The Fault in Our Scars

How often do we protest, “It’s not my fault,” both loudly with our tongues and silently in our hearts? Why do we hide our faults? And what if we quit protecting them, and started celebrating them?


Photo Credit: Darcie via Compfight cc

“It’s not my fault!”

The most popular phrase in our house.

My son has just accidentally opened the refrigerator door into the dishwasher door, which was hanging ajar, knocking the dishwasher backward, off the hardwood and onto the subflooring. It becomes a box of crashing porcelain and before I have a chance to say anything, he is denying responsibility.

I stare at him blankly, at a loss for words. I watched it happen. I saw him throw one door into another. Either he thinks I’m blind, or there’s more to his denial than meets the eye.

There’s more to his denial than meets the eye.

He’s seven and, already, he has scars.

When he declares, “It’s not my fault!” with his chin out and his eyes a little scared, he’s not saying he didn’t do it. Of course he did it. What he’s doing is fighting not to be wounded again. He’s asking to be absolved of the emotional consequences of his mistake. He’s saying, “I didn’t do it on purpose, so please don’t blame me or shame me or reject me or leave me feeling alone.”

The thesaurus lists these synonyms for fault: defect, error, evil doing, failing, flaw, frailty, guilt, liability, misconduct, misdeed, negligence, offence, transgression, vice, wrongdoing. Is it any wonder our kids deny responsibility for their innocent mistakes?

Is it any wonder we adults do the same?

Is it any wonder no one wants to be at fault for anything?

Projecting and Protecting

Recently, a New York City police officer spilled a free cup of Starbucks coffee on himself and sued Starbucks for the burn. We’ve been through this before, haven’t we? But the urge to deny fault can be irrationally strong. It can be as strong as our scars. The coffee may have scalded him, but I can guarantee the coffee scar is not his first, nor his deepest, scar.

Projecting fault is a way of protecting our existing wounds.

No-fault divorce. It’s a legal term with no correlate in reality. Both-fault divorce is probably a better descriptor of most marital demise. But no one will claim it. Not because of the legal consequences, but because of the relational consequences. If we are at fault, the people we love might get angry with us, decide we’re not good enough, retract their commitment, and shame us for the messy creature we are. And that is always a wound we’d prefer not to reopen.

It’s scar tissue we try to protect.

So, in courtrooms and living rooms, we exchange accusations and blame, shining light upon the faults in everyone else, working hard to keep our own faults and shortcomings in the shadows.


On the day the refrigerator door collided with the dishwasher door, our car collided with our fence. A kid had left the fence gate open, and I backed my car right into it. The car was fine. The fence was not. And I wanted to know who was at fault. As I got out of the car, I heard a chorus of denials. “It’s not my fault,” in harmony.

Somehow, three kids had bent the laws of physics and time.

No one had left the yard last.

Or, more likely, they had a dad who didn’t want to look at his own fault. More likely, they had a dad who hadn’t been looking at the rear camera video on his dashboard display. More likely, they had a dad with his own scars and his own need to project his faults.

Several nights later, my daughter confided to my wife she had left the gate open. She told my wife, “But I’ve told the truth, so it’s all better now.” My daughter knew her fault was the pathway to restoring relationship, not a highway to ruin. In other words, she had way more guts than her old man.

I want to be like my daughter when I grow up.

Fault Lines

The thesaurus offers all sorts of horrible synonyms for the word “fault,” but maybe we can redefine the word in our hearts and minds by exchanging the thesaurus for a textbook. A geography textbook. Geographically, a fault line is defined as “the plane on which massive rocks move past each other.”

What if we reclaimed our faults as the moments in which our lives brush up against each other? What if all of our mistakes and errors were embraced as the plane upon which we meet each other? What if we thought of the earthquakes between us as the moments in which our scars connect and the tension is finally released? What if we all stopped projecting our faults and started confessing them.

Maybe our fault lines would shake us up with aftershocks of vulnerability and safety and belonging and connectedness and love. Maybe we’d truly meet each other.

And maybe we’d celebrate the fault in our scars.

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Audio: Audio will be unavailable in May, while I’m finishing a book proposal.

Next Post: Why It’s Exhausting to Not Be Who You Truly Are

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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19 thoughts on “The Fault in Our Scars

  1. “It’s not my fault” is a phrase that has long made me cringe. It is perhaps even more offensive to my ears than the casual use of the word ‘literally’ to mean ‘figuratively’ (“I literally died when I heard that.”).
    Thank you for contextualizing this ubiquitous protest as the universal underlying human hurt and hopefulness that it can betray. I am grateful for the softer heart I can bring today to the tall and small using this phrase as a shield.

    • Bring today a soft heart to the tall and small. Wouldn’t be a bad mission statement. For any of us.

    • Carolyn, happy birthday! So glad this came at the right time and felt like a gift.

  2. “No-fault divorce. It’s a legal term with no correlation in reality. Both-fault divorce is probably a better descriptor of most marital demise.” I wish my soon-to-be ex understood the concept of both-fault. It’s easier to avoid looking in the mirror when there is someone else to project your pain, hurt, and blame onto… A great post, thank you!

    • Chance, unfortunately, a lot of marital therapy begins that way, with mutual projection. The challenge is to turn it into mutual confession.

  3. As usual, I thoroughly enjoy your words. These
    words…”What if all of our mistakes and errors were embraced as the plane
    upon which we meet each other?” are especially powerful. When we feel
    safe, even an earthquake can’t overpower us. Nice. Thanks.

    p.s. Best wishes with your book proposal.

    • You’re welcome, Brett, and thank you for the kind wishes about the book proposal. More on that hopefully soon!

  4. Thank you for this post! There truly is power in confession and vulnerability… We are challenged to both embrace this and live it out. God bless!

  5. Thank you, Kelly, for another great post. I love the way you explained looking at the weaknesses as fault lines and how we can hopefully be able to stop projecting onto others and take more responsibility for our own faults. I’m a huge believer that we can do that when we can truly come to love and accept ourselves as we are so that there is then no need to project onto others. I’ve been studying that for several years now and I believe it is really the only thing that will help us to bring peace to our world. We LOVE ourselves as we want to love others. (And I do mean in that order). Thank you again!

    • I couldn’t agree with you more, Jenny. Only when we stop believing our worthiness is always in question can we feel safe enough to share our faults. Thanks for this reminder.

  6. Wow😃another great post. My favorite ” maybe we would celebrate the fault in our scars!” What a positive philosophy that I can apply to the drip, drip, drip of my daily life.

  7. Thank you so much, Dr.Flanagan. This makes so much sense, it’s so simple that we can’t even see it on our own. Thank you for taking the time to put it down on screen so we can all be encouraged. As a writer I know there is always the temptation to think that what we write won’t really matter to anyone. I hope you never, ever believe that. You’re doing so many people a world of good. God bless you with peace, providence and protection.

  8. In our house we get a lot of “I didn’t mean to do it.” Especially when it’s a kid-on-kid offense. I think the principle holds for that too. Rarely do we mean to hurt each other. It’s just that sometimes our broken places cut each other.

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