Recently while walking my pandemic-acquired puppy, I heard a dog barking from inside another house. It’s a fairly common occurrence on our walks, but somehow this particular dog and this particular house threw my pup into a fritz. He wasn’t barking, but he was using all his strength to try to peel out of there. He was terrified.
I knelt down to try to redirect his attention and give him a treat. Part of training puppies, I’m learning, is to normalize different situations for them and associate positive rewards with new experiences, and so far it’s going well. But on this day, very unexpectedly, while I was kneeling down to him, he jerked the leash quickly and tried to run. I was holding the leash handle in my hand, but the leash rope was currently behind my back, and when he jerked it, the rope rode up to my neck, and in a crazy turn of events, put on my neck all the concentrated force of 25+ pounds of puppy vigor in one inch of rope. The back of my neck immediately felt it, and I was stunned.
“What the heck just happened?”I thought. I never could have predicted that would happen. Those delicate vertebrae—I don’t relish any kind of injury but especially not to my neck!
When I got home, I shared the story with a family member, who was very sad to hear I’d been hurt and wanted to come up with solutions to avoid it happening ever again.
“Should you not walk the dog, should it be somebody else who does it?”
The suggestion rubbed me the wrong way. Am I to blame for the freak accident? Is the combination of me and the dog as opposed to someone else and the dog to blame for this entire accident?
Or maybe we should blame the dog in general for his spazziness—or whoever decided to get a puppy in the first place?
I reflected later on this entire concept of blaming for consolation. Somehow, even if something was a freak accident that couldn’t have been anticipated or avoided, there’s a tempting human desire to pinpoint blame on someone or some aspect of the occurrence. I have come to think that for the majority of daily human foibles this is wasted energy.
Resisting the urge to control everything
I knew that in this case there was no one to blame. It was a total accident! I have a good dog-leash hold, and I rarely see behavior like this in my dog. Sometimes, there’s just no one or no thing in particular to blame. But it was just this fact—that it was an uncontrollable fluke—that made me so frustrated in the moment.
It reminded me of author and researcher Brené Brown’s definition of blame in her book The Power of Vulnerability. Emotionally speaking, Brown explains, blame is “the discharging of discomfort and pain.”
This was a mind-blowing realization for me the first time I heard this. It’s true: assigning blame often has less to do with the actual blamed party, and more to do with the person giving the blame having unresolved feelings that they want to offload.
I too had the uncomfortable feeling after the accident; I wanted to blame something or someone, but outside of something like “God” or “the universe,” nothing made sense to blame; and even then, that would be childish.
According to Brown, blame has an inverse relationship with accountability. Often when blaming, we are avoiding getting vulnerable about things we actually should be accountable for. To be honest, I have been both the recipient of blame and also the one liberally dishing it out. For example, at times I’ve blamed my kids for leaving things lying around the house, but upon further reflection I can see that’s me discharging discomfort and frustration, rather than an accurate representation of what my kids are responsible for. According to Brown, blame is quick, while accountability is long. And in the long haul, I’m responsible for leading by example and providing the right environment for my kids to grow in their tidying skills.
This isn’t to say people should not be held accountable for their actions—or for the actions of others who are under their authority (looking at you, corporate executives and political leaders!). I’m simply speaking of day-to-day home life, and in that context, I’ve become much more careful to avoid blaming statements. I’ll point out when I think something could be done better, but I’ll stop short of suggesting someone’s at fault for not knowing sooner. Which makes sense to me, because, why should anyone feel ashamed for learning as they go!
Ultimately, the act of blaming seems to me like grasping for control in an area where it’s unattainable. The human urge to control things—to avoid fear, harm, or embarrassment—is huge. But a big part of mental health and common sense is to acknowledge what we can control and what we cannot. To try to control something I cannot wastes energy that I don’t have in reserve to give. Rather than starting a negative or resentment-building spiral of trying to find something to blame, I can choose to spend that energy on a positive thing that will help me recover from the accident or event.
This is where I found that blame can be avoided, even while seeing how things can be improved.
Amazingly, my neck felt better not long after the dog-leash incident. I felt a little stiff for a couple days, but it made me grateful I didn’t suffer worse, and I got at least one neck rub out of it. And now I put my foot on the leash when my pup is acting like a pup. I’ll live with risks, learn from them, and repeat.