The Good News about Personal Responsibility

Don’t you just hate having to take responsibility for things? Isn’t it so much easier to blame the person you’re with or chalk it up to circumstances beyond your control? As I like to say: If something happens once, it’s because of that other jerk. If it happens twice, it’s really bad luck. And if it happens three times, it’s you.

young man shrugging off personal responsibilityLet’s say a fight flares up between you and your boyfriend or girlfriend. Don’t you hate having to admit you were wrong or that you, at least, contributed to the problem? It can make you feel bad about yourself or put the onus on you to apologize and behave better in the future. Who needs it? It’s better to argue your way out of it, right?

Wrong! Granted there may be an occasional time when the fault lies entirely with your significant other, but most of the time you both have done something to contribute to the conflict.

And if you can own up to your part in it, that’s a good thing. Why is it a good thing to admit that you have done something bad or have a bad habit? Because that’s something under your control, something you can work on. And if your partner follows your example, your relationship may become immensely more satisfying. And even if it falls apart, you’ll know that you did everything you could and will emerge as a stronger more satisfying partner for whoever comes next.

When you own up to and manage your part in things, you don’t have to be a victim of other people’s bad behavior anymore—nor a victim of bad circumstances. Consider this example from the Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by E.J. Bourne PhD:

Imagine two individuals sitting in stop-and-go traffic at rush hour. One perceives himself as trapped and says things to himself, like “I can’t stand this,” “I’ve got to get out of here,” and “Why did I ever get myself into this commute?” What he feels is anxiety, anger, and frustration.

The other perceives the situation as an opportunity to sit back, relax and listen to music. He says, “I might as well just relax and adjust to the pace of traffic,” or “I can unwind by doing some deep breathing.” What he feels is a sense of calm and acceptance. In both cases, the situation is exactly the same, but the feelings in response to the situation are vastly different because of each individual’s internal monologue or self-talk.

The truth is that what we say to ourselves about any given situation is what has the most impact on our mood. Often, we say it so quickly that we don’t even notice, and we get the impression that the external situation makes us feel the way we do. But it’s really our interpretation and thoughts about what is happening that forms the basis of our feelings.

Just like our conflicts with people, it’s often easier to blame how you feel on circumstances beyond your control than to take responsibility for your reactions. It’s hard to say mea culpa, but you can only work on the parts of life that are under your control. Very few of us will have the opportunity to plan improvements to transportation in Los Angeles, but we all have the chance to work on how we experience things and how we react.

Make the most of that opportunity. Stop seeing yourself as the hapless victim of bad people and unfortunate circumstances and own up to your part in things. By taking personal responsibility, you seize the power to change and grow and make your life better than it has ever been before.

–Dr. Adam