One of the trends I dislike in our culture is the reluctance of people to take responsibility, or to respond with care to each other. In my counseling practice, I hear a lot of self-justification, mind-reading, defensiveness, blaming and complaining; which is why relationships, friendships, business connections and day-to-day living are not going well for that client. Their lives are not about trying to understand their own role in the problem, so they can deal with it effectively, but to push the responsibility off onto someone else, and avoid it.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that each of us gets the results of what we do or don’t do, whether we try to blame someone else, ignore the problem or run away from it. No matter what, sooner or later, the problem lands right back in our laps, usually made worse by the avoidance. Often, in an attempt to avoid responsibility, we try to control someone else and make the problem theirs.
Who’s in control; and whose problem is it?
Most of us feel more comfortable being in control of the situations we’re in, so much so, that we often pretend we’re in control when we’re really not, or try to control situations that we cannot reasonably handle.
Remember, you are never in control of another person, even if it seems that you are, and that they wish you to be. You can’t control who you’ll meet, when or where you’ll meet them, how anyone else will feel, or what they’ll do.
Self-control is the only real control you have. However, it is all the control you’ll need. By taking responsibility for your own actions, words, and reactions, you can greatly stack the odds in your own favor. I think of responsibility as response-ability: the ability to respond to life, people and events. While you may not be responsible for most of what happens, you are completely responsible for your reaction to what is happening. For example, if you are out with a new person and that person acts in some rude, uncaring or unacceptable manner, You have the ability to respond in many ways.
Whenever you’re in a difficult situation, you can react irresponsibly, getting defensive, angry or running away. Many people do this without thinking, and it makes the situation worse. The response-able person will consider his or her options. Think about what your responsibility is in this situation, and take charge of your words and actions. If you respond thoughtfully and with integrity and honor, most other people will calm down and interact with you on that higher level. Being response-able means using all your self-control, skill and knowledge to take care of yourself, even when it’s difficult.
If you're over 21, you're an adult—like it or not. That means you are responsible for everything you say and do, and you are in charge of yourself and your life. Love is one of the areas of life where many of us have trouble remembering that we are adults, with responsibility.
Often, people react to the idea of responsibility as they would to the words “fault” or "blame"; as though saying “you're responsible for your life” means “you should feel guilty about your life.” This sense of responsibility is childlike. It reacts and responds as though an angry parent were standing over you saying "Who's responsible for this mess?".
Adult responsibility is something else altogether. It is really response-ability; that is, the ability to respond to life. Rather than placing blame, this way of thinking acknowledges personal power. Response-ability is the capacity to choose. Out of many possible responses, I can always choose the one I make. Response-ability is remembering to be in charge and make careful, thought-out choices.
What seems hard at first for most of my clients is understanding the need to take this kind of responsibility. The expression “taking responsibility” is ironically misleading, because actually we have no choice. We are always responding to situations, even if our response is to do nothing. It does little good to worry about what other people are choosing, because you really haven't any say about it. Your responsibility is to take care of yourself; no one else can do that for you.
When you respond with the best of your ability, and accept and handle whatever consequences you have helped to create, you not only benefit from your choices, but your life and relationships will improve immensely.
Adapted from: Gay Relationships(Tarcher/Putnam) and The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again(Wiley) © Tina B.Tessina, 2007
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D.