The Importance of Personal Responsibility
How often have you been driving and thought: “If that car in front of me would just move out of the way, I could get where I’m going faster?”
These kinds of thoughts cross my mind often. If that car would move, or if that person would stop using that tone with me, or if so-and-so wouldn’t put me in an awkward position or “make me feel” a certain way, life would be grand!
All of these statements, however, communicate to your brain that your wellbeing is dependent upon someone else.
Let’s break this down… When I say that I want someone else to change their behavior, I am really saying that I don’t like how I feel – and I don’t know what to do about it. I want someone else to change so I can feel better.
Essentially, I have taken all of my “power chips” and handed them over for someone else to manage my life. Let’s look at an example:
I was recently at an airport, and the people in front of me in the security line were taking for-ev-er. One person took a shoe off and gently placed it on the conveyer belt – so slowly that I wondered if she ever intended on having the other shoe join its mate. The gentleman behind her agreed with this pace…
With all of us in line waiting, he leisurely drank his water before proceeding with the security routine. Man, did I have judgments! My head (and facial expressions) were screaming, “Have you never been in a security line?! We are all waiting! How rude! Hustle, hustle, hustle! Knees to chest, people! Get moving!”
I was so invested in their obvious-to-me socially unacceptable behavior that by the time I got through the line, I was huffing and puffing, wondering what could ever possess people to be so inconsiderate. Because of them, I had a stressful experience, and had to rush to my gate despite arriving at the airport in what I thought left plenty of time. I was irritated, and I placed all of the blame on the other people in the security line.
In short, what I believed at that moment was:
If they changed their behavior, I could feel better.
Wow, that is a loaded statement! By going down this train of thought (with my emotions quickly following), I just invested in the belief that someone else is responsible for how I feel.
Ugh, no wonder I was frustrated and felt powerless. In this experience, I believed I had fallen victim to someone else’s ignorance. Notice those words? Powerless. Victim.
Now, you might think that this was such a minor incident, how could this really affect how I feel about myself or my place in the world? You also might agree with the judgments I made about the slow-movers at the airport and share my frustration…
Well, the beliefs that we invest our time, thinking, and behavior into are important. They inform the blueprint of how we see ourselves in the world, and how we show up for life… And here’s the rub:
When you expect others to take care of you:
- You cheat the relationship, and you cheat yourself
- Your confidence dwindles
- You begin to believe you cannot do hard things
When you expect others to regulate themselves so you feel better, you burden the other person with the expectation that it is their responsibility to make you feel differently than you do Deep down, nobody wants this responsibility. It is an unwelcome gift. Even if the recipient saddles up and takes responsibility for how you feel, resentment is likely to build. The other person has just received a weight that is too heavy for them to bear.
They have also received the inferred message that you are unable to meet your needs and regulate yourself – so you subtly lose some of their respect.
When you hand over your feel-good expectations to someone else, you cheat yourself by giving yourself the message that you can’t handle the responsibility. Someone else needs to ride in on a white horse and rescue you, all because you are not whole enough to handle things on your own.
When you use phrases such as, “so-and-so made me feel [fill in the blank with a favorite icky-feeling emotion],” it is like a slowly dripping faucet of self-disrespect. You may not feel the impact of the first drop, but eventually, the sink fills up, and you’ve got a big, sloshy pool of belief that others hold the power to “make you feel” – and you become a victim to their behavior.
Talk about a confidence buster!
When you repeatedly tell yourself that others are making you feel a certain way, or thinking that if others would behave differently, that would solve your distressing emotions, you are also telling yourself that you cannot do hard things.
This is one of the most dangerous messages for you to believe! Resilience is built upon knowing that you can do hard things, that you can roll with whatever life throws your way, and that you know as long as you are in your own corner, you’ve got this life thing!
When you start to lose sight of this fact by hoping others will change their behaviors to “make you feel” better, you are in serious trouble.
On the other hand:
When you look for (and accept) your responsibility and volition in all situations, you gain:
- A sense of empowerment
- More mutually rewarding relationships
- Self-confidence and self-respect
If, in the airport, I had noticed my thoughts, “Damn these people for making me anxious and uncomfortable!” here’s how I could have responded:
“Uh-oh, did I just say someone else is ‘making me feel?’ Okay, it’s time for me to get to work here.”
STEP 1: NOTICE AND LABEL when you have just handed over the responsibility for how you feel to someone else.
STEP 2: FOCUS INWARD and QUESTION. Questions I might ask myself include:
- “What am I feeling in my body?”
- “What emotion is this I’m feeling right now?”
- “What about this situation is making me uncomfortable, instead of the many other situations I’ve been through today that I haven’t focused on this intently?”
- “What interpretation am I having of others’ behaviors in this situation?”
- “Are there other possible perspectives here?”
This inward focus immediately grows your sense of self-respect and responsibility for your own experience. First of all, you receive the message (from yourself) that you are worth paying attention to – and that your experience is significant enough for you to focus all of your attention in this moment.
Second, by observing yourself in this way, you unglue from your interpretations and reactions and start getting reflective, leading you to other possible experiences. Third, this step is hard – and when you practice turning toward yourself in this way, you learn that you can do it. You gain confidence in your ability to tackle your unchecked reactions.
While you are building all this empowerment, self-confidence, and self-respect, you are also improving your relationship with the other people in the situation!
If I had put this into practice in the security line, I wouldn’t have glared, sighed, rolled my eyes, and in general, treated others with contempt. Perhaps I could have let others have their experiences and I mine, and focused on what I needed in that situation, which brings us to…
STEP 3: IDENTIFY YOUR NEEDS and RESPOND. If I had asked myself what I needed in that moment, regardless of others’ behavior, I probably could have used some deep, slow breaths, stopped fidgeting (which was fueling my frustration), and maybe talked to someone or texted a friend for a brief distraction.
Maybe all I needed was to acknowledge that I felt frustrated, that my interpretation was that I was being disrespected, and I would have been able to let it go. Perhaps I would have decided to ask for the people in front of me to move more quickly, or request they let me go in front of them. The point is that I did not ask myself what I needed, so I did not receive the message that I cared about what I needed… And I certainly was not able to provide it for myself.
Even so, I still have…
STEP 4: REFLECT. Although I am not proud of my behavior in the airport, and it is not a representation of how I wish to walk through the world, I can still face it and move forward.
Notice your ineffective behaviors in retrospect, and walk yourself through what went wrong. Thinking about how it could go differently the next time, as I just did, facilitates change. After this exercise, I can tell you with 99% certainty that the next time I am frustrated in a security line, I will think of this example. When you wake up to the moment, you have a chance to make a choice and do things differently.
Here is a practice for what to do when you believe someone is making you feel a particular way:
A PRACTICE IN PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
First, let’s take a moment to settle into this present moment. Let’s put our attention on a few things that are right here, right now, starting from the outside in. First, take a look around you, noticing the shapes, colors, light, and dark. Take a moment to notice where you are, using a beginner’s mind, and take in the environment around you.
Now, turn your attention toward sounds. Place your attention on your ears and notice any sounds or silence that floats through your attention.
Now, can you notice your body? Perhaps you can notice the bottom of your feet on the floor, the parts of your body touching another object, like a chair or your clothes. Begin to notice parts of your body in contact with other objects.
And finally, bring your attention to your breath. You do not need to alter or change your breath. Simply notice that you are breathing, in and out. Notice the quality and length of your breath, knowing there is no way your breath is supposed to be in this moment, and just allow your breath to flow, however it is occurring right now.
Now, shift your attention to a recent time you believed someone “made you feel” a particular way. It could be that you were annoyed waiting in a line or sitting in traffic, or perhaps you had an argument with a loved one. Whatever the situation, bring it as vividly as you can into your mind’s eye.
Now, pay careful attention. Focus on the point when you had the experience that this person was “making you feel” a certain way, or thought that if this person changed their behavior, you would feel differently. Say to yourself, “Ah, I just handed over responsibility for how I feel to someone else.” That’s STEP 1. You just practiced the skill, NOTICE AND LABEL. Instead of being a slave to your reaction, you’ve gained some wiggle room for a different experience to emerge!
Let’s practice STEP 2: FOCUS INWARD and QUESTION. First, put on your curious, nonjudgmental cap and start investigating. This is the part where you act like a scientist and explore what was going on for you, in your body, in the moment that you gave responsibility for yourself away. If you’d like to pause here and give yourself some time to reflect or write, please do so!
Some questions you can ask are:
- “What am I feeling in my body as I am recalling this moment?”
- “What emotion am I feeling?”
- “What about this situation made me uncomfortable?”
- “What interpretation am I having of others’ behavior in this situation?”
- “Are there other possible perspectives here?”
Another helpful practice during STEP 2 is to write out just the facts on one side of a paper, and your interpretations, opinions, and evaluations of the facts on the other side of the paper. This is an exercise in separating the facts from your personal experience.
You may decide to pause and spend some more time on STEP 2. It is important to understand your experience with some clarity before you are able to move on to STEP 3: IDENTIFY YOUR NEEDS and RESPOND. Given your new, more complete understanding of the experience by completing STEP 2, you can now ask yourself what you needed in that moment.
A helpful way of asking can be, “Given everything as it was in that moment, and given that I cannot change others’ behaviors, what did I need?”
You can ask yourself, “How may I have responded to myself if I were able to attend to my needs and take care of myself in that moment?” Now, your job is to listen. Give yourself the space to hear about your needs.
By engaging in this practice, you have already completed STEP 4: REFLECT. By taking the time to reflect on this situation, you have set the stage to do it differently next time. By engaging in this exercise, you have given yourself the message that you matter and are worth the time.
You have also taken a stand. You will engage with yourself and others with integrity. Don’t expect it to be perfect… That’s life! It’s an eventful journey of learning. You can keep practicing, and you will start to notice your relationships, both with yourself and others, shift for the better.
Come back to this any time you need it – and please, keep practicing!