Thursday, April 30, 2009

Personal Responsibility (and You)

I have been thinking lately about the idea of personal responsibility. It seems that so many of the problems in living we encounter come back to errors in this area. Usually there are two extremes; ignoring personal responsibility or overdoing it. As an example of the first extreme: imagine a fight between a wife and husband. What prolongs the argument and makes it a several hour (or several day) event? One or both won't take personal responsibility for their actions. They can't just admit "OK, I have big problems with you, but I too messed up and I have no excuse for it. I'm sorry for doing/saying ______." The longer it takes for both people to get to that point the longer the fight takes.

If a couple gets into a half-decent fight it is almost inevitable that by the end both will have done something wrong. Either the fight is because of something one said/did/interpreted and which precipitated the fight or one will have reacted badly in some way during the argument. Since we can't control the other person, we are left with only the ability to influence them. When we let go of trying to make other person see it our way and concentrate on what we can do by taking responsibility for our actions, it's possible to move towards resolution. So many couples get caught in the trap of sitting back and waiting for the other person to take personal responsibility first. Our biased sense of justice propels us to ignore that little voice in the back of our heads "Psst . . . we did something wrong too." If you are part of a couple who fights alot, there's a good chance both of you have a problem with taking personal responsibility for your actions. If only one of you changes and starts to take responsiblity for their actions, you will probably cut down the number and length of your fights by 40%. If both of you do this, you will cut down the time and number of your fights by 80 or 90%. That's the power of taking personal responsibility for your actions.

The other extreme is the person who takes on too much personal responsiblity. This is like the parent who blames themself repeatedly because they "let" their child be abused by a family member. Did they really "let" them? No. But they blame themselves. They should have done something to stop it. They should have seen that the family member had issues. "But I was responsible to protect him," the guilt ridden parent laments several years later. By refusing to allow some responsibility to fall onto others, they overburden themselves with unrealistic guilt that does nothing to erase the past or help them (or those they love) move on. Pastors can also have issues with overresponsibility, feeling and believing they are personally responsible for the spiritual growth of their congregation. Many burn out as they face the impossible task of keeping over a hundred people on the straight and narrow. We need to stop labeling such devotion as admirable and start calling it what it is; an error in thinking.

Personally I have to be careful of myself leaning towards both extremes, especially in my marriage (underresponsiblity for my actions towards my wife) and as a counselor (overresponsiblity for the health and recovery of my clients). It's not always easy and I have erred many times but I think I'm making progress. Two books that have helped me a lot with this are ones I've mentioned before, Boundaries and Choice Theory. May we all find that balance and help others to do so as well. Having a healthy understanding of where our personal responsibility starts and where it ends might be one of the most helpful gifts we can ever find.

May Light increase!

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