Personal Responsibility

Why do people tend to avoid responsibility? 

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."
This kind of language skews awareness of personal responsibility.

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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  1. OK, a long comment ahead.You've been warned ;-)

    Imagine the situation: you have a job as, say, call center consultant. It was the only one you got although you'd sent hundreds of CVs. Unfortunately, your education or previous experience is worthless for employers and you have no resources to add another field of study to your resumee. You have to sell, let's say, digotal TV abonaments. You know they're useless and the offer is actually crap but you're ordered to be pushy and occasionally, you have to hide some information from the clients in order to sell. If you don't sell enough - you lose your job and your income. There is still no reply from other companies you sent your CV to... What is more responsible in this situation - keeping the horrible job which requires you to lie to the clients (otherwise, you don't sell and as a consequence you get fired) or quitting it without any real prospect of getting a better one? Sending CV and seeking new opportunities is a given here - you just do it, it's absolutely obvious, but to no avail. This leads me to my questions: is the current state of the job market your responsibility? Is it your fault that you e.g. have no talent in the fields of education that employers require the most or was born in a family with no means for providing for you better education (applicable in countries when you have to pay for your education)?

    I'm not talking about extremes here. Such stuff happens everyday. I was in that vicious circle of bad menial jobs for years... And I lost several because I wasn't good enough at lying to the clients. And the only replies I got was from other call centres... Fortunately, it's over now (my friend told me a company he worked for - and still does - looked for someone who could do what I can do, he recommended me for the job, I applied and got it but without him I'd probably be homeless by now) - but fior some people such vicious circle can last for their entire lives.

    Some things are simply beyond our capabilities. If you're born deaf you probably won't become a musician. If you're born to a poor family you probably won't become well-off (it does happen but it's very rare). If you're born in an oppressive country with tightly guarded boarders you'll have to do what the regime tells you to in order to keep your freedom or even your life... And when you enter the job market during a crisis getting a good job will be a tough thing. So if you fail you shouldn't keep blaming yourself for that - if I blamed myself for all my failures, I'd have killed myself a long time ago because a person with such a long list of failures must be worthless. Actually, I'm against blaming at all (of course it doesn't apply to crimes, violence etc.). Sometimes it's just life. I personally think it's healthier to accept that we won't always win and don't kick oneself for that. We are only human. We can't always be perfect. And we shouldn't blame and punish ourselves for that - otherwise the suicide rates will skyrocket.

  2. Hi,

    I've talked a little bit more on this in my comment here.

  3. Yes, I've read it and it clarifies a lot, thank you!


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