For the majority of my life, I believed that the value of my experiences was directly linked to the people with whom and places wherein I experienced them.
If I was angry, it was because she pissed me off.
If I had great sex, it was because he was a good lover.
If I had a good time out with my friends, it was because a unique circumstantial cocktail was created when this particular group of people came together to eat this carefully planned and crafted meal.
I spent a lot of time and energy trying to duplicate or avoid these situations, depending on whether I considered them positive or negative.
I surrounded myself with happy people so I didn’t have to feel anger, I only gave a chance to guys who nailed sex with me on the first try, and I became a master chef and dinner party host as a means to feed off of and perpetuate the vibe that miraculously occurred in convivial family-style eating amongst friends.
Rarely did it occur to me that I might have anything to do with any of this. As far as I knew, my life was playing out in a series of flukes, and the only control I had was in ensuring that my exposure to my environment was 100 percent in my control, lest I end up with a series of bad experiences that were totally out of my hands.
Anyone who has even remotely dabbled in the personal development industry has probably heard a lot about personal responsibility. It’s a concept that often gets addressed by teachers, mentors, or coaches who want to ensure full opt-in before telling students or clients a truth they may not yet be ready to hear.
I cover the topic very early on in all of my coaching relationships, oftentimes as early as the initial enrollment conversation as a means of getting buy-in to do the very thing I’ve been hired to do: shed light on my clients’ blind spots and teach them how to stay connected through the unearthing of parts of their hidden selves.
This process can involve run-ins with any number of triggers, particularly if I do my job well, and I like to know that my clients will be willing to do the work to own the parts we discover together.
What is personal responsibility?
First, I’m going to tell you what it’s not. Personal responsibility is not self-blame. Personal responsibility is not about making ourselves wrong in order to deescalate an argument; though taking personal responsibility can and often does deescalate arguments, it never involves blame. It’s not about avoiding circumstances that feel bad, nor should it be used as a reason to stay in a dysfunctional or pathological relationship. It never includes the words, “It’s my fault” or, “I did it wrong,” particularly if used to rectify an uncomfortable situation, experience, or emotion.
It’s also not about taking too much responsibility, or taking responsibility for someone else’s actions, behaviors, negative feelings, or negative belief systems.
Many of us grew up in homes where our parents instilled far too much responsibility on us as children. It was our job to make and keep our parents happy, to take care of and emotionally support our siblings, or maybe even to do explicitly adult things like contribute financially and laboriously toward providing food and shelter, or mediating and mitigating our parents’ disagreements. These sort of circumstances are not the responsibility of a child, but taking them on as children gives us a strong sense of over responsibility in adulthood, which is often referred to as rescuing in the therapeutic world.
Others among us still had the opposite experience. Our parents took full responsibility for not just our well-being and growth, ensuring our basic needs were met and that we had the tools to thrive in life, but also were responsible for our happiness, sadness, frustration, shame, indecision, and ennui, leaving us devoid of tools to take care of ourselves (especially emotionally and spiritually) as adults without help or intervention. The general expectation is then that other people can, should, and must take responsibility for us because we can’t take care of ourselves. This sets us up for a lifetime of victim mindset, forever at the mercy of our circumstances.
Personal responsibility is a recognition that every single dynamic we find ourselves in is at least partially co-created by us, and for us. It’s a proverbial clearing of our side of the street, juxtaposed with a knowledge that it is actually not our job to change or worry about anyone else, and that any attempts to do so are in fact futile. It’s an active demonstration of knowing that the only thing we actually have control of in this gorgeously unpredictable world is our own response to the unfolding of reality.
What is reality? Reality is reality, and it is inherently value neutral. We use our minds to decide whether or not our perspective of reality is positive or negative. We then will go out and find validation of our positive or negative interpretation, and that is what has us feel justified in whatever reaction we have to an event. And we use personal responsibility to hold ourselves accountable for that interpretation.
It’s been my experience that there are four evolutional stages of personal responsibility at play here.
Stage 1: “You did this to me.”
Whether conscious or not, whether verbalised verbatim or not, this sort of communication inherently assumes negative intent. We often don’t realise the extent to which we are thinking like this except for when we get triggered, and what follows is that we feel victimised by the person (or place or thing) and then follow up with some version of blame.
We make them wrong in order to feel right or justified in having our feelings about it. The more highly functional and intellectual we become, the more covert the blaming is. The way this shows up the most often is when we use phrases like “you hurt me” or “you belittled me” or “you ignored me.” The implication of this statement is that the person who did this thing to you did it consciously, and based on your interpretation of their actions, actually wants to cause you suffering.
The thing about this is that, actually, all humans are innately good. Even the ones who commit crimes and do horrible things. More often than not, those who are doing bad or seemingly vindictive things are actually suffering significantly more than the suffering we are accusing them of causing us.
At the root of all that we are, no one truly wants to cause anyone else pain.
All we all want is love and connection. If we can remember that always, we stand a good chance of not spending much time in Stage 1.
Stage 2: “You make me feel this way.”
The implication here is that the person who has either said or done something that resulted in us being hurt has the power to control us and how we feel. We tend to believe this about others in equal measure to our own belief that we have the ability to control others’ feelings and actions. In our attempt to not feel the way someone “makes us” feel, we try to control their behavior so that we feel as though our needs are being met. So long as they oblige, we continue to feel safe.
Those of us who hang out most often in this stage tend to shape-shift ourselves and compromise on our own needs in order to have connection, and so we expect the same treatment in return. We get triggered and upset when other people have boundaries here and won’t take responsibility for our feelings. When someone says to us that we made them feel hurt, we feel immense guilt and shame and will do anything to make it all right again. Broadly speaking, this is what codependence looks like.
A typical sign of intellectual but not emotional evolution of this particular phase is when we’ve gotten really good at avoiding the people who “make us” feel bad, and surrounding ourselves with people who “make us” feel good. While I would never understate the value and necessity of removing ourselves from pathological and destructive relationships, doing so without fully investigating the trigger at play, while taking full, personal responsibility for our part in creating it, also won’t serve us in our growth.
This stage can be used to explain how the massive divide in political stance in the United States has occurred, and the shock from liberals that followed Trump winning the election. We tend to avoid what hurts and that results in denial, because so long as we don’t see it happening, it can’t possibly exist, sort of like the enormous number of Republicans who truly believe in Trump’s capability as a leader and how surprised Democrats that his victory was even possible. This act (particularly denial or avoidance) is also called spiritual bypass.
Stage 3: “When you do this, I feel hurt.”
On the surface level, this sort of statement feels like a huge step up from Stages 1 and 2. After all, it’s making the conscious connection that certain circumstances or actions have an impact on us. It is often seen in the personal development realm as the way to generate intimacy in relationship, a way to get more honest with our partners, and to vulnerably share the impact others have on us.
And all of that is true.
Except that when most of us say this, what we are energetically communicating is a desire for an adjustment in behavior, action, or language so that we no longer have to feel the hurt (see Stage 2, doctored up with fancy language).
Requesting adjustments and communicating what our needs are in relationship is important. It’s one of the best ways to get to know one another and to see if the relationship is being built off of common desires or fantasy, projection, and illusion.
Vulnerability (read: not necessarily feeling weak and victimized, but rather, sharing our truths, trials, and errors, our dreams, aspirations, and desires) is probably the most important thing needed to build any successful relationship, and it’s a necessary precursor to the kind of intimacy that makes you want to keep coming back for more year after year.
And, when the implication is that they need to change in order for us to feel good, it’s explicitly not personal responsibility. Not only are we still giving our power away just like in Stages 1 and 2, but we are also not owning our part of the dynamic that has been created, nor addressing why it is that we feel so hurt in the first place. And therein lies our work.
Stage 4 (aka: “The Work”): “I feel this way because this event triggered a story I have about myself that I am/will be _______ (unworthy of love, abandoned, taken for granted, or held responsible for others’ actions).”
Notice the very obvious absence of the other person in this stage. This gives way to an integrated understanding that it’s not a person’s actions or behaviour that is causing us to feel hurt, it’s how we interpret them based on our pre-existing beliefs about ourselves.
Championing this level of consciousness and emotional expression is not only difficult, but it also requires a lot of practice (and by practice, I mean making mistakes in execution of this very model and learning from them, over and over again).
Understanding why we are making decisions and interpreting our interactions with others based on negative stories we believe about ourselves is more than half the battle, and gaining awareness of these thoughts requires, as a necessary ingredient, a high level of willingness, as well as an ability to move slowly enough that we can actually feel the feelings and hear the thoughts we’re having in the first place.
This is usually some of the biggest work we do with coaches, as this level of consciousness often requires the deliberate attention of another person in order for the stories to come up to the surface at all.
It’s important to note that there is no point at which we “master” this type of personal responsibility. If we believe ourselves to be perpetually existing in our interactions with others only in Stage 4, we are either highly deluded in our experience of reality, or we are living such controlled lives that we never experience any triggers at all, which ultimately would result in our stunted growth.
While we can and should aspire to interact with others at Stage 4, to have the expectation that it’s the only place that is “right” for us to show up positions us perfectly for a lack of personal responsibility: what we’re suggesting is that it’s possible to be wrong (see Stage 1).
Author: Antesa Jensen
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Travis May
Social Editor: Danielle Beutell