Personal Responsibility: An Essential, Empowering Element in Designing a Life
Updated: Apr 18
“Maturity doesn’t come with age…maturity begins with the acceptance of responsibility for our words, our thoughts, our motives, our actions, and our attitudes.” – Pastor A.R. Bernard
Political scientist, Ron Haskins in a piece for the Brookings Institution defined personal responsibility as the “willingness to both accept the importance of standards that society establishes for individual behavior and to make strenuous personal efforts to live by those standards.” He adds that, when these standards are not met, responsible people do not play victim and “do not look around for some factor outside themselves to blame.”
Being completely responsible for yourself and the choices you make is not an easy path. Much of the time it’s not fun. It means making tough decisions, dealing with problems, being uncomfortable and doing things you don’t want to do. You know, real life. That’s why being a kid is awesome.
When we’re young, all we want to be is grown: so, people would get off our back, so we can do what we want. Inexperienced, we see the freedom in becoming an adult but most often miss literally everything else that comes along with it.
The disappointing reality is that we don’t just get the upside. Life presents us with many opportunities to be brave and to do the right thing, despite how uncomfortable, inconvenient and scary it might be. We get to choose whether we are up to the challenge of our own adulthood by taking responsibility for ourselves and what happens to us.
Personal responsibility on the decline
Psychologist and coach, Linda Sapadin, PhD. coined a made-up condition to describe a growing and increasingly frustrating botheration for the rest of us who have to share the world: Responsibility Deficit Disorder (RDD) - and I’m totally on board.
In 2013, Texas defense attorneys turned being a spoiled, entitled 16-year-old into a defense for vehicular manslaughter. An over-indulged childhood with few boundaries meant the defendant was unable to understand the concept of consequences as his parents never held him accountable.
This malady Affluenza, it was argued, made him less culpable for his action of drunkenly plowing his car into four people, killing them and injuring and paralyzing two of his own friends. Good friend.
Both RDD and Affluenza stem from the same typical place: our upbringing. It is in our childhood that the seeds of responsibility are sown – or not. Jean Illsey Clark has outlined three things parents do that corrupt the development of personal responsibility. Starting with all the stuff: According to Clarke, giving kids too many material things or activities without requiring they fulfill their commitments, breeds entitlement rather than responsibility.
Secondly, young people never learn how to do things for themselves if mommy and daddy do it for them. That’s not love. It tells them we don’t think they can do it for themselves and worse, that they are far too special to do it. Neither of which is true. Either way, incompetence in basic life skills and low self-esteem is the result.
Finally, she says, personal responsibility cannot be developed in people who are not expected to contribute, compromise or face the consequences of their actions – both as a child and as the future man-child that might someday be someone’s husband, boss or even run for president.
As parents, there are many opportunities in the first 18 years to instead help kids develop the skills they will need for independence and responsibility later on.
The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey excellently outlines how much value parents give to their children when they let them do it themselves, fall down and then learn to get up on their own. There is no better teacher than natural consequences. It’s not easy. It’s not pretty. But it’s in everyone’s best interest – especially their own.
These skills drive true self-esteem rather than narcissism. Self-confidence in kids leads to the ability to delay gratification and persist. It helps them learn from mistakes, acknowledge and work on weaknesses – all of which are necessary to take responsibility for their feelings and behaviors.
Today we see a new extended adolescence where children coming of age are less mature, push off adult responsibilities and wave off plans to be financially independent. It’s believed this lack of desire to launch is related to affluence and the ability of parents to provide material support like never before.
According to a 2018 Merrill Lynch survey, a whopping 80% of parents are financially supporting adult children is some way. Less about becoming independent, comfort and maintaining the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed, have bumped up the priority list.
I know, I know: Times are different. It’s harder than ever before. Yes. But expectations are interesting and powerful things. They set the bar for what is expected yes, but then also for what is possible.
Sometimes they are set high and amazing things happen. Research has confirmed the tremendous power of role models in learning responsibility. The obvious is indeed true: responsible parents raise responsible children. But oftentimes expectations are set low: by parents, by institutions and especially by ourselves.
“We are not products of our environments; we are products of our expectations.” – Wes Moore
If there’s always a safety net, someone always to fix it or pay it, where does the motivation come from? Developing the ability to be totally responsible for ourselves and our choices is absolutely helped by Having. No. Other. Choice. Necessity is the mother of invention for sure.
That you-better-hustle-or-else incentive is what builds the muscles for personal responsibility in order to get on in the world. It’s necessary to progress from being someone’s child to who you are to become as your own person. Though it will likely not feel like it to a 20-year-old, having no other choice than to get your shit together is actually a gift.
Steve knows. He’s got a lot of kids:
“It is going to be hard to move. It is going to be hard to pay all your bills…It is going to be hard to keep all the balls in the air. But you’ve got to go. Your wings work but you’ve got to flap them though. You can’t stay in the nest. Start flapping.
You’re enabling your children. You’re creating a house full of people that don’t have to problem-solve; who don’t know how to manage. You’re not allowing them to learn how to push through.” – Steve Harvey
There’s no other way to learn it. For me it came in a phone call from my father, three months before graduating college. He was kind but straight-to-the point: “We love you and you’ve got 30 days.” One month to start paying my own way in the world.
Because I didn’t just meet these people, there was no part of me that assumed I’d remain on anyone’s payroll. I recognized that I came from people that were independent early. My mother left Newfoundland, Canada and put herself through nursing school at 15. My father left England to start a new life across the pond at 18. I was now 21 and apparently behind.
Graduate school would wait one year. Thirty days meant that I couldn’t be choosy. Resumes went out to companies hiring or not. Within a month, I was an accounts receivable clerk making a whopping $19,000/year. Though the salary may not have shouted it at the time, that job was the beginning of a lifetime of self-sufficiency.
But there’s another way one can respond to a call like that and we all know it. One of the easiest and increasingly common, is to be the victim; to get angry and blame whomever is requiring you to be responsible for your own self.
Find someone, anything to blame
Victimhood 101: if something isn’t working out in your life, find someone to blame. Playing the victim helps justify our own weaknesses and poor choices. It turns that annoying personal responsibility spotlight off.
Whoever it is: friends, teachers, the system, your parents, your boss, your spouse, the man; someone or something is keeping you from what you believe you deserve.
“…we can all find reasons, explanations, excuses outside of ourselves that rationally explain many of the challenges we face in life.” – Iyanla Vanzant
The powerless victim
“Of all the belief systems that have crippled my existence, the belief that I was a victim was the most debilitating one.” – Melody Beattie
Defining yourself as victim in any situation will not help. Over time, it can become an identity that can cloud everything in your life. Blaming others and external circumstances means handing over control of your life. It shifts your role from someone who is self-determining to a victim that life just happens to. Trust me, no one wants to see that movie.
Sometimes we get stuck here. Not much progress is made as we waste time pointing to things outside of ourselves to blame. Maybe it is real. We all have stories about how life would have been different if this or that had happened. Shit does happen. But how we think and behave after the event is on us.
Regardless of what happened or didn’t happen, each of us gets to decide whether we will use it to our advantage or point to it as a reason for not getting it together. People get back up despite horrendous circumstances every day and have forever.
“Who is in charge of you? Who are you going to blame your life on today?... In waiting for external circumstances to alter…in waiting for times to get better…It is the weakest position you can stand in.” – Elizabeth Gilbert
Own it all
“You are 100% responsible for everything that does or doesn’t happen to you.” – Jack Canfield
When you are prepared to own it all, including the more uncomfortable things we all must deal with, you become empowered to solve problems, make key decisions and take action.
Your choices make your life
Wherever we are right this second is where we got ourselves. Yes, things may have contributed in significant positive or negative ways, but many little and some big choices and decisions led us down different paths. Or helped us maximize what we were working with or didn’t. Sometimes, failing to choose kept us stagnant. We become all these choices and decisions and indecisions.
Not choosing is also a choice. Allowing life, people, and events around us to determine our life is a choice we make. Waiting and hoping something changes on its own is the opposite of taking responsibility for your life. You cannot not choose and then complain about where you end up.
Accepting the consequences
With all this choosing and not choosing, come consequences. Consequences are how our life unfolds based on the decisions we make. Sometimes it turns out great! Other times, decidedly not. But both belong to us. Owning the outgrowths of those decisions is personal responsibility.
“Something needs to change and it’s probably me.” – Paul Williams & Tracey Jackson
It’s not easy. Personal responsibility is helped by a level of self-awareness and an honest inventory:
How did I get myself here?
Can I be honest about the role I played in that?
Yes, it was you that chose to remain silent despite how you felt. You chose to stay. You chose to go. You chose to say that. You chose to ignore the signs. You chose, you chose, you chose. It’s never going to be about them, him or her.
Acknowledge it, forgive yourself, learn from it and go make better choices.
“If you own this story you get to write the ending.” – Brene’ Brown
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