Personal Responsibility #4


I think that you are right when you said that we may have a crisis of personal responsibility on our hands. I’ve seen the symptoms of this manifested in a number of ways. When I think about this issue, I quickly jump to the question, “How did we end up like this?”

I don’t know if we’ve even had a culture or time in history when personal responsibility was not a challenge. The big question is why? It seems that it is part of human nature to reject responsibility and accountability as a way of protecting ourselves. Accepting responsibility for our actions and the consequences of thos actions can lead to some pretty uncomfortable, sometimes downright painful, conclusions and outcomes. It’s easier and safer psychologically to believe that it’s some one else’s fault that I failed. Or that someone else holds the key to whether or not I succeed. It’s for this reason that I think organized religion has such broad appeal. When you “give yourself over to God,” and put your life in God’s hands, it relieves you of a large degree of personal responsibility (in many religions). Whatever happens, good or bad, is God’s will; not the direct consequences of our own choices or behaviors. It’s a very comforting feeling to know that someone else is watching over you and making things happen. Now, before I start a riot, I know that not all religions are the same. My point is that human nature seems to drive us towards opportunities to avoid or transfer responsibility for our actions and that religion is just one place that I believe you can observe this.

So, this leads me to conclude that accepting personal responsibility is a set of learned skills and behaviors, that most of us don’t come by these naturally. So, what are those skills/behaviors and where should we be learning them? That seems to be the next question and it seems like a pretty complicated one.

Here are a list of some of the mindsets that I think people must learn in order to accept personal responsibility:

1. The only thing you control are the choices you make and how you respond to what happens around you. We tend to focus on changing things we can’t control (i.e. “If only my manager would stop treating me this way, I could do a better job.”). I can’t control what others do, I can only control what I do and how I think.

2. Every choice has a consequence, positive or negative. There are no neutral choices. Every thing you eat or drink has a positive or negative effect on your body. Every word you speak has either a postive or negative effect on those who it was spoken to. If we begin to understand this idea, we will think more carefully about the choices we make every day. When you own this concept, you own that what happens as a result of your choices is your doing. Hence the birth of personal responsibility.

3. It’s okay to want things, even big elaborate, crazy things. It’s critical to have goals and dreams. These things will give you a reason and a context to make choices. It also gives you a reason to care about the consequences of those choices because you’ve made the stakes higher for you personally. One of my personal goals is to attain financial independence for my family. That means that we can live well and have the things we want and not have to work for anyone else to have or maintain them. This is a loftly goal, but it definitely shapes my choices. When I make a choice professionally or financially, I deeply care about the consequences of that choice because of my goals and dreams.

Well, I’m not sure if this gets us any closer to a way to help people learn personal responsibility. What are your thoughts on how to teach or build personal accountability in people?


1 comment

  1. Interesting questions, Jason. I worked as a counselor in an alcohol/drug rehab for five years, and I learned much about human nature during that time. First, I learned that few, if any, people (the addict or the family members) understood the notion of personal responsibility. The blame game was the only game they knew, and we took to saying, "If you point a finger at someone, you point three back at yourself," to help them understand that seemingly simplistic notion of personal responsibility (the thumb usually juts upward when pointing – much like an imitation of a gun – so interpretation is open here).

    This lack of personal responsibility meant that the alcoholic/drug addict could keep on with the habit, as everyone else was to blame for his/her addiction. Taking away the substance in the abuse meant that the addict needed to deal with underlying issues that the substance masked. Once the addict understood that he/she WAS responsible for his/her choices, that understanding often became quite empowering for an individual.

    For the family, however, it was another matter. Since most family members are considered 'addicts without the substance,' often the ability to help a family member understand that the addict was not responsible for many problems around the house (contributed, perhaps, but the family member has a CHOICE of whether to stay or go), the family member usually rejected that scenario.

    Once the addict is clean and accepts responsibility for his/her life, the family dynamic changes. Family members often return for more therapy or even BEG the addict to go back to their habit, because they can't handle a house without chaos. Family members often create chaos just to have that familiarity and a way to blame something or someone since the addict no longer is to blame.

    Ask any counselor in rehab – the addict, for the most part, is easier to work with than any family member of an addict. Accepting responsibility for one's own life is not taught anywhere I know – I don't remember learning it outside this environment (I grew in that process, too!), and family members and addicts all – to the person – would state that they never learned that lesson anywhere else.

    So, back to your question – where do people learn this trait if not in rehabs? Perhaps, parents teach it to children, if those parents are psychologically healthy?

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