Personal ResponsibilityThursday, May 09, 2013
Often people are are afraid of making mistakes, feeling guilty, and taking responsibility for their actions.
It is understandable, because as children we are often punished, blamed, shamed, neglected, ridiculed, or controlled in various other ways for doing something wrong. It happens in family, in school, in church, in peer groups, and in various activities. And a child is completely dependent on his/her caregivers, so when (s)he's abused, neglected, or abandoned his/her life is in real danger and (s)he has no choice but to comply.
So, when we grow up we don't have a lot of practice of being free and responsible for ourselves. We are afraid of making mistakes, we avoid trying new things (because we're not good at them), we attack ourselves a lot, because all of this in our mind closely correlates with something unpleasant, i.e. a potential attack or rejection from others. That was exactly the case in the past, so our system is trying to avoid that and protect us as best as it can.
And one of the methods we develop that helps us avoid other people's attacks as adults is avoiding responsibility – if it's not my fault, if I didn't do anything wrong, if I didn't make a mistake, then I won't be attacked.
However, when we grow up this technique that was essential for our survival in the past is no longer necessary because we are no longer helpless, although sometimes it may seem like we are.
What are the most common ways we try to avoid responsibility by manipulating our language?
From Marshall Rosenberg's book Nonviolent Communication:
The use of the common expression "have to" as in "There are some things you have to do, whether you like it or not" illustrates how personal responsibility for our actions is obscured in such speech. The phrase "makes one feel" as in "You make me feel guilty" is another example of how language facilitates the denial of personal responsibility for our own feelings and thoughts.
In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which documents the war crimes trial of Nazi officer Adolph Eichmann, Hannah Arendt quotes Eichmann saying that he and his fellow officers had their own name for the responsibility-denying language they used. They called it "Amtssprache," loosely translated into English as "office talk" or "bureaucratese." For example, if asked why they took a certain action, the response might be, "I had to." If asked why they "had to," the answer would be, "Superiors' orders." "Company policy." "It was the law."
We try to avoid responsibility for our actions when we assign their cause to:
- Unclear, abstract, impersonal forces. "I cleaned my room because I had to."
- Other people. "I hit my child, because he's unruly."
- Authority figure. "I lied to my client because my boss told me to do that."
- Group pressure. "I drink occasionally, because all my friends and co-workers do."
- Laws, policies, rules, and regulations. "I have to suspend you for not wearing a uniform today, because it's the school policy."
- Social roles, gender roles, or age roles. "I hate my work, but I have to do it because I'm a good husband, and that's what mature men do."
- Fatalism. "Life just happens to me / it's my fate / it's my destiny."
- Uncontrollable urges. "I couldn't resist eating that bag of candies."
Awareness, choice, and personal responsibility
As adults, we are no longer in a real danger (except for some extreme situations) like we were when we were helpless children – although sometimes it may seem that we are. So, it is wise to change our responsibility-denying language into a language that is more accurate, acknowledges choice, and helps us learn to take responsibility for our well-being, our current environment, our choices, and our mistakes.
"I lied to my client because I want to keep my current job since I'm too afraid to look for a new one."
"I hit my child when he expressed himself in ways that I don't like, because I felt so much unprocessed anxiety, anger, and helplessness that in this moment I didn't know what else to do."
"I drink in social situations because I'm afraid of rejection and loneliness, also it helps me to relax because I feel insecure and scared."
This kind of awareness might lead to curious questioning. What do I feel? Why am I so afraid when objectively the situation is not that complicated? Why am I so angry right now? Were there any similar situations in my past – what happened exactly and how did I feel then? Is there a better, more productive way how to handle this kind of issue in the future? What are the pros and cons of this? What can I do to make this situation better? What are my choices here? And so on...
If we answer honestly and emphatically, our answers to such questions can help us get more clarity, feel more in control of our lives, and change our behavior and environment.
The fact that we didn't have a lot of choices and were attacked for our mistakes in the past doesn't mean that we are helpless or in a real danger today.
Our life is important, and our actions matter. All of our actions/inactions have consequences (that can be positive, negative, or neutral).
If we are not conscious of our thoughts, emotions, and actions, we are dangerous to ourselves – and to others.
When we are consciously aware of what's going on in us and around us, we can analyze it and change it if we don't like it.
Awareness, followed by curiosity, honesty, and empathy, is the best way for feeling more responsibility and control for one's own life and well-being.
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