It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.
St. Francis of Assisi
People in counseling often begin with the mindset that the counselor is the expert and will fix them with minimal effort on their part. The reality is that the counselor or coach is merely a catalyst of change. The client has to do the heavy lifting. If you aren’t willing to do the work, the probability of meaningful and lasting change is remote. You can never be truly happy by evading or abdicating responsibility for your life.
Some people misunderstand responsibility to be blame. They blame circumstances (It’s my genes/upbringing/astrological chart!) or others (The Devil made me do it! My parents/spouse/boss are responsible!) or they blame themselves (It’s my fault. I’ll emotionally flagellate myself.) This concept of “responsibility” doesn’t admit any real possibility to change. True responsibility says we can change because we have the power to understand the consequences of different actions and power of choice over what actions to take. By consistently accepting that we do choose and accepting the consequences of our choices, we can increase our understanding and ability to decide.
Nathaniel Branden in his book Honoring The Self examines the value of taking responsibility for one’s actions in the moment of performing the action. He gives the following examples:
- Right now I am choosing not to do the work I promised my boss I would do, and I plan to alibi later – and I take responsibility for that.
- Right now I am choosing not to answer, honestly and directly, my wife’s question – and I take responsibility for that.
- Right now I am choosing not to deal with the look of pain in my child’s eyes- and I take responsibility for that.
- Right now I am choosing to steal this money from my guest’s handbag- and I take responsibility for that.
- Right now I am choosing to stay home and feel sorry for myself rather than go out and look for a job- and I take responsibility for that.
- Right now I am choosing to procrastinate rather than confront an issue with my friend/spouse/employee/employer/colleague that I know needs to be confronted -and I take responsibility for that.
- Right now I am choosing to pretend that I am indifferent when the truth is I am hurting- and I take responsibility for that.
- Right now I am choosing to act tough when the truth is I want to reach out for help- and I take responsibility for that.
This is powerful self-talk. It would be extremely difficult to have this type of dialogue with one’s self and not see the potential damage that one’s self-esteem would suffer by not taking personal responsibility. This type of self-talk forces us to see the negative consequences when we aren’t willing to take responsibility. When we aren’t willing to reflect on our actions and behavior while they are happening, it’s a form of denial or avoidance. When we habitualize avoidance of truth, it becomes a denial of life and a denial of the power of choice. That’s the worst form of being stuck. You and you alone have to take responsibility. A victim’s mentality believes you should rely on others more than yourself. It creates an unhealthy state of dependency. You must make your own decisions and live your own life. Assume nobody is going to come to the rescue. Your therapist will listen; he is paid to. Your doctor will write you a prescription; he is highly paid to. Your wife and your friends will listen and cluck their tongues in sympathy. But the unvarnished reality is that they have their own problems and agendas and their problems are always going to have priority over your problems. I honestly believe that writers of self help books and therapists do it as much for themselves as they do it for clients and others. We all need to be heard; we all crave recognition.
When I thought I had prostrate cancer, my wife and friends were sympathetic. However, nobody really cared like I did. Why? Because it was my problem and not theirs. How did I know it’s my problem? Because I am the one who will have to suffer the consequences. The doctor will see me dispassionately and determines the course of treatment based on probabilities and treat me accordingly. It’s really not his problem.
Once I took ownership of the problem, I began to be proactive and examined my options and selected the best option available to me rather than saying “Well, the doctors in my health care system know best,” or “What do I know? They are the experts.” I know that I am truly responsible for my health and I must have the courage to question, examine and select the best options for me. We must take responsibility for all aspects of our lives.