When you think of someone who is “responsible”, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Often someone who is responsible is seen as someone who is stable, and has their stuff together. They have a decent job (that they have been able to hold), they have a plan, and they are dependable.
Sometimes being responsible is seen as the opposite of being a dreamer. Dreamers live for the moment, while responsible people live a few steps ahead, and are less likely to throw caution to the wind.
But is responsibility really just about stability, structure and planning? Can’t a dreamer also be responsible?
I recently came across an approach to looking at responsibility that makes a lot of sense to me. In it, responsibility is defined as a mental process, whereby you own your ability and power to create, choose, and attract.
The idea behind the responsibility process is that there are different stages of behaviors that can culminate in responsibility.
This process starts with Denial, and then moves to Blame, Justification, Shame, Obligation, and finally Responsibility. Each of these stages represents a mode of thinking, and I’m sure every single one of us has operated from each of these modes at one point in time or another (I know I have).
Life is easy when things are going well, and these behaviors usually arise in response to some form of problem or stresses.
The first three, denial, blame and justification are easy to explain. In these, rather than taking any sort of ownership we are deflecting the issue away from us. In denial there is no problem. In blame the problem is seen, but it’s not “my” problem, it’s someone else’s. And in justification I only partially accept that it’s my problem. I am saying that yes, it’s my problem – but there are a number of reasons as to “why” it happened (and these reasons somehow absolve me of any blame).
Shame and obligation are where I think things get really interesting. According to the responsibility process, acting from a state of shame or obligation is almost worse than the previous three. This is because in the first three you are deflecting an issue away from yourself, while for these two you are taking partial ownership. With shame or obligation, you feel as though you are being compelled to do something by some external force. When this happens you are liable to build up resentment that you “have to” do something. Doing something from a state of shame or obligation is fine occasionally, but if it is a common state for you then are liable to give up or quit.
The responsibility process is explained as follows:
When something goes wrong large or small (for example, lost keys or a lost retirement account), The Responsibility Process kicks in. The mind offers Lay Blame as a reason. If you accept blame as a sufficient reason, then you will act on that blame. If you don’t accept it, then your mind offers you an excuse (Justify). And so on. Thus taking personal responsibility is a step-wise process of refusing to act on a series of irresponsible thoughts that your mind offers up.
The Responsibility Mindset
It’s easy to be responsible when things are going well, but this responsibility process is something that largely happens in times of stress, or when things have gone wrong. So how does one shift from operating from a state of shame or obligation to a state of responsibility? Basically it’s all about mindset.
In all aspects of life there are things we “have to do” even though we may not want to, and the attitude you bring into these things is very important. It’s very easy to approach these “have to” moments from a state of obligation, but as noted above doing so runs the risk of building up resentment.
The change in your mindset from obligation to responsibility is subtle, but it’s very important. In both cases you “have to do something”. But in obligation you have to do it because you are being forced to, or because you are trying to meet some sort of external expectations. With a mindset of responsibility these expectations have been internalized. It’s no longer because someone else expects you to do something, it’s because YOU expect yourself to do it. And you expect yourself to do it because you see it as required or believe it is the right thing to do at the time.
The early states of the responsibility process (denial, blame, justification, shame and obligation) are reactionary, almost primal responses. They are also very “me” focused; only seeing a situation in terms of how it affects you personally. Operating from responsibility is different in that it is a conscious decision. Operating from this state requires three things:
- Intention – Intending to respond from Responsibility when things go wrong.
- Awareness – Catching yourself in the mental states of Denial, Lay Blame, Justify, Shame, Obligation, and Quit.
- Confront – Facing yourself to see what is true that you can learn, correct, or improve
Being responsible is a conscious process. You “choose” to act and respond in a certain way. You may later find out that the decision you made wasn’t a good one, but owning that decision is an act of responsibility.
The “Have To’s”
To illustrate the responsibility process, let’s walk through it with a simple example. Imagine you are a parent, and your child has filled their diaper:
Denial. You can always pretend that the diaper hasn’t been filled (and hope that someone else notices and changes your child for you). But the other person may do that too, and eventually the wonderful aroma will become too much to bear. More importantly, your child will be uncomfortable and crying will probably start (it could be yours or thiers).
Blame and Justification. You can blame your child for filling their diaper, but that won’t change anything. And you may try justifying things (I shouldn’t have to change him/her, I did it last time!!!), but what does that really accomplish? The child will still be uncomfortable, and still need to be changed.
Shame and Obligation. Here you decide that yes, you will change the diaper. But you don’t “want” to do it. You’re only doing it because you have to. Are you going to get resentful with your child? Some parents actually do, and over time this can lead to things like child abuse. But those cases are fairly extreme, and hopefully rare.
Responsibility. This is the natural course of action for your mind to take. You still probably don’t “want” to change the diaper. But you recognize that the diaper has been filled, the child is uncomfortable and incapable of changing themselves. Plus you care about your child and recognize that the diaper simply needs to be changed, so you do it.
In this scenario I suspect that most of us would automatically operate from a position of responsibility. In times of high stress we may slip back into some of the other stages temporarily, but we change the diaper anyhow because it is the right thing to do. It’s an easy choice.
Many of life’s “have to’s” fall into this category. Going to work every day? You don’t always want to and you may have days you are resentful. You may even have a few “sick” days that are actually mental health days. But going to work is something that we have to do.
The examples above are easy ones. But now consider something like your relationship.
What if your partner loves ballet while you don’t, and they periodically ask you to go with them? In a prior post I mentioned that it’s positive for your relationship if you can show some interest in their interests, as it’s a way for you to show interest and caring for them.
You may prefer that they find a friend with some interest in the ballet to go with, but there may be times that you “have to” go with them. What attitude do you bring into those times? If you attend the ballet out of a sense of obligation, you may go in expecting to hate it, and see it as wasted time where you could be doing something else that you enjoy more.
Perhaps a better (and more responsible) approach is to see it as an opportunity to share something with your partner that is special to them. In both cases you “had to” do something. But in one case you owned the decision to attend.
No one is always responsible. When faced with challenges and stresses the default is for us to respond with the lower level states – denial, blame, justification, shame and obligation. That’s normal, and common. And honestly, sometimes it’s a lot easier to stay in those states. But it’s also not healthy.
If you find that you are frequently angry or resentful, then think of this process. Think of something you are upset about, and ask yourself where you fall on this scale. Are you blaming? Justifying behavior that at least a part of you knows is wrong? Are you doing things due to shame or obligation? All of these things can lead to resentment, and anger. Which of course leads to hate, which leads to the dark side of the force (ummm, wrong movie)…
In seriousness though, resentment and anger are some of the most toxic emotions you can have. So being able to switch from a mindset of obligation to one of responsibility is very important to both your own health, and the health of your relationships.
I’m not suggesting that anyone should always have to do something. If you find that you are constantly doing things because you feel obligated to, ask yourself if you really “have to” do it. Can you simply say no? Don’t be afraid to set boundaries and say no sometimes. But if you truly “have to” do something then there’s a reason for it. Try approaching it from a framework of responsibility, and you will probably be happier and healthier for it in the long run.