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July 25th, 2012 by Dr. Puff

I have been professionally helping people to improve their lives and to achieve happiness for over 25 years now. I counsel people in private practice, I give workshops and retreats, I work with corporations, I write books, I post Happier podcasts on my blog, I work with the media…there are many, many ways that I reach out to people! Among the thousands of people that I have come into contact with over the years, there is a very common theme that I see that keeps them from being happy. The reason isn’t because of lack of resources, or lack of love, or because we didn’t “make it” in life. The main reason that precludes people from being happy right now is simply self-judgement and the judgement of others. In other words, we are really, really hard on ourselves and, to a lesser extent, those around us. When we mess up, we have an incredible tendency to berate ourselves, to speak horribly about ourselves, and to really beat ourselves up. It can really be awful! The more we hate ourselves, the less we share with other people. We put up walls, making sure others don’t “get in,” because we don’t want other people to hurt us more than we’re already hurting ourselves. It already hurts too much! Some people who have done a lot of damage and who have caused a lot of havoc in life truly despise themselves. Over the years, I have had the opportunity of talking with people who have committed what our culture considers to be heinous crimes. Often, we think that these people get away their misdeeds without caring, but actually, the exact opposite is often true. Very often, these people truly hate themselves, and it is very sad.

I would like to explore, “Who is at fault? Who is the one to blame when we mess up?” Mind you, our mess-ups may not be so big, but they still matter to us and affect the manner in which we treat ourselves and others. If we behave harshly towards ourselves and harshly towards one other, we are not going to be happy. So, who is at fault when we mess up, or when others mess up? Who is to blame? And similarly, when we succeed and when we accomplish wonderful things in life, who is the one who should get credit? Who is the one who can say “Yay, I did it!”? Who is the one who gets credit for succeeding in life? Failure and success are all about volition. Who is responsible? When I succeed, did I do it? When I fail, did I do it? Let’s explore these questions and find the answers together.

Responsibility can be broken down into two parts. The first part is genetics, DNA. We don’t choose our DNA and we don’t choose our genetics, rather they’re given to us at birth. If we are born with blonde hair and blue eyes, although we may disguise these traits cosmetically, we will always have that with which we were born. How greatly genetic influence is involved in who we are is debatable. Most scientists agree it’s somewhere between 25% and 50%, with some factors as low as 10% or some as high as 100% for such things as whether we are male or female (unless we do something drastic to change ourselves). However, whether we like chocolate or love Shakespearean plays is influenced more by our conditioning. Conditioning is the second half of responsibility.

Let’s explore conditioning. We don’t choose our parents and we don’t choose the environment in which we are raised. As we get older, we start making what seem to be our own choices, but these choices are immensely or even perhaps totally conditioned by our genetics and our earlier years. Let me provide an example. At your next visit to the doctor, ask him why exactly he chose to become a doctor. What you will almost certainly find is that the reason someone becomes a medical doctor is that while growing up, they knew someone who was ill whom they cared for, and this is what inspired them. Of course, they needed to have the predisposition to do well in school, but their career choice was mostly based upon their environment. Perhaps it was that their parents pushed them to succeed in life, along with their true passion for caring for others to make them well and healthy, because of an early life experience.

Now, what I call the “Halls of Academia around the World,” or “Philosophers around the World,” have debated about how much “free will” there is. To be honest, scholars have pretty much settled upon the idea that there really isn’t any. We are basically what and who we are because of our conditioning. We are conditioned beings. There’s still debate out there, of course, but brilliant scientists and philosophers around the world mostly agree that we are products of our environment. You may disagree with this, and we could go on and on about this ad nauseum because it’s a very complex topic. But for this particular article regarding, “Who is at fault? Who is to blame and who gets credit when we succeed at life?”, let’s explore this issue. In regard to, “Alright, I did something wrong. I did something bad,” you have to ask, “Why did I do this?” Let’s suspend talk of the mentally ill and the psychopaths, studying instead regular people like you and I who DO care when we mess up and hurt people. Why do we do things that we don’t want to do? Who is at fault? It is mainly our conditioning’s fault, along with a small contribution from our genetics. This is why we can say, “Yup, I’m 40 pounds overweight and everyone in my family is 40 pounds overweight too.” We are very much products of our conditioning. Our conditioning shapes us.

For example, let’s take the idea of being overweight. I grew up in Iowa, and in Iowa there’s a tendency, because of poor eating habits and lack of exercise, for people to become overweight. Often Iowans become quite heavy as they grow older. I remember loving to go out running in the country. Quite frequently, people driving by would stop and ask me if I needed a lift. They did this because they couldn’t understand why anyone would be running in the country. People just don’t exercise much in Iowa. They’re hard workers, but they aren’t really into exercising and practicing healthy eating habits.

In some other cultures, people are a lot more relaxed about achievement. These people would just as soon sit and enjoy being with family and friends, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. However, because of this tendency, these people are often less likely to be “successful” financially. This is a product of their environment.

Let’s take a look at when we mess up, when we do something wrong. Why do we do it? In every instance, we can go back and figure out why we do things. There is always a reason to be found, if we take the time to look for it. This process may seem cumbersome, but you can begin by asking, “What in my conditioning caused me to do this?” For instance, if I cheated on my wife, did my father cheat on my mother? Did I come from a culture where it was acceptable for a man to cheat on his wife? If that’s so, it may be harder for you to be faithful to your spouse. The conditioning we experience early in life shapes us in profound ways.

In the same way, when we succeed in life, it’s because of our conditioning. If we felt a lot of pressure to succeed in life, if our parents put a lot of pressure on us to succeed, then most likely, we did. We did exceptionally well because of that pressure that was put on us. The conditioning we’re being exposed to throughout our lives is going to shape us. There’s no way to get around this. So here’s the good news: when we fail in life, it’s really not our fault. It’s the conditioning’s fault. Conversely, when we succeed, it’s also due to the conditioning. It’s a conditioned success. We don’t have to worry about what people think about us. We don’t have to worry about anything! What we have to do is simply change the conditioning. If we’re conditioned to eat healthfully, then of course we’re not going to want to change that. But, if we eat poorly, then we’re going to want to change. If we grew up in an environment where men cheated, then we’re going to have to realize that infidelity isn’t an acceptable act and isn’t good for a successful relationship. We have to start socializing with others who don’t believe in cheating and who consider fidelity very important and healthy in having a relationship.

Changing our lives is really pretty basic: it’s simply a matter of changing the conditioning. It takes work, but it is entirely possible to change our conditioning. We will soften, and be less prideful of ourselves and less jealous of others because we realize that our environment shapes us. Our environment causes us to be who we are. Remember in the beginning I told you that we are too hard on ourselves and I believe that this is the number one reason why we struggle with happiness and being happy? If we truly understand that it’s the conditioning’s fault for the way we are, then we won’t be so hard on ourselves and others. We will get softer and this softening will cause us not to beat ourselves up. When we beat ourselves up, we continue to do the same things that we hate doing. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I say “I’m fat,” then guess what? I’m going to be fat. If instead I say, “My conditioning caused this. I need to change my conditioning,” then I’m going to eat better and get healthier. This article is really about being softer and easier on ourselves and on others. If we really want to blame anyone, let’s blame our conditioning. Let us remember that we can change our conditioning and change ourselves for the better.

Resource Box:
Dr. Robert Puff, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, author, international speaker, and meditation expert who has been counseling individuals, families, nonprofits, and businesses for over twenty years. A contributing writer to Psychology Today, he has authored numerous books and creates a weekly podcast on happiness at He also creates a weekly podcast on meditation, and a weekly podcast on spiritual enlightenment, His retreat schedules can be found at You also might find his blog useful at If you are interested in having Dr. Puff speak to your organization or company, you can learn more about his speaking services at

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