I feel giddy about moments that pull, drag, or usher us further toward the experience of our wholeness. One of these awareness crescendos happened for me in the office of a wise therapist (as some of us know, not all of them are helpful, and my persevering in this department has always paid off). I had been sharing a story in which I saw myself “the victim”—my chest was deflated, my breath shallow, and I felt entirely disempowered. My therapist sat for a moment in silence. And looked at me with a look of empathy and a readiness to kindly challenge me (which I truly appreciate).
“What would life look like, Alanis, if you took 100% of responsibility for what was appropriate for you to take responsibility for 100% of the time?”
“Wow,” I said. “It sounds exhausting. It sounds like non-stop bootstraps pulled up. It also sounds very exciting.”
She smiled—and went on to explain. “It is being in the victim mode, the blaming mode, the self-pity mode that goes part and parcel with being disempowered, and being unable to effectuate any change in a positive direction for you.”
I felt daunted by this charge. I could see that my buckling into victim-consciousness may have had some element of comfort in it, even some dreg of justification if I were to search for it … but it never yielded energy in me, nor did it yield a sense of agency in my life. I knew what she was asking of me was deeply sound.
Upon leaving her office, I experimented with what 100% responsibility-taking might look like. What I noticed was very different from the complete overwhelm certain parts of me had feared. My actual experience was on the other end of the spectrum. I had more energy, not less. I felt strong, clear, and inner-directed far more consistently because I was taking responsibility for what was appropriate for me to claim as my responsibility.
Ultimately, when I take responsibility for something that is not mine to take responsibility for, I can tell by how my body feels. I feel a burning and a tinge of anger—I watch for this somatic indication to signal when I might be inappropriately owning something that is someone else’s to own.
Colin Tipping writes beautifully about responsibility via the feeling of guilt. He teaches that appropriate guilt is feeling earned remorse for not taking responsibility for something I’m directly responsible for, and inappropriate guilt is where something happened where I had no part in the causation—and I’m therefore not entitled to take responsibility. Byron Katie also writes about the difference between when I am in someone else’s or god’s business—and no longer in my own. With my own business being the ONLY area in which I CAN take responsibility.
Knowing what is our responsibility versus what is not ours takes a sense of discernment and an awareness of functional boundaries—a topic I will touch on over the next weeks to come (and one that Pia Mellody nails in her book The Intimacy Factor).
From direct personal experience, I know that taking hyper-responsibility feels incredible. It also feels peaceful. The feedback that I have gotten is that people feel safer around me. I also notice that I won’t act out in blame as much. Yes, I still experience anger when there is a transgression made with my own boundaries (by myself or someone else). But I don’t feel as collapsed and impotent as being irresponsible had me feeling. The way responsibility was sold to us in the past was that somehow we as human beings don’t want to take responsibility. That somehow we aren’t built for it on an instinctual animal level. And of course why would we want to “own our stuff” when it’s thought to be a kind of arduous obligation, defined as a beleaguering ownership of something that may or may not be ours to begin with—often the ownership of which is demanded of us by a punishing and guilt-tripping parent, boss, or partner. It makes sense why so many of us have steered away from immediately saying “my bad”!
My own experience as a boss, as a friend, as a wife, a mom, etc., is that we-in-our-team generally live in a responsibility-taking climate. We are all very quick to say “woops,” or “sorry” (sorry for having created a consequence that was unpleasant, not sorry for LIVING, an important distinction to be made 😉 ) or “I did that, it wasn’t him.” We know and trust that we will be thanked for our responsibility-taking and that we will all move on very quickly and with good will. As it turns out, taking responsibility is a QUICK ACT. Something happens, I own my part (or they own their part, or both). We thank each other. Clean up whatever mess may need cleaning up. And we move on with a clean slate. Punishment-free. DONE! The other options of defensiveness, blame, attack, excuses, explanations, lying, power struggling, and the like, wreak so much havoc on trust and bonds (and finances when it get litigious!). Owning your part (more easily done when knowing you don’t live or work in a punitive climate) allows things to get cleaned up with great integrity, great love, and at a great speed. Everyone learns something or feels empowered for having set a boundary—and we move on. This all feels so humane to me…
Also, it’s worth noting that a sense of obligation or duty is not the same as responsibility. It might be semantics, because certainly “duty” or “honor” or even “obligation” can align us at times with our integrity. But at that point, isn’t it an empowered choice rather than a dragging-ass “have-to”?
In my quest, I began to—and continue to—take inventory of each of the primary areas of responsibility: financial, emotional, physical, spiritual (which, for me, includes responsibility for the earth), as well as an area that psychologist Margaret Paul brilliantly identified as organizational—taking responsibility for my own time and space management.
I can distill three distinct areas of responsibility that stood out for me throughout inventorying the above five:
#1 THE RESPONSIBILITY OF PHYSICAL WELL-BEING:
I am responsible for meeting my body’s needs. Caring for my own physical well-being enables me to continue to serve, to give, to love and be loved. I’m responsible for making sure I eat well, sleep enough, exercise, groom, seek help when I need it, go to the doctor, reach out to a therapist, a group, a friend, to decompress, offer TLC to myself, and otherwise ensure that I am available for the whole of life. I am also responsible for setting boundaries with my intellect, my feelings, and for being clear about what feels comfortable and safe physically and sexually. (I am aware of this inalienable right that many of us have on this earth, and yet one that so many are still not offered or granted in other cultures. See responsibility #3 for this…)
#2 THE RESPONSIBILITY OF DIRECT COMMUNICATION:
I am responsible for speaking up and communicating respectfully and directly. When it comes to my relationship with my own needs, wants, feelings, or values for example, it’s essential that I know what they are so that I can ask for them to be met when that is appropriate, understanding that no one can read my mind, nor is anyone obligated to meet them—that their listening or meeting any of my needs is a gift to me. And I’m responsible for speaking up when there has been a violation of any of my own boundaries, as well as expressing gratitude and appreciation when there are kindnesses and generosities bestowed on me (aka, good manners and graciousness).
Across the board—from the personal to the planetary—I am responsible for the messages I’m sending, whether something I articulate in words or an energy I’m transmitting through my thoughts, feelings, or physical gestures and body language. How and what I communicate has an impact on other people and, often, the planet. Being accountable for this impact is integral to my role as a part of our human family. And it is empowering to know and own this.
#3 THE RESPONSIBILITY OF LOYALTY and CARE:
I am responsible for that which I have been entrusted to take care of, for that which or whom I have committed myself to—firstly, my husband, my child, and my pets. I also take an active role in the well-being and healing journey of my extended family and friends, and I am responsible for the things and places I call “mine”—all that I am privileged to protect, nurture, and love. In a more macro-vocational way, I am—as part of a big planetary team—partly responsible for considering and caring for the wider world. The children, the animals, and people of the planet who are in need—we all beautifully rely on each other.
Responsibility-taking is SO alluring to me now because of how uplifted I feel while taking it. When it is appropriate, when it is my responsibility to claim and I do so, I feel empowered, grounded, rooted, home, volitional. There is a grace, an ease, a power, and a speed that comes along with it. (When it is not my responsibility, or I have over-extended beyond the part that is healthy and mine to own, I feel depleted and resentful—another reliable gauge for me.)
The victim mindset that can swoop in when I’m afraid to fully show up is greatly calmed by the following:
- Quickly investigating and feeling all the feelings that block me from my own responsibility-taking liberation. Often there are many to move through: shame, guilt, fear of being punished, fear of humiliation, fear of “losing,” and mistrust, among others. All valid and understandable feelings, but none of them worthy of holding me back in my life by not feeling them. Feeling them softens their hold on me. And then…
- Venting and processing about that. And then, inevitably…
- A return to empowerment.
The above process is predictable now, I rely on it. One leads to the other … then leads to the other.
Taking responsibility does NOT mean NOT feeling sadness, or disappointment, or GRIEF. Being an empowered human being absolutely leaves plenty of room to grieve the pain of having genuinely been a victim at various moments in my life—for certainly this is often, sadly and accurately, the case. These emotions of grief and sadness, etc. are emotions that come along with being human, living in a world of adorable and harrowing fallibility and vicissitudes. When I talk about responsibility-taking, I am speaking about foregoing the needless and circular SUFFERING that comes from buckling into victim consciousness—this is something beyond feeling these very natural feelings of sadness and loss.
Responsibility-taking at its best allows us to feel all our feelings about something (whether it is from a present circumstance or past ones), while also feeling empowered to move forward, set boundaries, communicate, and CARE our way into the life of deep alignment and greater peace.