What Happens if You Accept Responsibility Even When You Don’t Have to?

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“Everyone leaves me!  It’s not my fault.”

I had a friend who was so committed to powerlessness and playing the victim that his life fell apart.  These words came in a desperate and defiant moment, as I was trying to help him see this.  His actions toward a few people in his life were damaging and hurtful, yet he was blind to the effects of his action.  All he could see was his own hurt and what others had done to him.

Eventually, his marriage and many of his friendships fell apart.  His response was the same, “This is always what happens to me!  Everyone leaves.”

It was a mess.

So Many Ways to Be A Victim

I wish I could say that this was an extreme and isolated incident, but I can’t.  I often get emails from readers asking questions about where they are and what they should do next.  It’s helpful for me to hear the stories people share.  It helps me stay current and in tune with the people that are reading and listening to what I create.

Among the many great and thoughtful emails, I often get some that are a bit different.  Instead of asking for help, they’re mostly explaining how hard life has been and why they feel unable to work, risk, take action, etc.

I don’t want to dismiss someone’s challenging journey, or come across as lacking empathy, but the tone of the message says it all: “I’m a victim of my life and circumstances.”  These are the most challenging messages for me to respond to.  I know there is little that I can say that can actually help.

Few people like to accept responsibility for the difficult things that happen in their lives.  When something goes poorly at work, when things fall apart, it is unusual for someone to step up and say, “I’m responsible.”  It’s much easier to point to the many factors around us that contributed to the crisis.

I get it, and I’m guilty of it.  But passing off the responsibility is a double edge sword.  The more we blame others and circumstances, the less power and agency we have in our own lives.  The more we tell the story of being a victim, the more our worldview shifts toward powerlessness.  The less power we have, and the more victimization we claim, the more difficult it is to actively effect change on the world around us.

Choosing to be the victim surrenders our power.  It’s subtle and difficult to notice, which is what makes it so common.

Characteristics of the Victim

Have you ever been around someone who constantly plays the victim card?  Or maybe it takes the form of blame shifting— always finding a good excuse or scapegoat for negative experiences.  If you know this person, you’ll notice a few things:

First, they do it all the time.  The victim mentality can creep into all aspects of life, from work to personal.  There’s aways a sob story to be told.

Second, they’re unaware of it.  Awareness is the first step toward accepting responsibility, and responsibility is the opposite of victimization.

Third, they’re not fun to be around.  The victim needs you to validate his worldview and affirm that he’s been taken advantage of.  He will try to pull you into it.  At least at first.  Until something happens and he needs to offload the blame, and you’re standing close by.  Then you become the scapegoat for him.

The Way Out: Accept Responsibility

The way out of the victim mentality is to accept responsibility for your life— no matter what.  This may feel unfair or even dangerous at first— after all, bad things happen all the time without anyone being at fault.  But there’s a difference between fault and responsibility.  You can still be responsible without being at fault.

Let’s say you just bought a house.  You had been thinking about it for a while and saving for a downpayment.  You went to the bank and got a loan and found the perfect house.

Now let’s say that the year is 2008, and the stock market crashed, the real estate bubble burst, and now your house is worth half of what you bought it for.  What you thought was a great investment is now a financial mess that you’re stuck with.

The loss of your house’s value was not your fault, but you are responsible for it.  Just ask the bank.  You’re responsible for the money they gave you.

This is the difference between fault and responsibility.  Sometimes they go hand-in-hand.  Sometimes they do not.

The key is that you accept responsibility for the events of your life, no matter who is at fault.

Mark Manson has a great article about this concept, in which he writes:

“We don’t always control what happens to us. But we always control a) how we interpret what happens to us, and b) how we respond to what happens to us. Therefore, whether we consciously recognize it or not, we are always responsible for our experiences. “

While the events of our life are at times out of our control, our response to them is always within our control.  This idea is one of the foundations of the practice of mindfulness: noticing before you respond.

No matter what has happened to you.  No matter what has brought you here and no matter what role you have in it, you are responsible for your life, your career, and your choices.  Whether or not others have had it easier or harder, your work is only in how you respond to your own life.

The Most Difficult Question

This may be one of the difficult questions for you to answer honestly:

What are the events of your life that you are avoiding taking responsibility?

I’m not saying that you’re playing the victim, but I believe that most of us could up our responsibility game. Think about this in all areas of your life: work, relationships, family, goals, etc. It’s uncomfortable.  But only through responsibility can real change occur.

Bad things happen that threaten to ruin your life, but it’s up to you how you respond to them.  You always have a choice.

Dan Cumberland is on a mission to push you into the places meaning, life, & work intersect. He is the author of The Meaning Manifesto. Read more about him here, and connect with him on facebook and twitter.

There Are 2 Comments On This Post.

  1. Kelly Webb

    Dan, this is a wonderful post. I work very hard at understanding that I cannot change anyone else, but I can change the way I respond to them and their actions. I have two people, one in my personal life and one in my professional life, that do not take responsibility for their experiences. The way you have expressed this issue here has provided me with a new and positive way to “language this experience”. Thank you!!

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