Taking Responsibility

Posted: June 7, 2016 in Psychology in Daily Life
Tags: , ,


I am a fully functional existentialist.  I believe that we are all responsible for our own choices within the circumstances of our lives, and to make changes to our lives, we must both 1) acknowledge the reality we’re living in, and the true situation of where we’re at, and 2) own up to the things we’ve done, good and bad, and both the possibilities and limitations of where we can move.  We are not responsible for being born where high school is shit.  We are responsible for deciding what to do with our crappy education, whether that’s learning a trade, getting a GED, going to community college, or going to community meetings to talk about how to change it.

The toughest part of teaching classes to folks dealing with criminal charges is the idea of taking responsibility for the things they’ve done wrong.  It’s very easy to fall into what I call the “comparison trap”, looking at other people’s actions (even, maybe especially, if the other person is wrong) and minimizing our own actions.


See?  This dog gets it.


Example.  During a class I taught, there was a student who was charged for driving without insurance and driving on a suspended license.  He had been rear ended by another driver, and continued to insist his charges were this driver’s fault.


Was it this driver who suspended your license?  Was it this driver who chose not to put insurance on your car?

Other people make crappy choices.  Lots of times, they make choices that negatively affect us.  But that doesn’t excuse our own crappy choices.

After almost 10 years in mental health, I’ve decided taking responsibility is the hallmark of adult behavior.  But being responsible really sucks, because now you can’t really deflect blame.

Please note: this is not an article extolling the virtues of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.  Many people, much smarter than myself, have debunked and criticized that particular, self-servingoften racist, and fairly patronizing American ideal.  However, blaming/shirking responsibility and awareness of circumstances/taking responsibility look very different.

(We’re not talking systemic inequality either.  I can acknowledge the racist way drug laws are enforced, while still acknowledging I committed a crime by smoking crack.  The most effective place to fight that is probably not a prison cell; the way to fight it is probably not by getting arrested over and over.).

All you need to do to take responsibility is say you did something.  You can recognize the reasons for it, but still acknowledge you did something.


Example.  Abuse tends to run in cycles; one third of abused children tend to grow up to be abusers of their own children.  It’s generally a complex traumatic reaction.  They either model the behavior they learned as children, or don’t have proper coping skills to deal with their own anger/depression/anxiety/stress, or don’t have good/accurate parenting information (this is the “in my day all kids got a whooping” defense).  Abused children are nine times more likely to become involved in criminal activity.  They struggle with self-esteem and attachment to others.  Abused children have much higher rates of mental health concerns than the general population.

However, none of this excuses parents who abuse their children.  It can help us to understand, it assists the parent in knowing where help and assistance is needed, and can assist those of us in public health to target useful preventative areas.

But the abuse is still wrong.  The parent made the choice to abuse.  And if the parent points to their own childhood, or lack of parenting knowledge, or lack of social safety nets, or lack of social supports, without acknowledging their own agency, that’s a problem.

The behavior we don’t take responsibility for performing, we can’t take responsibility for changing.

Live dangerously.  If you don’t like our society, change it.  Don’t like our laws?  Fight them.  Don’t know where to start?  The internet!  Or…you know, take responsibility for not knowing, and ask for help!

Want to be independent?  Recognize your own agency today!


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