35. Personal Responsibility
The willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self-respect springs.
Joan Didion (American journalist and writer)
This area will start by clarifying the difference between two types of responsibility: imposed and personal. We will then consider why personal responsibility matters, and common strategies that are used to avoid it, as well as how we can counter them.
The term responsibility is sometimes coercively used to reinforce complying with rules or order imposed from above. Parents, teachers and even managers resort to it. For our purpose though, it is particularly interesting that imposed responsibility doesn’t need to come from outside. We often internalise an authoritative voice (that usually operates with ‘shoulds/musts’ and ‘should nots/must nots’) and end up being divided into a part that orders, reproaches, punishes, or rewards (inner parent), and a part that obeys or sometimes rebels (inner child). This type of responsibility can be effective (in forcing you to do something, for example). However, it creates internal conflicts and needs to be constantly reinforced to make things happen. If you recognise that you too are divided into the ‘parent’ and the ‘child’, try this exercise:
Parent-child-adult: engage in dialogues with your inner parent and child. You can do it in your imagination or you can use two chairs for that purpose. Sit in one chair when you, as an adult, are talking, and in another one when either the ‘parent’ or the ‘child’ is talking. When speaking with the ‘parent’ try to find out more about it, where it is coming from, and why (if at all) you need its help; you may also, if you wish, assure that part that you can take care of yourself. When you talk to your inner child you may enquire if it still needs a parental figure and why. The overall aim is to integrate these aspects of yourself well.
Personal responsibility is different from the imposed one. It implies being accountable first of all to yourself. This should not be confused with a concern for your own interests and consequences only. Such an attitude is, in fact, often fostered by imposed responsibility as it relies on reward and punishment. Personal responsibility means recognising that your actions matter and you consider their consequences for yourself, others, as well as the world around you. As one author puts it, ‘orientating oneself by one’s conscience always requires the ability to situate one’s perspective within the wider framework of universal guidelines.’(1) It may require some effort and time to develop, but it is more reliable, lasting and congruent than imposed responsibility.
Why personal responsibility is important
- Accepting responsibility for your choices and actions is a part of personal development and becoming fully an adult.
- You are not really in charge of your own life if you don’t take responsibility for it. So, abdicating responsibility undermines your agency, which also has a negative effect on self-respect.
- You cannot be truly free without it either. While imposed responsibility may be restrictive, personal responsibility and freedom complement each other as the latter implies that you are free to choose and have some control over your actions.
- Irresponsibility is unsociable. Just consider how you feel when somebody else doesn’t take responsibility for their actions.
- Life often involves taking responsibility not just for ourselves but for something else (e.g. children, the elderly, house-plants, pets, work projects, the house, the environment, etc.). With imposed responsibility all these are reduced to a duty and a chore. This is not the case with personal responsibility, as it is intimately related to our personal choices and therefore it is better integrated with our personality.
Even so, taking responsibility is not always easy and can feel like a burden, so we tend to resort to various strategies to avoid it.
Strategies to avoid personal responsibility
Why do we use these strategies at all? Why do we want to deceive not only others but ourselves too? Well, personal responsibility is so fundamental (we cannot be fully human without it) that nobody wants to be perceived that he is relinquishing it. So we invent various ways of doing so without having to admit it (to others or to ourselves). These are the most usual ones:
- Victim playing means blaming others or circumstances (e.g. society, one’s genes, parents, school, etc.) in order to avoid taking personal responsibility. It is true that our circumstances may be unfavourable or unfair, but we are rarely completely passive in this respect. Even if we are or were real victims (of a war, for example) it is up to us to try to rise above the situation (there are many who have tried and succeeded in doing so).
- Justifications for our past actions are sometimes sensible, but they can also be just excuses (e.g. ‘she really wanted…’, ‘they deserved it’, ‘if we didn’t do it, somebody else would’).
- Rationalisations are false but plausible explanations for one’s intentions. They must include some level of self-deception to be effective. These are some typical examples: ‘if we don’t attack them, they will attack us’; ‘everybody does it’; ‘the assignment is unreasonable, so it is O.K. to cheat’).
- Childishness implies avoiding personal responsibility by not taking oneself and one’s actions seriously. A common example is having a giggle after saying or doing something that one knows is not right (or funny) in order to get away with it. This strategy can be learnt in childhood when one was not taken very seriously anyway. However, unlike being child-like (e.g. playing), childishness lacks spontaneity; it is a role adopted to avoid anxiety, embarrassment or guilt when we let ourselves indulge in irresponsible or thoughtless actions.
The first step in dealing with these is to recognise when they are just excuses and accept that you are responsible for your choices and actions. The following may help with this.
Strengthening personal responsibility
The following points can counter each of the above strategies:
- Take responsibility for your life: asking yourself the following questions can be an impetus to do so: ‘can I make something of my life? On whom or what does it depend?’
- Take responsibility for your past actions: to do so you need to be clear what was your responsibility, what was not, and what was shared responsibility in a given situation. Bear in mind that being honest with yourself and objective, rather than making excuses, leads to accepting (or doing something about) your limitations and making peace with yourself.
- Take responsibility for your future actions: to make sure that your rationale is not just a rationalisation, you need to check both, whether your starting premise is sound (to use one of the above examples, ask yourself ‘is it really true that the assignment is unreasonable?’) as well as the conclusion (‘even if it is unreasonable, is this a good reason to cheat?’).
- Take your life seriously: after all, you have only one life – if you don’t want to waste it, you’d better take it seriously. Furthermore, if you don’t take yourself seriously, others are unlikely to take you seriously either. To do so, you do not need to abandon fun, a sense of humour, or being child-like when it feels right. You only need to take into account that you and your actions really matter.
Taking responsibility is really important, but with can go too with it. You cannot be responsible for everything, in many cases there are limits to what we can do, and sometimes responsibility is shared. Besides, we also have our own limits and sometimes there are unintended and unforeseeable consequences of our actions. A great novelist, Kafka, remarked that by imposing too great a responsibility, or rather, all responsibility, on yourself, you crush yourself. This is one way of saying that it is actually irresponsible to be excessive in this respect. So make sure that you take your fair share of responsibility for what is going on, but not more.
(1) Deurzen-Smith, E. van (1988) ‘The Public World’ in Existential Counselling in Practice. London: Sage, p.57.