationships with people I love. For years and years, I assumed I alone was the culprit in these embroilments.

In a strange way, starting and closing my business helped me out of that rut. Mr. Magpie and I often refer to the years of running a business together as a gradual unveiling of the world as it is. By this I mean that we learned, in thousands of excruciating interactions, that people generally mean well, but are driven by private motivations and anxieties that often cluster around necessary self-preservation. I slowly began to learn to take fewer things personally. And not by erecting a wall around myself, exactly, but by apprehending that people are subject to forces entirely beyond my ken and control, and that often my interactions with them are only incidental, even accidental, in relation to their core concerns.

He’s not angry at me, I would observe, carefully, as I pitched my business for the ten trillionth time to an irritated client or a brusque venture capitalist — he’s tabulating the fifteen other items on his list, or agonizing about the bad quarter he’s had, or digesting troubles at home. All I can do is show up prepared and with an open mind and trust in my gut that I’m doing my best. I can’t control his day or how I fit into his plans.

From a sales standpoint, Mr. Magpie called this “the art of collecting nos.” The quicker you can get to a definitive yes or no (far more commonly a “no” in the world of sales), the better — you waste less time and less resources, you notice patterns that help you expedite the process with future prospects, and you develop the thick skin you need to succeed. You learn to take less offense at unpleasantries and awkwardnesses and also realize that about 50% of your sales touchpoints have nothing to do with the widget you are selling and everything to do with understanding the world of your customer, much of which is cluttered with issues far outside your realm of focus.

These observations spilled over into the personal realm, too. Curt exchanges with passersby, unthinkably rude interactions with strangers, clipped conversations with loved ones — over time, I have found myself increasingly capable of letting these things go, of shrugging off the slights, of reminding myself, as a reader recently and brilliantly noted, that “guilt is very often our reaction to other people’s feelings — which they are entitled to, and we are not in control of.” I am far from consistent on this front, of course. I recently went off the deep end arraigning the wounding behavior of a friend, only to have my Dad say: “you know, Jen, you don’t know the full story. You’ve got to let this go.” And more often than I’d like, a stray arrow glides over the battlement and lodges itself in that vulnerable space between the thick skin public writing and running a business and just surviving for 37 years on this earth requires, and the dispassionate logic of which I know myself to be capable. And in those moments, sometimes I find that it’s not entirely bad to start from a place of self-reproach. The activity of analyzing what I might have done wrong or could have done differently in a given situation is often productive, or at least humbling. It helps me ferret out my blind spots, stretch to think how others might feel. Besides, I remain leery of leaning too far into a mindset of “it’s not my problem, it’s theirs!”, as if universally exonerated from blame.

Still, it is a perilous perch, and if I am not careful, it can lead to unhealthy browbeating. So I will continue to strain towards that ideal my sister helpfully outlined at the top of this post: holding empathy for myself in my right hand and empathy for others in my left.

How do you feel on this subject?

Post-Scripts.

+Recent musings on saying the right thing.

+More on building and shuttering our business in this post on my professional journey.

+Already missing the days when I could get away with putting mini in sets like this. Too beyond adorable.

+Just bought Mr. Magpie these Vejas.

+Cute little top to pair with jeans!

+The kind of thing I live in during the summer.

+This fish print quilt! On sale for $25 and so adorable for a little boy’s room (or a tummy time mat! or a picnic blanket!)

+And speaking of fish print, how amazing is this $28 bag?!

+A clever way to keep tupperware lids organized.

+The perfect everyday summer bag does not exis–

+J’adore this breezy mini for summer! Those bows on the shoulder! (Under $40!!). Cute with Supergas or GGs or Vejas.

+Are you a private person?

+If you are an expecting mama, please treat yourself to a Sleeper Brigitte dress while on sale! So beautiful, works with bump, and great for nursing, too. On sale in the orange for under $100 (!!) and in the white for only $104!

+This dress has haunted me for a year now. I was considering it in white for my birthday last year…now it’s in perfect pink!!!

+It’s been a minute since I raved about this $8 secret to keeping my engagement ring sparkly.

+These boyfriend jeans are seriously trending. I’m eyeing a pair!

+Cute blockprint napkins at a great price.

+Are you a town mouse or a country mouse?

+Cute athletics shorts for older girls.

+I swear by these sponges, but people rave about this wooden dish brush. Slightly more attractive than a sponge, too.

12 Comments

  1. This is a tough one for me. I browbeat over every. Single. Interaction. From the trivial to the weighty. I thought about this a lot after your post on “saying the thing” and realized I beat myself up about interactions like that all the time, and not just the vulnerable and tender ones, the seemingly unremarkable ones as well. It is torture and it is something I need to work on. In addition to replaying conversations over and over again, I also tend to forecast uncomfortable conversations that haven’t even happened yet (and likely never will); playing them out in my head in a million different ways, all confrontational of course, which I loathe. All that to say, you’re certainly not alone and thank you for sharing this tip. The room for me (us?) to grow is vast 🙂

    1. Hi Danielle! Oh I so relate to this – especially the playing out of future uncomfortable conversations. I sometimes find myself steeling myself for conflict that never comes to a head and then think, “What a waste of energy!” But, on the flipside, I think it just shows how seriously and thoughtfully we approach our relationships with others and how much we want to ensure what we say is the right thing to say.

      Lots to learn and practice for sure. Awareness is the first step!

      xx

  2. I would say I have far too many thoughts on this subject!! 🙂

    I will start with the lofty and attempt to come back down to earth. My favorite poet is Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic, and he says: “The fault is in the one who blames. Spirit sees nothing to criticize.”

    When I read this, despite the fact that Rumi has never let me down, I dismissed it. Nothing to criticize? Wake up, Rumi! Then, of course, I began seeing all kinds of signs pointing toward this concept.

    A coach recommended experimenting with blamelessness. Try to move throughout a single day when you make no one (including yourself) “wrong.”

    Brené Brown on a podcast talked about how we live enmeshed in “blame-culture.” Look at every single news story, and see how it points its finger at a villain. Does this framework ever solve anything?

    A meditation teacher introduced me to this mantra: Blaming isn’t healing.

    Where I’ve come down is I do think you (and me!) are, in fact, exonerated of all blame. However, we are not free of personal ACCOUNTABILITY. And that is where I think modern culture fails: it’s all blame and no accountability.

    Some blame their parents, or their government, or their children for all their woes: but do we hold those people accountable? We blame ourselves, but do we hold ourselves accountable? Do we keep promises we make to ourselves? Are we sometimes “blaming” ourselves to avoid holding someone else accountable, or to avoid feeling a deep feeling or facing a deep truth?

    I think blame is far easier, but is a dead end road. I suppose what I’m saying is, maybe the fault is in the one who blames. 🙂

    1. Hi Joyce! As always, thank you for jumping in here with such vulnerable observations that have clearly been borne of considerable soul-searching, reading, and professional input. Such an interesting concept to move from a framework of blame to one of accountability! I even like the substitution of words in my own thoughts: “don’t blame yourself, hold yourself accountable.”

      Thank you!

      xx

    2. Thank you for your kind words. I knew you would appreciate that the shift from blame to accountability is a lot more than semantics! And I do think this shift helps foster empathy—for yourself and others. What a wise approach, to hold empathy in both hands. Will carry that idea with me! Out of curiosity, is the book your sister is reading “Nonviolent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg? That’s been on my list for a while but I haven’t yet read it.

    3. Hi! Yes, that’s the author! My sister really appreciated the book, and I’m now the second-hand beneficiary of some of its concepts, too 🙂

      xx

  3. This rang so true for me. My default has always been to assume blame — whether someone assigned it to me or not. This, despite the fact that personally and professionally, I caution others against this same practice. Funny that Heidi mentioned the idea of grace in her comment, as that is one of my words for the year. Offering grace to others and to myself is something I am working on consciously, and I do think it applies here. May we all give ourselves the grace we deserve. XO

    1. Hi Susan – I’m so with you! It’s so easy for me to counsel others to shed their feelings of blameworthiness but very difficult to apply to myself. Grace is also my word for the year; right there with you in its pursuit!

      xx

  4. So much to think through here. Like you, I always think about the ten thousand things I must have done wrong and beat myself up over it throughout the day. I like your concept of “collecting nos” and certainly agree as a consumer of nos, I’d rather get to the answer quickly rather than through a drawn out process. But how do we train ourselves to deliver the nos quickly? As someone who is always overly concerned with the other person’s feelings, delivering the no is very hard to do.

    1. I know, Allison. You mentioning this made me realize an open conversation I have been having with someone where I just haven’t been able to bring myself to say “no”! It is SO hard in personal relationships. My grandmother always said, “No is a full sentence” — and I think there’s something to that, in that by explaining around you open the conversation up to “but what about…” and other forms of speculation. But it is so, so hard for me to do. I almost need to pinch myself while I say it and wait the couple of beats until the moment has passed. It does help me to be very gracious in framing a no, i.e., “I so appreciate that you’ve gone out of your way to…” or “I’m very flattered that…but I cannot.” One thing that has assuaged some of the guilt around saying no to someone is another lesson from sales: “a fast no is way better than a slow maybe.” Everyone wastes energy! It’s bound to be more painful to drag it out! Just say no and move on and change the topic! That’s at least what I’m angling towards…

      Lots more to say on this!

      xx

  5. Ah, I love this! The balance of empathy for ourselves and others is a delicate one indeed! I had a similar debate with a teacher on staff about “assuming one another’s burdens.” The best balance is empathetic listening that offers loving support without assuming the drama and angst of a situation in which they have no real influence. Tricky! The word “grace” comes to mind? Wishing you a grace-filled day! xo H

    1. I love this, Heidi — “empathetic listening…without assuming the drama and angst of the situation.” Ahh! So, so hard. I really have to work at that. I’m thinking specifically of a recent conversation with a friend where she unloaded a LOT and I just couldn’t not get sucked into it! It almost felt to me like treading water to keep my head above the waves! Thanks for chiming in here, as always.

      xx

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