We hear a lot in our culture about “taking responsibility.”
There seem to be a LOT of people who feel that the main problem MOST people have is that they take insufficient responsibility for their lives.
We very frequently see self-help gurus enthusiastically encourage us to TAKE FULL RESPONSIBILITY for EVERYTHING IN OUR LIVES!
Those who strongly believe in the Law of Attraction— the belief that we “attract” circumstances into our lives that correspond with our current “vibration”— like to assert that “there are no accidents:” that everything that is in our lives, we “asked” for, based on the vibration of the thoughts we “choose.”
And Lord knows we don’t want to be one of those people who refuse to “take responsibility” for their lives by blaming and complaining.
We get beaten over the head with this message daily. Inspirational quotes about how we have to “take our power back” and “go all in” reinforce the message: if your life isn’t working, it’s likely because you haven’t “taken enough responsibility” for changing the situation.
I’ll never deny that personal responsibility is important.
“Responsibility,” by definition, means “able to respond”— “response” “ability.”
I’m a therapist specifically BECAUSE I think there are things we can do to change our lives. We’re not helpless or hopeless. There ARE things we can do to feel happier and behave more effectively.
But: we have to be realistic about the limits of “responsibility.”
There are things that happen TO us that limit our ability to respond— our ability to BE response-able.
It is my experience that many people who struggle with anxiety or depression don’t struggle with taking personal responsibility for their lives— in fact, quite the opposite: they take responsibility for EVERYTHING that happens.
If a thing has gone wrong anywhere in the world, they’ll find a way it was their fault.
If a person doesn’t like them or approve of them, they’ll ABSOLUTELY consider it their fault.
If life hasn’t worked out the way it was “supposed” to, they’ll assume it was their fault.
It’s my experience that most people who are struggling tend to OVERestimate how “responsible” they are, or should be, for the things that happen out there in the world…which then puts them in the position of feeling guilty about things over which they have no realistic control.
We need to be realistic about what we are and are not responsible for— otherwise we will find ourselves overwhelmed by depression, anxiety, and frustration.
Cognitive therapists describe thought distortions that they call “personalization” and “mind reading,” in which people both assume negative events are about them and they assume other people are thinking negatively about them.
We can’t POSSIBLY take responsibility for EVERY negative event that happens in our lives, and we can’t possibly know what other people are thinking.
Being realistic and adult in how we take responsibility for our lives DOESN’T mean we “take responsibly” for EVERYTHING.
Why? Because you don’t run the universe. You are not all powerful. You don’t control everything that happens to you, you don’t chose every result, there are certain variables that are out of your control.
That’s not “blaming” or “complaining.” That’s acknowledging reality.
There’s an extent to which the “take total responsibly” crowd seems to be fantasizing. They really, REALLY want it to be the case that you CAN “take responsibility for everything” in your life, because it absolutely TERRIFIES them that they might NOT be totally in charge of their fate.
I’ll tell you right now: you’re NOT totally in charge of your fate. No one is.
And that’s okay.
We don’t need to be.
Instead of taking “total” responsibility for what happens in our lives, I say take REALISTIC responsibility.
Be real about the fact that you might not control the temperature outside, but you can control whether you wear a scarf.
You can’t control whether you had trauma happen to you, but you can control whether you’re working on it and using your skills day to day.
You can’t control the economy, but you can make a personal budget.
There’s a reason why the 12 step traditions emphasize the Serenity Prayer: because, in addition to the courage to change the things we can change, we very much need the serenity to accept what we can’t change…and the wisdom to know the difference.
The self-help gurus haven’t figured that distinction out yet.
Subscribe to the Doc’s free email newsletter!