Why should we take responsibility for everything?

Q. ‘What do you mean when you suggest we take full responsibility for how our lives unfold? If I’m mugged am I responsible? If a meteor destroys my house am I responsible? If I get cancer is it my fault? Aren’t you just blaming the victim?
’
Hardly.  I’m not asking you to take responsibility for what that happens in the world, only for how you respond to what happens. Big difference. And the more you focus on how you respond to the worldthe more powerful you will feel and the more resilient you will become. If you can handle having your house destroyed by a meteor you will fare a lot better, won’t you? That’s what taking responsibility is all about – responding in a healthy manner to what happens in your life.

Q. ‘So, how do we respond to what happens? How do I respond to my house being destroyed  by a meteor?’
By taking responsibility for the emotions you feel, and for your actions following the event. That’s a big chunk of what this book is about.

We also need to look for the part we played in an incident. We can ask ourselves, ‘What part did I play? What could I do differently next time? What worked? What didn’t?’  
‘What part could I possibly play if a meteor destroys my house?!’
I’m not saying you necessarily play a part in your troubles; I’m only asking you to look for the part you played. It’s a good habit to get into.

Q. ‘What’s the point of looking for the part I played?’
When you are in the habit of looking for the part you played when things go wrong, you get good at anticipating problems, and solving them. By focusing not on your mistakes, but on rectifying them, you become competent. You develop that feeling that whatever happens, you’ll handle it. Which means, of course, less anxiety and increased core happiness.

Q. ‘If I look for the part I played every time something goes wrong, I will feel burdened.’
On the contrary, you will feel lighter and stronger, and far more resilient, because you will discover that the solution to many of your problems rests with you. It’s the people who refuse to see the part they play in their troubles who feel burdened, because they encounter the same problems over and over.

Q. ‘If someone takes responsibility for how they respond to an incident, isn’t there a good chance they will blame themselves?’
Don’t confuse taking responsibility with taking the blame. The word ‘responsibility’ means ‘a duty to respond’. This book is about how we can take responsibility for how we respond to Life’s events; it’s not about taking responsibility for Life’s events. Self-blame won’t get you anything but suffering.  It’s a cop-out. To spend time blaming yourself is to avoid taking responsibility.

Q. ‘What if everything goes to plan?’
Just as importantly, the next time something goes right in your life, look for the part you played. You will discover techniques worth applying again, and discover that you are more skilled than you thought you were. That’s a great confidence booster, and another step towards developing that feeling that whatever happens, you’ll handle it.

Q. ‘Mr B, 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 help in life, 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. But if the beggar accepts the refusals without complaint and without judgment, then as far as I am concerned, that beggar is taking responsibility. It’s about how we respond to what happens in our life.

2 Responses to Why should we take responsibility for everything?

  1. Mike says:

    I struggle with this one. I have been keeping a spreadsheet of my mistakes for quite a while. When I make a mistake big enough to bother me, I put it there and try to figure out what I did wrong and how I can do better next time. Nonetheless, I keep making many of the same mistakes. I make dumb errors at work, I lie, I indulge in unhealthy eating, and more. Far from making me feel stronger, it only makes me feel worse about myself because it seems to be proving that even my own best efforts aren’t enough to change my mistakes. It seems to be telling me that I’m either too dumb to see the problem and effective solution or too flawed to execute the solution.

    Thank you for your site and articles. I’m learning a lot from them.

    • Mr Bashful says:

      Hi Mike.
      To address your point I will tell you a little about myself. You will find much of it irrelevant in the beginning. Please bear with me.


      I recently entered a speech contest. I rehearsed, over weeks, my seven minute speech a hundred times. Literally. I do not exaggerate. One hundred times. I tried to perfect every gesture, every intonation, etc.


      In every rehearsal, without exception, I made a mistake. I find it fascinating that in each instance it was a different mistake. In other words, as an example, I managed to say one of the sentences ninety-nine times flawlessly, (and presumably burn into my brain an unbreakable neural pathway that would prevent me saying anything but that sentence), yet on the hundredth telling of that sentence I made a mistake.


      I’m still puzzled. It was as though my brain was searching for different ways to trip me up. I don’t believe that, but it seemed that way.


      It is feasible that if I had rehearsed that speech two hundred times, I would have made two hundred different mistakes. 


      What is even more puzzling is that when I gave the speech in the competition, I didn’t make a mistake. 
(I didn’t win either. Sigh.)
 


      For five years I have been attending boxing classes four times a week, with thirty other people trying to keep fit. The instructor runs us through varying combinations of punches. Eg. ’Jab, jab, jab, right uppercut, hook, right.’ And so on. 


      In all of those years, in all of those lessons, only twice have I not made a mistake. Only twice have I got every combination correct in an evening. (Both times in the last month, indeed.)


      I dread to think of all the mistakes I make in life that aren’t so easy to quantify. I have come to accept that I make mistakes in the same way I keep breathing.

      But you aren’t talking about that type of mistake, are you? You are only talking about the mistakes ‘big enough to bother’ you. And, you try to figure out what you did wrong in order to do better next time.


      Hmm.

      First, I am not a psychologist and might well be giving you a wrong answer to your question. Your question is a beauty. Here is my attempt at answering it:

      

You give examples of your mistakes. ‘I lie. I indulge in unhealthy eating’. They are not mistakes. They are choices. When someone says, ‘I have made mistakes in life that I regret’ they are actually saying, ‘I have made choices in life that I regret.’ They use the word ‘mistake’ because it invites sympathy and forgiveness from the listener.

      Claiming that ‘to indulge in unhealthy eating’ is a mistake is abrogating responsibility. To admit it’s a choice is to take responsibility.


      A mistake is when you stuff up when reciting a speech, or stuff-up trying to execute a combination of punches. On the 93rd rehearsal of my speech I might have said ‘he’ instead of ‘she’ in a line, but that is not a conscious choice, it is a mistake. In such instances there would be no point searching for the part I played when I made a mistake.


      If someone commits a crime it’s not a mistake, it’s a choice.

      If someone accidentally drops a plate and smashes it, that’s not a mistake, it’s negligence. (Forgivable maybe.) In that instance the person can look at what she did wrong to avoid it happening again. i.e. She looks for ways to be more careful in future.


      When someone forgets to do something it’s not a mistake, it’s negligence. Every day most of us are forgetful – I certainly am – and most of the time it isn’t important. But sometimes it is. If we forget that we have left our dog in the car on a hot day we need to look at the part we played to determine how we can ensure it never happens again. It is not a mistake to leave the dog in the car and forget about him, it is a choice and it’s negligence. We have to take responsibility for the choices we make, so we can make better choices in future. 


      My point: Differentiate between your mistakes, your choices and your negligences.

      When something goes wrong in your life look for the part you played. If it is due to:
      a) a true mistake, the only part you played was being human. Forgive yourself and rectify the mistake if you can. There is nothing anyone can do to avoid making true mistakes. Every human being makes mistakes every day. Have you looked at how ants move? They can’t even walk a straight line. Eventually they get the job done, individually and collectively. We humans are not much different. 


      b) If what has gone wrong is due to your poor choice, or to your negligence, then look for ways to make a better choice, or take better precautions, in future.

      In all instances, avoid being self-critical. Being self-critical won’t help you avoid recidivism, but it will undermine your efforts. Self-criticism is not about taking responsibility, it is a cop-out. ‘Responsibility’ is about the duty to respond; it’s not about indulging in self-punishment.


      So, if you make a ‘blunder’ at work determine if it’s a true mistake, or if it’s an act of negligence. If it’s the former, shrug and rectify the mistake. If it’s the latter, find ways to ensure the incident doesn’t happen again. Either way, avoid self-criticism.

      If you lie, recognise that it was a choice, not a mistake, and search for the reasons you lied and ways you can avoid lying again. And leave behind the self-criticism.

      If you eat unhealthy foods, recognise that you made the choice to eat those foods. Be like an objective scientist and search for the reasons you made that choice, and for ways to avoid you making that choice again. (If that’s your preference.) (By the way, I look askance at someone who never eats an ice-cream.)

      If you do all that and still make blunders at work, still lie, and still eat unhealthy foods, shrug and still refrain from self-criticism. It won’t help. You will have a better chance of fixing the problem if you don’t indulge in disempowering self-criticism. Remember, it’s a cop-out.

      As for you ‘being too dumb to see the problem and effective solution’ you are wilfully being hard on yourself. It’s easy for me to tell it’s not true. Your question is thoughtful, insightful, and well composed.
 And even if you were dumb, the acknowledgement would be of no help. It’s a self-indulgence you can do without. All of us can do without it.

      Your words ‘too flawed . . .’ might indicate a different explanation: Karen Horney’s ‘The Tyranny of the Should’. ‘I shouldn’t lie. I shouldn’t eat unhealthy foods. I should be smarter. I shouldn’t make mistakes. I should make better choices.’ Mike, is it possible that you have inappropriate expectations of yourself, so when you make poor choices (lie, eat poorly, etc.) you become overly harsh with yourself? The fact that you have a spreadsheet of your big ‘mistakes’ could indicate that you have strong ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ in your life. I have a chapter in section 17 of this site on ‘The Tyranny of the Shoulds’, and there are other articles out there on the web. If you think ‘The Tyranny of the Should’ might apply to you, consider looking into it.

      I’m off to eat an ice-cream.

      Warm regards, Mike.
      Mr B.

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