Response-ability: How we make ourselves victims without realizing it

One of the trends I dislike in our culture is the reluctance of people to take responsibility, or to respond with care to each other.

I hear a lot of self-justification, mind-reading, defensiveness, blaming and complaining; which is why relationships, friendships, business connections and day-to-day living are not going well for that client.

Their lives are not about trying to understand their own role in the problem, so they can deal with it effectively, but to push the responsibility off onto someone else, and avoid it. 

The problem with this kind of thinking is that each of us gets the results of what we do or don’t do, whether we try to blame someone else, ignore the problem or run away from it. No matter what, sooner or later, the problem lands right back in our laps, usually made worse by the avoidance. Often, in an attempt to avoid responsibility, we try to control someone else and make the problem theirs. 

Who’s in control; and whose problem is it?

Most of us feel more comfortable being in control of the situations we’re in, so much so, that we often pretend we’re in control when we’re really not, or try to control situations that we cannot reasonably handle. 

Remember, you are never in control of another person, even if it seems that you are, and that they wish you to be. You can’t control who you’ll meet, when or where you’ll meet them, how anyone else will feel, or what they’ll do.

Self-control is the only real control you have. However, it is all the control you’ll need. By taking responsibility for your own actions, words, and reactions, you can greatly stack the odds in your own favor. I think of responsibility as response-ability: the ability to respond to life, people and events. While you may not be responsible for most of what happens, you are completely responsible for your reaction to what is happening. For example, if you are out with a new person and that person acts in some rude, uncaring or unacceptable manner, You have the ability to respond in many ways. 

But if we don’t like something, the knee-jerk reflex in our society is to blame something or someone else. “My life is ruined because my parents weren’t attentive.” “I’m not doing well at work because my boss is a jerk.” Rather than taking responsibility, we position ourselves as victims, the effects of someone or something else. In so doing, we’ve set ourselves up as powerless.

Whenever you’re in a difficult situation, you can react irresponsibly, getting defensive, accusatory, angry or running away. Many people do this without thinking, and it makes the situation worse. The response-able person will consider his or her options. Think about what your responsibility is in this situation, and take charge of your words and actions. 

“Although you may not always be able to avoid difficult situations, you can modify the extent to which you can suffer by how you choose to respond to the situation.”

― Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness

The rewards of not taking responsibility

We live in a society that actually rewards not being responsible in some contexts more than being responsible. When you are rewarded for being irresponsible, you perpetuate it. “Who do we blame?” “How can we get some money from them?” And, “How do I make sure I maintain that state of being not-responsible?” “Because if I become responsible for my life, I will lose all the benefits of being at effect.”  A life lived in fulfillment and joy is a life lived by being at cause.

For example, someone may stay in an abusive relationship feeling victimized because she/he gets sympathy from friends because of it, or maybe even an invitation to be on Dr. Phil! This is what’s called secondary gain. Psychology talks about secondary gain a lot these days because people receive benefit from having a problem that outweighs getting rid of the problem. So they’re better off keeping their problems, and it’s easier to keep your problems if you don’t claim any responsibility for them. Again, a life lived in fulfillment and joy is a life lived by being at cause.

The benefits of response-ability

Like it or not, you are responsible for everything you say and do, and you are in charge of yourself and your life. Realize that you are the creator of your experiences.  And if you want a different result, you are the one who can – and must – cause it to be different.

Often, people react to the idea of responsibility as they would to the words “fault” or “blame;” as though saying “you’re responsible for your life” means “you should feel guilty about your life.” This sense of responsibility is childlike. It reacts and responds as though an angry parent were standing over you saying “Who’s responsible for this mess?”

Adult responsibility is something else altogether. It is really response-ability; that is, the ability to respond to life. Rather than placing blame, this way of thinking acknowledges personal power. Response-ability is the capacity to choose. Out of many possible responses, I can always choose the one I make. Response-ability is remembering to be in charge and make careful, thought-out choices.

What seems hard at first for most of my clients is understanding the need to take this kind of responsibility. The expression “taking responsibility” is ironically misleading, because actually we have no choice. We are always responding to situations, even if our response is to do nothing. It does little good to worry about what other people are choosing, because you really haven’t any say about it. Your responsibility is to take care of yourself; no one else can do that for you. 

Steps you can take to become more at cause

  1. For a moment, feel the difference between accepting responsibility for something versus feeling that you are “to blame” for something. Which feeling makes you feel more energized to take action?
  2. Think about situations where you felt you were the victim. Can you imagine how you might have been the cause of those situations? Is it possible those situations were there to teach you something? If so, what might that be?
  3. Think about situations where you feel that you have no control. Maybe it’s the economy, the behavior of your boss, the weather. Where is your power in that situation?

When you respond with the best of your ability, and accept and handle whatever consequences you have helped to create, you not only benefit from your choices, but your life and relationships will improve immensely.