What’s Your Role? See Your Part.

In situations or relationships with any kind of difficulty – tension, feeling hurt, conflicts, mismatches of wants . . . the usual crud – it’s natural to focus on what others have done that’s problematic.

This could be useful for a while: it can energize you, bring insight into what the real priorities are for you, and help you see more clearly what you’d like others to change.

But there is also a cost: fixating on the harms (actual or imagined) done by others revves up your case about them – with all the stresses and other problems that brings – plus it makes it harder to see the good qualities in those you have issues with, the influence of additional factors, and your own part in the matter.

For example, let’s say you work with someone who is unfairly critical of you. Sure, there are the ways this person is out of line, self-righteous, whatever. Additionally, there are the ways that this person is also doing good things, plus the ways that other factors – such as a distracted boss who hasn’t stepped in or coworkers who like to gossip – are helping or hurting. And there is your own role as well: what you’re doing – in thought, word, and deed – that’s beneficial or harmful.

At the end of the day, you usually have little influence over people that trouble you or over third parties – let alone over macro factors like the economy, corporate culture, etc. Yes, do what you can about what’s “out there,” but “in here” there are many more opportunities for managing your reactions and for becoming more skillful in life.

Further, I’ve never been able to come to peace about anything that’s bothered me (on a range from mild consternation to grinding hurt and anger) until I take responsibility for my part in it – which seems true for people in general. This doesn’t mean excesses of guilt and mea culpa, or letting others off the moral hook. It just means owning your part in fostering the situation and in generating your reactions to it. Paradoxically, when you step into claiming your part, then you can step out of tangles with others and inside your own mind. The truth does set us free.


Since it can be challenging to look squarely at your own part in a situation, start by resourcing yourself: bring to mind the feeling of being cared about; get a sense of some of your own good qualities; and remind yourself of the benefits to you and others that will come from seeing your part.

Next, pick a situation or relationship. For simplicity, I’ll focus here on three “players”: a person you have issue(s) with, other people or factors, and yourself. Consider five things:

  • The ways that the issue person has caused harms and benefit.
  • The ways that other people, social factors, and history have caused relevant harms and benefits (take a wide view).
  • The ways that you have caused benefits

(Details: Issues include feeling mistreated, wanting something but not getting it, creating difficulties for people you care about, etc. Harms include misunderstandings, hurt feelings, losses, obstructions to progress, etc. Benefits include clarity, a culture of responsibility, emotional support, promoting the welfare of others, etc. Causes come in the form of thoughts, words, and deeds; beware too much mind-reading, but it’s natural and useful to reflect on the mental processes of yourself and others. Recognize the distinction between intent and impact: a person’s intentions could be positive or neutral, yet have negative consequences.)

Now, the sixth step, the hard one: Consider how you have caused harms in the situation or relationship. To do this, it helps me to think of three kinds of causes (with not-exhaustive examples):

  • Innocent – Simply being there when something happened (e.g., walking in a crosswalk when a drunk driver hits you); taking a job in a company with a critical co-worker; being male/young/Latino/blond/an MD/etc.; deciding to move to a certain city.
  • Opportunities for greater skillfulness – Realizing that: a certain word is offensive to others; you’ve over-reacted to relatively minor matters; you need to be a more engaged parent; a partner would like more romantic attention; it’s time to get more organized at work; you’ve been drinking/working/talking/judging/advising/bossing too much.
  • Moral faults – (We all have moral faults, me included big time: occasions when we violate an appropriate code – particularly our own deep code – of integrity, and deserve a wince of healthy remorse.) Being unfair; yelling or hitting; nursing grudges; lying; treating people as if they don’t matter; abusing power; recklessness; using coldness as a weapon; not caring about your impact on others; blowing your responsibilities.

The distinction between opportunities for greater skillfulness and moral faults is really important – both regarding yourself and others you have issues with. Often we miss chances to become more skillful because we think it will mean acknowledging a moral fault. Of course, what is a matter of skillful correction for one person could be a moral fault to another one; you have to decide for yourself.