I want to start this article with an exercise in personal reflection. Be honest with yourself. Are you quick to blame others or the circumstances surrounding you for the condition of your life, or do you take ownership of it?
Responsibility is owning one’s actions. Of being accountable for the choices that we make, and taking charge of the consequences.
When we defer responsibility to others or the environment, it creates within us a dangerous precedent — we’re foregoing our ability to affect change in our lives. Instead of taking stock of where we are, and driving forwards in a direction of our choosing, we’re floating on the currents. Buffeted back and forth but never reaching shore.
When we are responsible, we have agency. It is purposeful. Directed. Moving towards an end goal that we define for ourselves.
But it’s not enough to just own our choices, and deal with what they bring. To be truly responsible, as psychologist Albert Bandura put’s it, we must be self-organised, proactive, self-regulating, and engage in self-reflection.
Without responsibility, we’re unable to affect change in our lives. And without change, we’re doomed to repeat the same patterns of behaviour. We’ll do things to try and make improvements in our lives, like changing jobs, or changing relationships, because we’re looking externally for the source of our problems.
Guess what? The problems are never external. They all come from within us. But what is it that makes us avoid responsibility?
When we avoid responsibility, it means that we’re trying to avoid facing something in ourselves. When we fail, for example, and we aren’t responsible, it’s not our fault, it’s someone else, or something else that caused us to fail. It’s easier that way to dodge the proverbial bullet. We don’t have to examine ourselves, or recognise the actions that we took that may have contributed to the outcome.
In the same vein, we might avoid challenging tasks or anything that puts us outside of our comfort zone, because doing so increases the risk of failure. This can lead to us never achieving what we aspire to in our lives, and keeps us always at arms length from happiness.
Maybe we feel that we don’t deserve success, so by not taking responsibility, we don’t feel that we’re accountable for it. We place our failed ambitions at the feet of bad luck, or other people, or never having had a break, instead of creating the opportunity for ourselves and risking that it might not work out how we planned.
Responsibility, contrarily, doesn’t restrict our lives. It gives us freedom. The freedom to be ourselves and chase our aspirations..
So how do we become more responsible?
We’re human beings. We have all made mistakes at some point in our lives, and we have all made poor choices along the way. The first component in being responsible is accepting the fact that we make mistakes. Yes, fact. Mistakes happen.
Sometimes it’s tough to acknowledge our mistakes, because it means that we’ve failed, and failure leads to a night of self criticism and a lack of feelings of worth.
This is where we have to exercise some kindness. It’s one of the most important things that I tell people in life coaching sessions — be kind to yourself. Show yourself compassion. By allowing yourself to make mistakes, and to not see them as some earth shattering cataclysm that makes you a terrible human being, means that you can start to be responsible for them. When you’re responsible for your mistakes, you can grow from them.
The second component is recognising that you are in control of yourself. We are not the passengers on our voyage through life — we are the captain’s of the ship, hands gripped firmly on the rigging. And like all ships, sometimes the seas we sail can be rough, and sometimes they are calm. As captain, we steer through the storms, and are not carried away by them.
Knowing this helps to give us direction. To move forwards with purpose. It isn’t going to be the easiest path that you’ll take, but it will be the most rewarding.
The third component is to be aware of what you’re feeling in the moment. A lot of bad choices come from impulsively reacting to our emotions. When angry, or envious, or stressed, there’s a good chance we’re going to say or do something that we regret later on. Be that towards another person, or a choice that we make that doesn’t lead to a great outcome.
We call this self-regulation. It’s our ability to act in our long term best interest, in conjunction with our values as a human being. If I were to ask you what your values were, how well could you answer that question? That’s the first thing we need to define. Who do we want to be as a person? If it helps, have a think about them and list them down. These values are your benchmark for the sort of person that you are going to be.
When you next feel yourself becoming angry and wanting to act out, remind yourself of those values, and try to step outside of the emotion.
Become the observer of the anger, and not the anger itself.