I’m audaciously dividing people into three groups:
These people are never at fault. When things go wrong they blame their boss, their spouse, the government, society, the weather bureau . . . They spend their lives complaining and blaming, yet fail to see the part they play in their troubles. If their relationship is lousy they blame their partner and refuse to see what they could do to improve the relationship. They expect their partner to change, and complain when that change doesn’t come.
They think everyone should change but them.
They don’t admit to their mistakes, so they can’t grow. They get left behind, wondering why their relationships aren’t working, why their lives are in a mess, and why people don’t comply with their expectations.
By believing that their quality of life depends on other people, they disempower themselves. They feel weak and anxious. Life is difficult.
They act this way because their identity, their sense of self, is tied to being right. If anyone dares to suggest they are wrong they take it personally and feel threatened, humiliated, or angry. They become defensive, and sometimes aggressive.
Even if they admit to having a problem, it will still be someone else’s fault. They won’t acknowledge the part they play in their troubles because it would mean confronting their need to be right and their need for control.
These people are the opposite of the first group. When something goes wrong in their lives they look too hard for the part they played. If their child is bullied, they blame themselves for not raising a more confident child. If their child fails a test they blame themselves for not ensuring their child did more homework. If they have relationship problems they assume they are doing something wrong, not their partner. These people are so expert at looking for what they did wrong they ignore all other contributing factors.
They take responsibility for everything, and are burdened by it. So, when they approach a new task they feel daunted by the enormous weight they are about to place upon themselves. Sometimes the task before them is so loaded with potential failure they feel paralysed.
To them, Life is a continual test of pass or fail. When they look back on their life they don’t see it as a journey of growth, or as an adventure lived, instead they see the speed humps, the mistakes, the times when they could have done better.
Why do they do this? Because, like the first group, they also need to be in control. The first group try to control by insisting that they are right; this second group try to control by taking responsibility for everything. The trouble is, by taking responsibility for every aspect of their life they feel overwhelmed with burdens, become full of regrets, and are destined to be anxious.
The first two groups comprise people who don’t look for the part they play in their troubles, or people who only look for the part that they play. Both groups are, in their own way, trying to control their world.
People in the third group don’t try to control their world, they allow it to happen. When they make a mistake they admit to it (unlike the first group) but (unlike the second group) don’t indulge in self-recrimination. Instead, they acknowledge their mistake and accept the consequences.
And, importantly, they are gentle on themselves. As a result, they get good at distinguishing between what they are responsible for, and what they aren’t. So, they don’t waste time avoiding responsibility, and they don’t waste time taking responsibility for issues over which they have little or no control. They look at the mistakes that matter, and focus upon preventing them from happening again. They focus on the part they can change.
These people understand that if they blame the past to explain their current situation, they will achieve nothing, but if they understand the past in order to make changes for the future, they can achieve a great deal. The first abrogates responsibility, the second takes responsibility.
With this approach they find solutions to problems, and ways to prevent those problems from recurring. As a result they become capable. And, because they don’t blame themselves, or others, they earn respect.
More importantly, they feel safe in the world, because by taking responsibility for the things they can change, and being gently philosophical over that which they can’t, they come to believe that whatever happens, they’ll handle it. They become resilient.
‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.’
An excerpt from Reinhold Niebuhr’s ‘The Serenity Prayer’
Which group of people do you belong to?
Which group of people would you like to belong to?
Which group of people do you aim to belong to?
Much of this section – indeed, this book! – is about how we can take responsibility for how our lives unfold, because by doing so we gain the feeling that whatever happens, we will handle it. We add to our resilience.
Q. ‘Mark, you say we should take responsibility for how our lives unfold. Does that mean we should avoid seeking help?’
Not at all. If you need it, ask for it. Finding help is a good way to take responsibility.
Q. ‘Are you saying beggars can’t be happy because they don’t take responsibility for themselves?’
If a beggar blames passers-by for not giving money then yes, the beggar is abrogating responsibility. If the beggar accepts the refusals without complaint and without judgement, then as far as I am concerned, that beggar is taking responsibility. It’s about how we respond to what happens in our life.
Q. ‘Where does self-criticism fit in?’
It doesn’t. It’s a copout. It’s a way to avoid taking responsibility, because as soon as you throw your hands up in the air in weary resignation and say, ‘I am to blame‘ or ‘It’s my fault’ you have focused on the problem, which in your eyes is you. You see yourself as the problem instead of the solution. Self-blame is a way of saying, ‘I give up, I’m hopeless‘. That’s a great way to avoid taking responsibility.
If instead of focusing on the problem you were to focus on rectifying the problem, you would be focusing on what needs to happen in the future. That’s taking responsibility.