What does it mean to take personal responsibility? Most of us, when we hear this word, think of obligation, punishment, or blame. We may remember times when this word has been used as a weapon against us, rather than an invitation to take ownership of our own self and the creation of our life. We may believe that to take responsibility means that we will be harmed, shamed, or rejected.
“The act of taking responsibility is a matter of facing the consequences of our actions.– Isa gucciardi, ph.d., “coming to Peace”
Taking responsibility means that we accept with full awareness that everything we do and say has an impact, and that we are willing and capable of facing that impact whatever it may be. It’s a lot like signing a consent form for life, stating “I agree to be a human being in this world with full awareness that I have no control over the outcome of my actions, but that I have full control over the choice to take said actions. I agree to continuously work to clarify my intentions so that my actions may best serve myself and this world, and to face the natural consequences of my actions to the best of my current ability, at all times.”
This can feel quite scary because, well, most of us don’t want to truly face the natural consequences of our actions. On a relational level, if we’ve done something that has caused harm to another we may fear losing that person or losing their respect and care. We may be afraid of truly facing our capacity to cause harm and reckoning with its impact not only on us, but on our different relationships through time. We may even prefer to lose relationships rather than face our mistakes, our capacity to cause harm, and our hidden places of wounding.
On an internal level, we may avoid taking responsibility for our own selves and lives. We may allow others to make decisions for us, telling us where to go, how to dress, who to date, and what to do with our lives. We may wish for the comfort of knowing that someone else is taking responsibility for us and making sure we are ok. Some of us may want to please everyone, so we avoid making decisions in order to never have to be the “bad guy”. We may find a sense of solace in believing that everything is already predestined in the world, and therefore there is no need to take responsibility — it is already decided for us. Or we may simply not have the trust in our own selves, and want to have someone or something else to blame when things fall apart.
When we do not take responsibility, we give up the opportunity to develop a deep and profound trust in our own self to navigate the path of our life.
For those of us who have experienced neglect, abuse, and oppression, we may have also been taught what is called “learned helplessness”. Learned helplessness is when we have discovered that nothing we do will stop whatever trauma is happening to us, and in fact may make it worse. This teaches us that not only do we not have ownership over our own self and life, but that to try and take responsibility for them may lead to more traumatic outcomes. We learn that we cannot escape the pain of the situation, and that we have no power to change it. At this point we may completely numb out and collapse, just waiting for the situation to be over. This is a biologically programmed way of trying to surviving a situation that is threatening to our very life and sanity.
However, this pattern often continues on with us even when we’ve grown up, have escaped the abusive situation, or have found others who show us what it’s like to exist outside of being abused or oppressed. The very act of experiencing the repeated loss of our power, creates an internal void so large that we may not even recognize the possibility of having a self that has the power to create our own life. Instead of being able to move into a new pattern of power and ownership of our self, we return to the pattern that our bodies know so well. This is a symptom of the trauma we have experienced, and shows us that more healing and support is needed. It takes repeated acts of tremendous strength and courage to overcome learned helplessness when it is safe enough and possible to so, and to begin to take back ownership of our life.
As someone who has experienced the trap of learned helplessness, I vividly remember the times I began to recognize that something else was possible. One of these moments for me was when I was in college. On this day, we were to hand in an assignment for a class on the art of silence. We’d been instructed to go to a Quaker meeting and simply observe what arose within us during the time of silence. Deep down, I knew this was something I could not do. Sitting in silence meant that I would have to face the huge void within me that I had neither the skills, support, or capacity to begin to face at that time.
Everyone handed in their assignments but me, and my professor asked me what was going on. Acting from this place of powerlessness, I mumbled a lie. I believed that I would be publicly shamed for not doing the assignment and that nothing I could do or say would change the situation, so I’d just say something to appease her and wait it out. Unexpectedly she offered me more time to complete the assignment. I panicked. This was not the pattern I was familiar with. This was someone giving me a true choice. I began to feel trapped — I was in an internal double bind now. If I admitted I could not do the assignment, I would have to tell her why and I didn’t even understand why myself, nor was I ready to understand. But if I did the assignment, I would have to deny my own internal knowing that I was not ready for this, and victimize my self by forcing past my own boundaries. There was no way out.
In the silence she said, “I’ve offered you another two weeks to do the assignment. It’s up to you. What would you like to choose?” In that moment, it felt as if the whole world dropped away. I realized — no one here was going to punish me for saying no to this assignment. I would not be harmed, or shamed, or rejected. No one was going to tell me what to do. It was entirely up to me. I saw that the natural consequence was to fail the assignment, and that my professor may have feelings about my choice. But those outcomes made sense to me, and I could easily live with them. In fact, they felt freeing compared to the traps I was used to. I recognized that I had the skills and capacity to make the choice that was right for me, and to truly face the consequences.
On that day, the right choice for me was to say no. I actually started laughing and joyfully announced that no, I wasn’t going to do the assignment, and that this was MY choice. I realized this was a whole new world, one in which I had the power to protect myself and my boundaries, say no, and face the natural consequences, regardless of what others expected and thought. This was a world in which I had the power to navigate my own life.
Not taking responsibility for our selves and our lives is about giving away our power. There will be people, situations, organizations, and so on that are more than willing to come in and relieve us of that power. We may believe that this will save us from having to face our unhealed places, the natural consequences and outcomes to our actions, and the ways we cause harm to ourselves and others. It won’t.
Learning to truly know and heal ourselves with love and compassion, to choose each moment to act with awareness of our intentions, and the commitment to face the consequences of our actions to the full capacity we are capable of — that is what will save us.
This week, I invite you to consider where you avoid taking responsibility and where you give away your power to others. Without judgement. Without blame. Without punishment or rejection. But with full permission to be messy and human, as we all are, and to still take full responsibility for your life.
I leave you with one of my favorite poems from Mary Oliver. May her words inspire you, and support you on your way.
by Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life that you could save.