The Power of Taking Responsibility

Jeff Valdivia
Nov 16, 2019 · 7 min read

Especially when it’s not your fault.

Photo by Rodolpho Zanardo from Pexels

Sometimes we forget that there’s a difference between fault and responsibility, and this has surprising implications for the quality of our lives. This is a distinction Mark Manson describes in his book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.

You might know the famous line from Spiderman that Uncle Ben says to Peter just before he dies, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Manson turns this iconic quote on its head with the switch of just two words: with great responsibility comes great power.

What does this mean?

This is an instruction for gaining power over your life. It is advice on how to feel less helpless and more in control. It is a way to move forward that will bring you peace and success.

So, what does this look like?

Fault and Responsibility

When you are at fault you are the cause. You brought a consequence into being. For example, you can be at fault for a car accident or you can be at fault for hurting your partner’s feelings.

When you are responsible for the consequence, it means that you will deal with it appropriately. For example, you pay the deductible on the car insurance or you apologize to your partner.

But, what happens when you’re not at fault?

What if you’re the other party in the car accident? You are still responsible for dealing with some of the consequences, aren’t you? When you drive on the road, you acknowledge the potential dangers and the trouble in which you might find yourself. As a result, you work with your insurance provider and a mechanic to get your car fixed. You might be pissed off at all this extra work you need to do, but you do it, anyway.

On the other hand, what if you’re hurt by your partner? Do you get all quiet and moody? Do you refuse to talk? Do you stubbornly believe it’s up to the person at fault to make you feel better?

Sure, if you have a solid relationship, your partner should give you a sincere apology and make a genuine commitment to try to prevent it from happening again. However, once that has been done, the anger you still feel is not up to him or her to extinguish. That is up to you.

Don’t get me wrong — I get it. Dealing with our emotions is hard. It’s way easier to point a finger and say, “Deal with it” than it is to look inward and say the same. But, “easier” doesn’t mean “better” because no one has control over your mental states other than you. Someone could apologize a thousand times and it might not make any difference to your mood.

In cases like these, it’s your sense of moral superiority, the feeling of righteous indignation, that keeps you in a bad mood and makes you impossible to satisfy. But, just because you’re in the right doesn’t mean you get to sit back and wait for someone else to solve your problem. All that would make you is a shirker of responsibility.

Taking Radical Responsibility

Besides, why should we put the responsibility of the state of our minds in the hands of someone else? What purpose could it serve to give that responsibility away?

I mean, isn’t the state of your mind something you’d rather have control over? Why would you want to be miserable while waiting for someone else to figure out how to make you feel better?

Because we lose sight of the distinction between fault and responsibility, we tend to miss out on the opportunity to fix these problems ourselves. So, instead of doing the work to bring ourselves out of the bad mood, we wait, impatiently and angrily, as the world figures out what to do.

In times like these I’m reminded of the following idea, which is often attributed to the 5th-century Buddhist monk, Buddhaghosa:

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

Have you ever intentionally held on to a hot coal? I have. Thousands of times. And it never occurred to me that I was burning myself. It always felt like someone else was at fault for my pain.

Like many things in life, perspective is everything. We have a social expectation that the people at fault should “fix” whatever it is they’ve broken. But, in the case of our mood, this is like expecting them to pry the hot coal out of our hands. Why are we resisting? Can we not simply open our clenched fist?

The expectation that someone else will solve our problems is a form of entitlement. It is a relic from youth and it is better we let it go.

Dealing With Our Emotions

Like any change to your life, small steps are the key. Nothing changes overnight. Everything takes time and effort. But change is possible.

Here are some things that you can do to help.

#1 Awareness

This means you need to pay attention. You need to listen to your thoughts and allow yourself to feel your emotions. Don’t push anything away. If you let this information slip by unnoticed, you will not have what you need to adequately deal with the situation.

Something that has really helped me to become more aware of what’s going on in my mind has been mindfulness meditation. This kind of meditation has been shown to help with emotional regulation.

#2 Understanding

Negative emotions can result from a triggering event — like an overwhelming workload — or from how we interpret a situation — like the horror we feel when making a mistake in front of our colleagues.

When you feel an emotion, try to understand where it’s coming from. Think about the context of the situation and question even what seems self-evident. Be curious, as if you’re trying to understand someone else.

And try to notice what you can change versus what you cannot change. This is a critical piece to understanding the bounds of what it means to take radical responsibility for your life. For example, you can’t change what’s already happened, so don’t dwell on that. Instead, think about what you can do right now that will make a difference.

#3 Reframing

Reframing our thinking doesn’t change the facts of a situation, it changes how we perceive those facts. For example, if your boss shuts down one of your ideas, you have two options:

  1. Abandon the idea; or
  2. Explore where you may have gone wrong, understand where your boss is coming from, talk to other people, problem solve.

Which would you choose? Many of us would choose #1. Having someone say “no” to us is difficult to hear. However, it doesn’t mean the conversation is over. You have the power to decide when that conversation is over.

When things start getting difficult, we tend to give up. But, that’s a choice. By changing how we think about situations, we change how we react to those situations.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen overnight. Like everything meaningful, you will need to work at this. You will need to remind yourself over and over how and why you’re reframing the situation because you will inevitably fall back into the same old patterns of thinking. So, be strong and patient. It takes time and effort.

Take Radical Responsibility Today

Start out slow. Pay attention to your thoughts and emotions without judgment. Allow them to come and go without holding onto them.

Then, understand the situations that bring them about. Understanding why and when you think and feel as you do is critical if you want to break out of vicious cycles of thinking.

Finally, change how you think about those situations. You likely perceive many situations in unhelpful ways. It’s up to you to understand how and why you do this and then to make a conscious and consistent effort to think differently.

You can take radical responsibility for your life. And you must if you want to be free of the negativity that only brings you down.

Remember, life happens in our heads, so get to know what’s going on in there. Paying a little bit of attention can change everything.

Thanks for reading!

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Jeff Valdivia

Written by

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

Jeff Valdivia

Written by

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

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