One of the things that I have struggled with most through my life, and one that a great many others do as well, is with the concept of responsibility. And one of the biggest changes came about when I started to actually understand and come to get my head around it.
So, what actually is “responsibility”? What does it look like and mean? Well, according to the dictionary the definition is:
- The state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control of someone.
- The state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something.
- The opportunity or ability to act independently and take decisions without authorization.
What this basically comes down to is a matter of control. You can only have responsibility where you personally have control. If you personally do not have control, you do not have responsibility.
For example, as a parent you are responsible for ensuring that you children are safe, healthy and educated. You have control over what food is in the house for them to eat, you set the rules for behaviour, you ensure that they see any health experts (doctors, opticians, etc) when needed, you decide where and what you child learns (school vs. home-schooled, religious beliefs, self-growth). But you are not responsible for what your child then does with the food, knowledge and opportunities that you provide. To put it another way, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink (and if the horse then dies of dehydration, it’s on the horse, not you).
Unfortunately far too many people only think of responsibility from a blame point of view, or they assign responsibility incorrectly. When people say “You are responsible for your children’s behaviour” what they often mean is “You are to blame for your children’s actions”, which just isn’t true. The only person that ultimately controls your children’s behaviour is them. You teach them how to act, but they make the final decision whether to do what they have been taught. And we often do it to ourselves as well. We have people that refuse to take responsibility for their own actions, words or thoughts. Bullies that make hateful comments online and then claim it’s all a joke or that their victim should learn to take “just chill out”; people that hold the belief that if you put yourself in the spotlight then you should expect to receive grief or abuse. “Natural victims” who blame all of their ills on the rest of the world but never stop and look at their own actions. Abusers that play their mind games and make the victim think that it’s all their fault that they get abused. “He loves me, I just make him angry sometimes”.
And then there are those that go the other way; they take responsibility for the actions of others, even though it isn’t their place. Parents that take the blame for their children’s actions and feel guilty for their misdeeds. Friends and family that indulge the bad habits or vices of others, either making excuses for them to actively encouraging the bad behaviours.
Unfortunately, those that don’t take responsibility for themselves and their actions are doomed to never grow and become the best version of themselves that they can. They will always wait for someone else to do it for them, or tell them what to do. Those that take on responsibility that is not their own will also struggle to grow; they are more focused on someone else’s life than they are on their own, and you must be present in yourself to be able to grow.
So why do so many people have a problem with responsibility? Basically, low self-esteem and self-worth. Those that don’t take responsibility for themselves are trying to avoid themselves; they don’t feel that they are good enough and rather than work on themselves to become good enough, they try (intentionally or unintentionally) to bring others down to what they perceive to be their level. And those that take responsibility for others instead try to distract themselves from themselves by trying to help build up others, hoping (again, intentionally or otherwise) to make themselves better indirectly. “If I can make this other person better, then maybe I’ll get better too.” Kind of a self-help-by-proxy.
But what the big problem with both approaches is that they just don’t work. The first approach is like having a battered old car and instead of restoring it you just go around with a hammer battering everyone else’s car. The second is helping to restore someone else’s car with parts from your own then wondering why (a) your Ford components don’t fix their Vauxhall car and (b) your own car is now even more battered and dysfunctional.
For myself, I have spent far too long either taking on responsibility that wasn’t my own or trying to dodge my own responsibility. On a personal level, this hampered my efforts as a parent. Far too often I was left feeling guilty when any of the kids acted out (having a temper tantrum in public, playing too loudly and waking up others that were still sleeping, and other childish or child-like behaviours), especially for repeat offences. I was wrongly claiming responsibility for their actions, when in actual fact I had met my responsibilities. I had made them aware that misbehaving was wrong, but then punished everyone when it happened- they got told off, and then I spent the next however-long blaming myself. And it wasn’t just in my personal life. Professionally I have always avoided positions of responsibility, so that I wouldn’t have to take the blame for someone else’s mistakes or lack of ability.
The turning point for me came last year. After a lifetime of self-sabotage and misplaced responsibility, I finally realised where I was going wrong. I opened myself up to the fact that the only person I can actually take responsibility for is myself. I don’t control the thoughts or actions of anyone else. If someone else makes a mistake, it isn’t my mistake and I’m not to blame. If I explain something well but the other person chooses not to listen and then makes a mistake, they are responsible for their mistake, not me. If something happens totally beyond my control, it isn’t my fault. Since realising and accepting this, my stress levels have dropped dramatically. When my daughter has a temper tantrum on the school run, I no longer have to fight to keep my temper in check, because I am able to accept that it is not my fault that she is choosing to be silly. When I am playing a TCG and I lose a game due to a misplay, I accept that I made a mistake, take it as a learning experience, and resolve to play better next time instead of railing against either luck or bad cards.
The feeling once you accept responsibility for the things that you have control over and release responsibility for those that you don’t control is an amazing one and can make all of the difference between a happy and fulfilling life and a miserable existence. I think that Reinhold Niebuhr said this best in his Serenity Prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
Good luck to you all, and happy responsible-ing!