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Acceptance of Responsibility

Escape from freedom

Most of us seek to avoid, in ways that can be quite subtle, the pain of assuming responsibility for our own problems. The difficulty we have in accepting responsibility for our behaviour lies in the desire to avoid the pain of the consequences of that behaviour.

The extent to which people will go psychologically to avoid assuming responsibility for personal problems, while always sad, is sometimes ludicrous.

We must accept responsibility for a problem before we can solve it. We cannot solve a problem by saying, "It's not my problem". We cannot solve a problem by hoping that someone else will solve it for us.

Do you seek to avoid the pain of your problems by saying to yourself, "This problem was caused me by other people, or by social circumstances beyond my control, therefore it is up to other people or society to solve this problem for me. It is not really my personal problem". By attempting to give that responsibility to some other individual or organisation or entity, we give away our power to them.

As children, by virtue of our dependency, our parents have power over us. They are responsible for our well-being and we are largely at their mercy. When parents are oppressive, children are powerless to do much about it; their choices are limited. But as adults, our choices are almost unlimited. That does not mean they are not painful, but it is still within our power to make these choices.

If we feel unable to cope or unable to change things, we are escaping, partially or totally, from the pain of freedom, through failing to accept responsibility for the problems in our lives. The impotence comes from having surrendered some of our power.

We must learn that the whole of our adult lives is a series of personal choices and decisions. If we accept this totally, then we become free people. To the extent that we do not accept it, we will forever feel powerless.

Neuroses and Character Disorders

Most people who seek psychiatric help are suffering from either a neurosis or a character disorder. Put simply, these conditions are disorders of responsibility. They are opposite styles of relating to the world and its problems. The neurotic assumes too much responsibility; the person with a character disorder not enough. When neurotics are in conflict with the world, they automatically assume they are at fault. When those with character disorders are in conflict with the world, they automatically assume the world is at fault.

Neurotics, rather than character-disordered people, respond better to psychotherapy because they assume responsibility for their difficulties and see themselves as having problems. Those with character disorders have greater difficulty because they don't see themselves as the source of their problems; they see the world rather than themselves as being in need of change and therefore fail to recognise the necessity for self examination.

In reality, many of us have a combination of both neuroses and character disorders, i.e. there are some areas of our lives where we are guilt-ridden through having assumed responsibility that is not really ours, while in other areas of our lives we fail to take realistic responsibility for ourselves. For this reason, most of us can benefit from psychotherapy if we are seriously willing to participate in the process.

The problem of distinguishing what we are and what we are not responsible for in this life is one of the greatest problems of human existence. It is never completely solved. We must continually assess and reassess where our responsibilities lie as events change. The process is not painless if performed adequately and conscientiously. We need to be willing to suffer continual self-examination. Such capacity or willingness is not inherent in any of us.

Only through vast experience and lengthy and successful maturation do we see the world and our place in it, thus realistically assessing our responsibilities.

Parents can help their children mature into this process by confronting them with their tendency to avoid or escape responsibility for their action, or to reassure them in certain situations that they are not at fault. This requires parents to be sensitive to their children's needs and willing to take time to make the often uncomfortable effort to meet those needs; to show love and a willingness to assume appropriate responsibility for the enhancement of their children's growth.

Conversely, more than just insensitivity or neglect, many parents hinder this maturation process. Neurotics, because of their willingness to assume responsibility, may be quite excellent parents if their neuroses are relatively mild and they are not so overwhelmed by unnecessary responsibilities that they have little energy left for the necessary responsibilities of parenthood. Character-disordered parents, however, can be disastrous parents. They fail to assume responsibility for their children. They brush them off when they need attention. When their children are delinquent or having difficulty in school, they will blame the school system or other children. This attitude, of course, ignores the problem. Because they avoid responsibility, character-disordered parents serve as role models of irresponsibility for their children. Finally, character-disordered parents will often lay responsibility for their own lives - for the quality of their marriage, their mental health, their lack of success - on their children. Since they don't see how inappropriate this is, the children will often accept this criticism, and in accepting it, they will become neurotic. So character-disordered parents invariably produce character-disordered or neurotic children.

Exploration and Discussion

1. Avoiding responsibility involves blaming others. What kind of state are you in for you to blame, e.g. feelings, emotions, body posture, gestures, words said, tone of voice?

2. Assuming too much responsibility involves placating others. What are you feeling when you decide you have to placate others?

3. What do you avoid responsibility for?

4. What do you assume too much responsibility for?

5. What specific responsibilities were you given at different stages in your growing up?

6. Who modelled responsibility for you? How?

7. What could have been more helpful?

8. What recent problems have you faced and taken responsibility for?

9. Did you find the process rewarding?