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By Steve Wells

This week I continue my rant against some of the ridiculous success philosophies that are bandied about by pop psych experts. This week I take on the concept of Total Responsibility.

The total responsibility theory holds that no matter where you are, no matter what your circumstances, that you caused it, you are totally 100% responsible. The extreme version of this philosophy holds that everyone everywhere is where they are because they choose (or chose) to be there, and this even includes victims of genocide and natural disasters…

This uncompassionate narcissistic tripe is causing a huge amount of unnecessary suffering to people all over the world. Everywhere I go I see people who, if they get cancer, now have to ask, “What did I do to cause this?” And if they don’t ask that, they can be sure that some uncompassionate stranger or false friend will ask a question like it…

In regard to the current world economic climate which has caused people all over the world to be careful with their money a friend recently wrote to me, “Am I manifesting backwards?” Answer: No, some greedy bankers stuffed it up for the rest of us, and now we all have to deal with it!

The reason why you are supposed to accept total responsibility is, so the theorising goes, because if you do so, THEN you can change it. If you assume that you caused it, then it is supposed to follow logically that you can uncause it, that you are now empowered to change it and make it the way you want to be… Taking total responsibility is thus supposed to be empowering. Well wouldn’t it be great if this were the case? In actuality, for most people, it isn’t.

Let's challenge some of the assumptions of the total responsibility philosophy …

Firstly, why does it necessarily follow that if you do NOT assume total responsibility for having caused the situation you are in that you are somehow DIS-empowered by this and rendered unable to change it? If a cyclone causes my house to fall down does my seeing the cause of the situation as being natural forces prevent me from seeing that there are things I can do to change things? Does this automatically mean I cannot or will not rebuild my house? Of course not!

Nor does my seeing that external factors caused this situation mean that I will automatically be caught up in an unending blame game where I stay attached to my upset at (for example) the weather. It’s more likely an inability to accept what IS that would be the genesis of THAT problem…

Thirdly, does assuming that you are responsible for EVERYTHING that happens to you actually cause you to feel empowered? Obviously it can for some people, but it doesn’t for most of the people that I see. In fact, I see more people who are DIS-empowered rather than empowered by the doctrine of total responsibility.

Contrary to the empowerment theory, it’s been shown scientifically that assuming total responsibility for all the negative things that happen to you is a prescription for depression! According to Martin Seligman’s research in Learned Optimism people who are optimistic actually tend to transfer blame outside themselves for bad things that happen to them whereas those who are pessimistic tend to blame themselves for every bad thing that happens. When I first took Selgiman’s Optimism test 15 years ago, I came out a little bit pessimistic on this dimension! And it was then that I realised that the doctrine of total responsibility that I had swallowed hook line and sinker actually was a double edged sword, costing me a significant portion of my self-esteem…

As Seligman says: “People who blame themselves when they fail have low self-esteem as a consequence. They think they are worthless, talentless, and unlovable. People who blame external events do not lose self-esteem when bad events strike. On the whole, they like themselves better than people who blame themselves do.”

I am all for empowerment and being able to change things. But this total responsibility thing can be taken too far and most people tend to end up after swallowing it writhing uselessly in self-blame and self-recrimination rather than feeling empowered. As Seligman has shown, many of them are self-blaming themselves right into deep depression. If you are taking total responsibility the logical next step to self-blame you may end up suffering all the way to someone else’s bank…like your therapist, your life coach, or your new age thinking guru …

Who is responsible if someone gets attacked? Many might say that a person who chooses to walk down a dark alley at night is taking an unnecessary risk and therefore should take some responsibility for what happened… But is it also possible for bad things to happen to good people, even when they do all the “right” things? We all know this is true.

Are the people in China who have lost their homes due to the recent earthquake or the people in Texas whose homes have been wrecked due to the recent hurricane REALLY totally responsible for these things happening to them? And don’t please give me that BS that they all caused it to happen by their thinking. Do you really think that they were all thinking bad things and THAT is what caused this to happen to them? Do you really think that it was only their thinking that caused these catastrophic events? Unfortunately, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, I know some of you reading this will still say yes to these questions…

And this brings us to the ugly side of the total responsibility philosophy, the absence of compassion in many who subscribe to this extreme view.

I have frequently seen people who believe in total responsibility act without compassion towards sufferers, looking down on them, even actively blaming them for their situation (“You caused it”), or totally invalidating the person’s situation and needs whilst encouraging them to “Look for the lesson” rather than giving them practical assistance and support. The person is usually already blaming themselves enough; they don’t need you to fuel the flames of their own internal toxic blame bonfire.

The extreme version of total responsibility thinking makes you out to be God. Not just A God, THE God. And not a compassionate God either, a judging God. That’s why it tends to appeal to narcissists and those who like to lord it over other people, looking down with derision on those that don’t swallow their philosophy, poor plebs that they are having all those problems …

Until they have problems themselves…

And that’s when perhaps the biggest problem with total responsibility hits home. The fact that it leaves you on your own. Alone. With all that presumed power and responsibility. And it is easy to forget that there are other people in the world willing to help you…

The support of other people is often the thing we need to help us through the tough times and total responsibility can cause us to cut ourselves off from this support. Those who end up in difficult circumstances can be lent a compassionate hand by those of us who, sometimes through good fortune alone, are at this moment in a position of strength and able to offer our support…

So what DO I agree with in terms of responsibility?

I agree with acknowledging and accepting the place you are at regardless of source, and then choosing to move on from there. Accepting what is, and taking response-ability for what you will do next. That’s what the word is about anyway, isn’t it, response-ability, the ability to choose your response to whatever situation you are in?

Now obviously your goals and the responses you choose will depend upon your level of awareness and the situation you find yourself in. If you are up to your neck in quicksand your first goal is simply to find something solid to hold onto, in order to ultimately make your way back to solid ground. And for that you may need someone else’s help…

So the version of responsibility that empowers me is: Whatever or whoever caused the situation I am in, my first goal is to accept where I am (and what IS) as prerequisite to responding to it. Once I can accept what IS, then I have the capacity to respond to it. I believe I CAN choose what direction I will then head in, knowing that I DO have influence but that there are also other forces in the world. And it is OK to ask for help and admit that I don't know everything. And that, I think, is the most empowering position to be in…

What do you think? We would love to read your comments...

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38 Replies to “The Myth of Total Responsibility”

Wendy Brokenshire

Hi Steve,

It is difficult to add anything more to what has already been covered by others whom have responded to your very astutue and welcomed article on the topic of ‘Total Responsibility’. Suffice to say I do hope your message becomes as loud as those people who propell this myth! As a clinician I too have been exposed to many of my clients who are all too ready to absorb the ‘crazy’ making message of I ‘chose’ this… whatever so I must need to learn a lesson. Thank goodness there are approaches such as EFT, SET and PET to assist people to deal with these false beliefs. Surely we all now understand that extremist thinking can and does often lead to very catastrophic events histroy is filled with examples.

The Buddha declared that suffering exists has many causes: loss, sickness, pain, failure, the impermanence of pleasure, the desire to have and to control things. To end suffering we have to achieve freedom of the mind non-attachment.
Hinduism teaches the belief in Brahman, the underlying universal life force that combines all. These scriptures say that our ignorance of the true nature of self as one with Brahman traps us in the endless cycles of suffering.
If we explore the possibility that we are part of the devine and therefore One, we eventually will come to the realization that we create our reality. We are souls in a human form (rather than humans with a soul).Once we accept that nothing in itself is either good or bad and that there is no such thing as good or bad people, then blame guilt become unnecessary. But we do create with our thoughts, words and deeds and if my responsibility is to end my suffering, wouldn’t I want to explore what caused my energy/vibration to shift, therefore creating imbalance? (eg. illness, calamities etc.) This is the cosmic dance and many people have proven that adversity can give birth to beauty. It also has been proven that collective consciousness exists and that can create massive shifts and distruction.
Why would the understanding of this reality make me less compassionate to the suffering of others? I think the opposite is true. Evolution of consciousness has many levels and some might see a bigger picture than others and I believe that these souls (humans) have a responsibility to bring comprehension awareness but never guilt or blame. I am here to find demonstrate my highest purpose and my experiences serve me help me to serve others. I can choose and if the result is not desireable I can choose again and again and again. Above all I am here to live joy, love and forgiveness and I take total responsibility for that!

mn

I have been using the mantra associated with claiming total responsibility for some major personal crisis in the last two months. For me, it has not depressed me but empowered me. It was a relief to finally realize and accept my part in my creation. I have felt more centered and inspired. My situation has improved. I have used the concept of personal responsibility in sticky situations and have felt things “soften”. The only thing I need to do is work on myself. The clealer I can become with myself, the more I can release any resistance to changes that may occur around me. This was a huge shift in perspective for me and has changed my life.

mn

Just to add to my last comment. This has not caused me to look down on others , just the opposite. I see everyone and every living being with more compassionate eyes. I see my own soul reflected in them.

Steve, have you read Michael Newton’s book ‘Journey of Souls’? It’s a most illuminating description of life ‘between lives’ achieved by regression hypnotherapy. A lot of answers are in that book. But it’s our choice to ignore them if we so wish.
Looking back over my 6 decades I can openly say I have been responsible for everything that has happened to me. I have invited things into my life because of who I was at the time. When I realised that negative feelings were not the best to have I made the necessary changes and life got much better. We are co-creators on this earth but are mostly ignorant of that enormous potential. What is happening on the stock markets is but one example of what we can achieve through fear. Just imagine what we could do if we were to create with love and compassion in our hearts instead!
If you wish to continue using words like ‘This uncompassionate narcissistic tripe’ that’s your affair. Are you really affecting change by trying to be devil’s advocate or just creating more of a divisive Us and Them situation? (with the implication that We are better than They are)

John B

Steve,
this thing of total responsibility. I think each situation is different and there is no one answer for all situations. Clearly at times we need to be responsible for situations we find ourselves in such as divorce, money problems and some health conditions. If we choose to live in a known hurrican zone, we shouldn’t be suprised if our house gets blown away. However, there are definitely things that happen that I’d say are out of our control and we don’t need to beat ourselves up over.

The things we could have avoided – so what , we goofed up, made a mistake- no problem, rather than beat ourselves up and be burdened with guilt and self blame, I think we need to forgive ourselves and do something differently for the future. Learn a lesson and move on again hopefully avoiding making the same mistake again, but who knows, sometimes we can be slow learners and that’s also OK.

John

Steve

Thank you, thank you, thank you! In a community of people who equate EFT with New Age I feel like a lone voice sometimes. I have come to this discussion slightly late having been referred to another article, but I am so glad I did. I do not believe EFT and New Age should be like salt and pepper. New Age is as much a religion, under the banner of ‘spirituality’ as Christianity and EFT is not a religion or a belief system.

My father was mentally ill my whole life due to a genetic brain condition which left him with early onset dementia at 50, paralysed and mute for 5 years and died at 60. Suring this time my mother almost abused him and we found she also had early onset dementia and we had to put her in a nursing home at 57 and she died last year at 60. My sister in the middle of this hung herself aged 30 and my youngest sister has dads condition and another possibly has mums. I have had 5 miscarriages, lost three very close best friends, two grannies, my grandad, and my MIL is now terminally ill. In terms of LOA does that make me the Angel of Death?

I cannot tell you the pain it has caused me to have therapists tell me I chose this, and they did! I have had to resort to warning EFT therapists not to throw this into my reframes as they all struggled to give meaning to my experiences. There is no meaning, Bad things happened to some very good people! To be fair to them the good ones have, and seemed to find it easy to say ‘Life can be crap sometimes.’

One of the things I have noticed is that this belief systems carries as much guilt as any other we would traditionally associate with guilt, such as perhaps Catholocism. I work along with any belief system and my clients are beating themselves up for not coping with their chosen life, or manifesting serious problems such as childhood sexual abuse, or angry with their mothers for choosing that path etc.

To be balanced yes there is alot we can be responsible for. Mostly I tell my clients that the we can’t change what happened but we can change our response to it. We can take responsibility for our feelings, our behaviour and our actions towards others. We can remove blocks to success and limiting beliefs, I can choose not to see myself as a victim and to use my experiences to help others. I choose to see life as a beautiful gift rather than feel cursed and doomed, but I am so glad I did not have to take responsibility for my life as I think that would have been to much to bear!

Thanks again for this.

Rachel G.

Thanks Gill (above) and thanks Steve for this clarity. I think there is a little confusion in the Law of Allowance in that the impression is given over that you always get what you “asked” for, or manifested. This is a narrowing down, a cutting out an important segment, of my beliefs. I believe that in a deep way, whatever happens to a person is intended for them, and is sent to help them, although sometimes it may be terribly painful. Many reasons have been given for suffering, whether to help us grow, to atone for sin, to teach us responsibility, and many others. It is a little narrow minded to assume that only reason we are given suffering is to teach us responsibility.
Thank you Steve for your clarity, your words were said at just the right time. Perhaps a person can sabotage his/her own opportunities for success. (Or perhaps even this he/she cannot do.) Regardless, the converse is not necessarily true by default – that any lack of success is caused by sabotage.
You write that a terrible consequence of this is lack of compassion. I think another terrible consequence is living in fear. People are trying so hard to be responsible, to not let anyone say it’s because they weren’t careful enough, that they very greatly limit themselves, and do not acknowledge many of the options that lie before them, for fear, for over-responsibility. They can’t take any risks.

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