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Over-Assuming Responsibility

  • 7 min read

I was about to step into her car. But a bag of nuts had already taken the front seat.

Luckily, the nuts had forgotten to call shotgun. So I picked them up and took their place. But in an unguarded moment, I put the bag away without actually being aware of where I put it. Could’ve been the side door, the glove compartment, or the back seat. But wherever it was, my mind sorta blanked out while I put them there.

So when she asked for a few of those nuts later on, I had no idea where to find them. Until finally, I discovered the empty bag under my seat.

“I knew it. As as soon as you were getting in, I knew you were going to spill those nuts.” She said.

“Well, if you knew I was going to spill it, why didn’t you just mention that bag of nuts was already open and tell me to be careful with it?” I snapped back.

“Because normally people check that shit before they put it away.”

It was the sort of quick convo that had no meaning in itself. But felt more serious because it brought up other things from the relationship I used to have with this woman. We were aware enough to not turn it into an argument. I just cleaned it up. Which was the most logical and adult way of dealing with it.

This post is not about that moment.  But the reason I mention it, is because it illustrates how assuming responsibility works.

If I wanted to, I could’ve said something to “win” the argument. Then she would’ve called it an excuse to deflect my blame. We could go on forever like that and become more and more convinced that the other person was wrong. But the funny thing is: We were both equally right. I was right that she could’ve mentioned the bag was open. She was right that I should’ve been more careful. We were both responsible for this situation.

Because that’s the thing. Responsibility is never black and white. Every situation that involves two or more people in a dynamic environment is complex. It rarely happens that one person is responsible for something going wrong (or right).

A basketball player can’t score if the ball doesn’t get passed to him. Leaders can’t become corrupt (or rise to power) without other people willing to cooperate.

But we like to find out who’s “to blame” for something. Because it paves the way for a twisted sense of “justice”. If you can point a finger at the guy who’s responsible and then fire him, or put him to jail, everyone can be happy again, thinking they’re not responsible for any “bad stuff” that happens.

This trickles down into our intimate lives as well. When you have a fight with someone, and you find a reason why “they are wrong”, you don’t have to go through the whole process of fixing things between you any more. Now you can simply blame them and cut them out of your life.

If 3 people carry an object together and it falls to the floor, we like to know who made the mistake . Because that person has to pay for the broken object. And hopefully, that person is not us.

This way of looking at things also makes us want to avoid being the person “to blame” for something going wrong. So when a situation occurs that we don’t like, many people tend to avoid the responsibility by default (unless it’s inescapable).

We do this because we often confuse responsibility with guilt.

Guilt implies malicious intent, or at the very least a feeling of having failed or done wrong.

Responsibility means “response-ability”.  In other words: Having a sense of duty to handle the situation as it comes up. Which arguably, befalls anyone involved in any situation.

But here’s the catch: There is no way to force any other person to take responsibility for anything. So there is no point in trying to figure out who is responsible for what percentage of the situation and what they could do about it.  All you can do is take up your part.

• Are you always having trouble with women/men/people in general? You could choose to hate them and shift the responsibility on those other people. But wouldn’t it be better to take it upon yourself and learn how to deal with them?

• Feel like you “deserve” more money compared to all the work you put in? Maybe it’s not true. Maybe the value of what you do is measured in what other people want to pay for it. So then it’s your responsibility to: A) Deliver more or better work. or B) Make sure other people notice its value, whether it’s your boss or your prospective customer.

• Too “busy” to do what you love because other people are always filling your calendar with tasks? Your part in this is the fact that you accept them. Schedule some appointments with yourself and make them non-negotiable, or say no to the proposals you receive.

• Lost the game because it was rigged? Because the referee favored the other team? Nope, much more likely that they played better. Now what can you learn from them to improve your own skills?

It’s better to err on the side of taking too much responsibility than to not take up enough of it (as long as you do this without blaming yourself).

Here’s a personal story that shows the benefit of focusing on your part of the responsibility:

For most of my life I used to think everyone in the world was stupid and crazy except for me. And that made me very depressed. After 20 years or something I started to realize that was a very arrogant thought to have. And that it would be much more logical that everyone was normal but there was something wrong with me. This helped a little. But in a way I was still avoiding responsibility. Because now I thought “It’s not my fault that I feel bad. It’s the fault of these illnesses, this depression and this panic disorder that I suffer from. Other people don’t have that.”

But at one point I started to realize:

“Maybe there is nothing wrong with me. Maybe my brain, body and soul all work perfectly. But I’m currently using them in a very ineffective way that makes me feel bad. And it’s 100% my responsibility how I use them. So if I want to feel good again, it is up to me to start thinking different thoughts, form different habits and to learn to relate to things differently. Until I feel as happy as can be.”

It wasn’t until that moment, that my mental state finally started to change. It’s not that I never feel sad anymore of course (every healthy person feels those things). But on most days, I feel very blissful right now. And people are surprised at how unfazed I can be when shit hits the fan.

Was it really 100% my responsibility that I was chronically anxious and depressed? Of course not. Like anyone else, I’ve endured trauma in the past that contributed to me feeling that way. But what was the point of placing any responsibility on the other people in those situations? It’s not like they were going to come around and make me feel happy all of a sudden to make up for it….Who else was going to deal with it but me?

The more situations you apply this to in your life, the more empowered and self-sufficient you will feel.  In fact, the amount of freedom you experience in any area of your life is usually in direct relation to the amount of responsibility you assume for it.

So it’s always better to over-assume your responsibility instead of minimising it.

Because not assuming enough responsibility makes you feel trapped in your situation, waiting for someone else, or some stroke of luck, to finally fix it.

While over-assuming it grants you the freedom to actually cause the change you’d like to see in your life.

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