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Responsibility:  Understanding It

 by Stuart Sorensen - RMN

Many people think about their lives as something that just happens to them instead of something that they can control themselves. They drift through life reacting to the actions of others instead of taking steps on their own behalf. Such people are like rudderless boats on the ocean, completely at the mercy of the tides to take them wherever they will. People who donít know where they are going usually end up where they donít want to be.

In the case of a boat on the sea, sooner or later the shifting currents will run it aground or break it upon the rocks. Most people would agree that it would be much better if someone steered the boat past the danger and out into clear waters instead. People are just the same. If we donít take control of the direction our lives will take we leave ourselves to the mercy of others, often with disastrous consequences.

Of course most people understand this idea, at least intellectually or as it applies to other people. Itís applying the same principle to our own lives that causes the problems for many of us.

The difficulty is that it often feels easier to leave all the decisions to someone or something else. If we can make another person responsible for our situation or our circumstances then somehow we can be happy without having to make any effort. Unfortunately it doesnít really work that way. We can give other people authority over us if we wish but we can never make them responsible for us, our actions or our happiness. These things can only ever be our own responsibility.

Of course this just sounds like so much Ďpsychobabbleí and many people will have heard it all before Ė or maybe not quite all of it. Counselors have a habit of talking about responsibility, encouraging clients to become more and more responsible, often without really explaining why. Not surprisingly, without proper explanation the message often fails to get through.

What follows then is an attempt to explain the rather difficult concept of responsibility in a short handout designed to clear up the questions, reservations and misunderstandings many people have on the subject.


Actually there isnít any choice. We are all responsible already for everything we do. When we try to give responsibility away all we actually do is surrender control. We still remain responsible (and accountable) for our actions, behaviors and our emotions. Yes, thatís right Ė even our moods. Itís true that emotions can be greatly affected by illness but even then our recovery and future health maintenance remains our responsibility to some extent.

It has been said that we canít be responsible for what we have no control over and this is true. Control comes from our choices and we arenít responsible for what someone else decides if weíre powerless to prevent it. Unless, of course, weíve chosen to be powerless. If we give up control when we could work to keep it ourselves we are responsible for the decision to do so. We are responsible for our choice to abdicate responsibility. Itís just like a drunk driver claiming he wasnít responsible for a fatal car accident because he was drunk. The law would (and does) argue that he was responsible before he started drinking and chose to give up that responsibility to alcohol. He remains responsible and accountable. This is more than just a philosophical musing Ė itís reality. So if we really are responsible for what we do Ė and by extension most of what happens to us Ė it makes sense to remain in control of our lives as well. After all, if weíre accountable for the choices made in our lives then they may as well be our own choices instead of those inflicted upon us by someone else.


One school of thought argues that responsibility (or the lack of it) is strongly associated with most forms of mental distress. Obviously the strength of this association varies depending upon the problem. Organic disorders often happen whatever we choose to do and no matter how responsible we try to be. In such cases our responsibility is severely limited although we can still have a measurable input in a surprising number of disorders. For example choosing to comply with medication or stress management regimes has been shown to significantly improve the relapse rate in disorders such as Schizophrenia or Bi-Polar Disorder.

Other disorders such as neurosis or reactive depression carry much higher responsibility and recovery is much more dependant upon the choices made by the sufferer. In these cases there is a very great deal that sufferers can do to help themselves and that gives them options and therefore responsibilities.

One major problem is that people can only realistically make choices if they believe that they have some control over their situation. The first step in accepting responsibility is to acknowledge our ability to choose. At the start of this handout we talked briefly about people who think of the world as something which happens to them. These people believe they have no choices and so are unable to accept responsibility for their lives Ė at least until they change their way of thinking.

Of course this is easier said than done. If we accept that we have choices and responsibility now then we also accept that we had choices and responsibility in the past. This leads some people to feel extremely guilty about the way theyíve behaved in the past. If they allowed their lives to become traumatic by inaction, possibly with unpleasant consequences for others as well as themselves, it may seem easier to go on believing that they had no option, no control and so no responsibility. This way of thinking is often no more than a convenient lie we tell ourselves to avoid guilt. The reality is that, in the absence of major organic disorders or unprovoked attacks etc. from others, we really canít not decide. To pretend we can is only a way of deciding to give up control to someone or something else.

An alternative way to think about past mistakes is to acknowledge them for what they are. We are all born with no idea about life or the way to keep ourselves happy. As we get older we learn from experiences and change our strategies for living. Part of this experience is that we make inevitable mistakes. This is not only our right itís unavoidable. Itís part of being human.

Past mistakes are nothing to feel guilty about. On the contrary the act of recognizing and learning from them is something we should all be very proud of. And it doesnít matter how long it takes us to learn the lessons of responsibility so long as we do. Everyone learns at his or her own rate Ė thatís also part of being human. The important thing is that we get there in the end. If you are starting to acknowledge your part in past difficulties, perhaps for the first time, give yourself a large pat on the back. Youíve just learned a vital lesson.

Of course talking abstractly about responsibility and choice like this is all very well but it can be extremely difficult to follow without more specific information. Unfortunately that sort of specific training is difficult to provide in a handout designed for a general audience. There are, however, a number of ways in which anyone can begin to understand about their own choices and responsibility.

  1. Whenever you are faced with a problem, be it emotional or practical, take a deep breath, focus your mind clearly and objectively upon the situation at hand and remind yourself that you are responsible. Then ask yourself what you intend to do about it. This may involve something designed to change the situation itself or simply to alter the way you feel about it. Remember that there are always options and choosing to give up your own choices usually isnít the best course of action.
  2. You may need to learn new skills in order to take action. Many people find that assertiveness training is of enormous benefit in helping them to regain control of their lives. It is also widely available and easily accessible to the vast majority of people.
  3. Stop waiting for other people to solve your problems for you. There are two good reasons for this. Firstly in most cases they canít Ė not entirely. Other people may be able to change your immediate situation but they probably canít prevent difficulties from arising again. Then you find yourself in the same old position of needing to find someone willing to come and pick up the pieces again. The problem of dependence hasnít altered. Taking time to learn the skills you need to solve your own problems usually works much better in the long run and makes you much more popular as people no longer avoid you for fear of becoming over involved in your problems. Remember Ė you are responsible. What are you going to do about it?
  4. Take the trouble to learn and implement a system of emotional or psychological self-help. There are many very effective and simple techniques around. Remember you donít need to become a therapist Ė just get to understand the basics. Have a look in your local library or talk to your therapist if you have one about which method would be best for you.

Another way to say all this is to make a very simple point. If you donít take steps to get what you want other people will take steps to get what they want and that isnít always going to be in your best interests. You owe it to yourself and to those around you to take control of your life. Otherwise life just gets harder for everyone.

Compliments of Stuart Sorensen Ė RMN

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