“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
A core feature of personal authenticity is personal responsibility. Responsibility is often confused with the words ‘blame’ and ‘fault’ in common discourse. So it’s essential that we define our terms clearly in order to differentiate the common misuse of the word ‘responsibility’ as meaning ‘blame’.
Personal responsibility is the clarification of one’s authorship and ownership of personal experience. It defines one’s power to make choices, to respond to feelings, thoughts and events; to be accountable for one’s life. In this sense response-ability, or the ability to respond to life, defines one’s freedom and power of choice and free will to determine the direction and meet the consequences of our chosen path in life. It runs counter to the idea that I might blame others for my mistakes, failures, choices or feelings for example.
Unlike assigning fault or blame – both of which rely on judging a person as right or wrong – responsibility describes a matter of fact: the fact that I am, as an adult, the author and ‘owner’ of my experience; my thoughts, my feelings, my needs, my choices, my actions and inactions. I can either acknowledge this state of authorship as a given; an inherent feature of being, or I can attempt to deny it. Denying personal responsibility usually entails attempts to avoid blame, culpability or duty. And at a basic level, much human conflict lies in this struggle between people denying, shifting, relinquishing or evading personal resonsibility. To acknowledge that for example, whether I like it or not, I have difficult experiences within myself to deal with and am thus responsible for what I do with these experiences, is an acknowledgement of one’s power in relation to such experiences.
Children are the exception to the responsibility rule. As newborns they are literally helpless and literally not responsible for themselves – unable to respond to the world in ways that allow them to meet their needs for survival. Good care-givers and parents thus fulfil the role of taking responsibility for their children. Ideally, the process of raising children is marked by the parent teaching their growing child to take more and more responsibility for themselves towards a final stage of self-reliance, maturity and independence in adulthood. In this sense, the child is then taught to empower him/ herself by taking personal responsibility for meeting his or her own needs. And it is this crucial role of empowerment to meet one’s needs that distinguishes responsibility from blame or fault-finding.
This maturation and education process, however, often fails (in both teaching and learning) and many children grow up with a muddled, confused or ill-defined sense of personal responsibility that can create difficulties and struggles for them later in life.
Confusing Responsibilities: People Pleasing
People pleasing is a term given to a form of interpersonal conduct whereby I attempt to meet my needs for approval (or avoidance of disapproval) by pleasing others. It is both the result and one of the causes of confusing my personal responsibility with the others’ personal responsibility. Relationships based on people pleasing and role playing rely upon a form of inauthentic relating and, on a technical level, manipulation of the relationship so that I take responsibility for your feelings so that you will take responsibility for mine. If you’re upset I try to appease you and save you from your feelings, for example. In return, with a bit of luck, you’ll do the same for me. Co-dependence is the result.
Clarifying Responsibilities: Clear Boundaries
A simple way of clarifying personal responsibility in adult relationships is to make statements of fact:
- I am responsible for my feelings, my thoughts, my choices, my actions and my inactions.
- I am responsible for meeting my needs
These statements can be contrasted by statements clarifying your responsibilities:
- You are responsible for your feelings, your thoughts, your choices, your actions and your inactions.
- You are responsible for meeting your needs
You may be responsible for saying or doing something to me that upsets me or causes me distress, but I am ultimately responsible for what I then do with my experience. Again, this is not a concern for locating blame, it is an identification of the centre of one’s realm of influence and choice.
Here’s a simple diagram to clarify the concept further:
“If you take responsibility for what you are doing to yourself, how you produce your symptoms, how you produce your illness, how you produce your existence – the very moment you get in touch with yourself – growth begins, integration begins.”
Boundaries: Your Garden
Clarifying the limits of one’s personal responsibility – where mine ends and yours begins – is essential in the formation of interpersonal boundaries. Like a fence around a garden, boundaries help us define our interpersonal ‘territory’: everything inside my garden fence is my responsibility and I have a duty therefore to ‘take care of my garden’. It would be unrealistic to expect others to take care of our gardens. At the risk of labouring the metaphor, often people will come along and throw rubbish in our gardens. Yes, they are responsible for throwing the rubbish (and in interpersonal terms this may be insults, betrayals, assaults and any number of other disappointments or toxic effects upon us) but we are still responsible for getting rid of the rubbish and restoring our space to order and peace, taking steps to protect ourselves against future attacks by modifying our boundaries, for example. We may have to build a better fence, put clearer signs up, take more effective action to keep our space better protected. In real terms this can mean building on our relationship skills.
The social games of shifting responsibilities and people pleasing often entail our attempts to ‘make others feel responsible’ for us, via blaming, boasting, criticising, playing helpless and other forms of social theatrics. These behaviours rely upon my ability to instil a feeling of obligation, pity or sympathy in you so that you begin to feel uncomfortable or impressed enough that you begin to meet my needs; needs that I can meet myself where I empower myself to do so. At the root of all this of course, are our efforts to manipulate one another into meeting our esteem and other needs through blaming, coercing, and other unaware tactics that help us in our efforts to avoid personal responsibility. These are often tactics and needs that are born in childhood and are thus functions of child development and dependency. When our unmet childhood needs are carried into our adulthood and our ways of relating to others they become tasks that we need to fulfil on our journey to greater authenticity, independence and maturation; tasks that psychotherapy can help us fulfil.
Development of awareness is central to development of personal responsibility and authenticity. Being more aware expands the scope of our ability to respond to changes in the world, relationship and experience; changes that bring new needs to be met in our efforts to survive and thrive as human beings. Our ability to respond to our needs with awareness, skill and good judgement empowers us to function maturely in a world of others without having to resort to unnecessary aggression or dependencies on other adults to meet our needs, with all of the attending games and manipulations required of encouraging others to play the role of ‘parent’ to our role of ‘child’ and vice versa. Such dynamics rely on our playing the inauthentic pantomine of pretence and self-deception that are, on closer analysis, intrinsically disempowering to all concerned. One direct means of empowering ourselves to evolve out of this is to recognise legitimate unmet needs from childhood that we may be attempting to meet as adults by assuming a child-like dependency or child-like way of being. Due to the inescapable fact of imperfect parenting (or abuse, trauma etc), most of us have unmet childhood needs, and so learning to identify them (there are discreet ways to do this in therapy) and meet them by taking responsibility for those needs as adults allows us to do the necessary work without ‘acting out’ needs that may sit beyond the grasp of our habitual patterns of awareness.
Implications for Social Hierarchy
Personal responsibility involves the taking up of our power by recognising that we are not lower nor higher in status or worth to others, nor here on Earth to please or meet the needs of others, but are instead equal in our inherent value and ability to meet our own needs. (Which is not to imply a self-centred approach to life. Indeed, our responsibilities can extend far beyond our geographical location and social circles). In this sense, personal responsibility has profound implications for our notions of social hierarchy, ‘authority’ in society, and blame culture, as these notions often rely upon assumed parent to child definitions of responsibility as we hand over our power (often being compelled to do so) to those occupying roles in authority, rather than preserving the existential reality of clearly defined adult to adult boundaries, with their intrinsic freedoms and power of self-determination accompanying those freedoms.
This latter point goes beyond the scope of this present post, but is nevertheless an important feature of any discussion about personal responsibility, as are the consequences and impacts upon the world and other people of our minute-by-minute choices – a subject I discuss in more detail in Personal Authenticity Part 7. Needless to say, defining one’s personal responsibilities is only the start of a longer journey in which the maturing individual commits to living more truthfully, with greater awareness, skill, autonomy and authenticity.
Image credit: Westfall
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