Sunday, July 24, 2016

Replacing the word “fault” with the word “responsibility”: Breaking out of shame-based models in the journey to wellness

Our spirituality is as much about relating with ourselves as it is about relating with our spiritual foundation. If we follow a spiritual practice that denigrates our physical experience—that sees our bodies as dirty or sinful, of much lesser value than our spirits, and our bodily wants and needs to be despised or conquered—what does that say about how we view ourselves? Are such beliefs conducive to developing compassion for our physical selves, toward making healing choices that enhance the vitality and longevity of our bodies, toward empowering our physical selves to be the best vehicles they can be for our spiritual endeavors?

In my experience, they are not.

Beyond denigrating our physical experience, such beliefs also rob us of compassion and respect for the physical experience and the bodies of other people, and makes us more inclined to be judgmental and dismissive of people when they become ill, addicted, or display some other physical weakness we think they should be able to use “willpower” to overcome.

We have inherited too much cultural and religious conditioning that sees misfortune in our health as punishment—reducing the idea of karma to a cold, two-dimensional mathematical model of “Because you did this, you get this” and if the result is negative, you must be a bad person or a person to be scorned for making bad decisions.

For people who aren’t inclined to be so harsh, the most common alternative I’ve heard is the victimization approach: “It’s not your fault,” a clichéd idea that we mistake for compassion. This approach is not true compassion because it is just the opposite extreme of the above. The perpetrator/victim paradigm is no more value-adding than the reward/punishment paradigm when it comes to overcoming our most personal wellness challenges.

Our society is notorious for its extremes: If we don’t like one idea, we tend to swing all the way to an opposite extreme that is just as limiting. If it’s not all our own doing, then it must not be our fault at all and we are victims of genetics or culture or abuse.

So, what does the middle ground between these two extremes look like?

To get to that middle ground, I first propose that we throw out the word “fault.” That word is useless here. I’m big into recasting these days, meaning examining existing, flawed belief systems and tweaking them in some way (such as by replacing a major word), to come up with a more empowering alternative that I can use without feeling like I have to climb into a box or fight with myself in order to apply it to my life.

Instead of the word “fault,” let’s use “responsibility.”

“It’s my fault that I’m sick.”
“It’s my responsibility that I’m sick.”

Hear how different the second sentence sounds? How the word “responsibility” here implies there is something we can—and should—do about the problem, without implying that we’re bad people or are getting punishment we deserve?

Illness gives us the responsibility to learn how to become healthy, to learn how to make better choices in our lives that we feel good about. Using the word “fault” instead, I can’t even write a sentence that sounds empowered or self-compassionate in any way to express the same idea about health. Seeing something as our responsibility to change is more conducive to seeing it as an opportunity to create value, whereas seeing some result as our “fault,” or punishment, is conducive to feeling shame.

A big theme in Nichiren Buddhism is courage, and I’ve been chanting for courage to make necessary changes in my life. We don’t develop a virtue by meditating on it; we develop it by having experiences that challenge us to use it. So, instead of shaming myself for physically not taking good enough care of myself this year, or absolving myself of my role in my illness by blaming it on stress and grief, I’m forging a path into the middle ground between these two by taking responsibility, and sharing what I’m learning along the way with you so that you can do some recasting of your own.

Image: “Elemental Healer: Water,” by Karla Joy Huber, 2008; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie Marker, highlighter


  1. Yes, i am so tired of the extremes in opinions. If you are not all for something then you must be all against it. And I'm so tired of hearing the word "Karma" used as if it is a punishment for behaviors. Instead of just saying that there are natural consequences to things we do, say, eat – and we can take responsibility for ourselves and work on making our lives better day by day.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Ann! I'm glad I'm not the only one

    2. You're very welcome, Karla! I always enjoy reading your view of things.