“Life is not a matter of having good cards, but of playing a poor hand well.” –Robert Louis Stevenson
“The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.” -Dwight D. Eisenhower
Taking responsibility for your life doesn’t mean that you are to blame for growing up in an abusive home environment, or for any later mistreatment you may have experienced. It means making a choice to use each experience to learn, grow, and become more loving and mature. It means you are willing to take responsibility from this moment forward for how you respond to whatever circumstances, experiences and events you encounter.
We live in a culture that promotes victimhood. But blaming someone, or life circumstance, for your current unhappiness can keep you stuck in painful paradigms. Change cannot occur until you take responsibility for your choices and your life. Choosing to accept responsibility for your own life makes space for hope. If you believe you cannot be happy or successful unless someone or something else changes, then you are in effect a hostage. However, if you decide to forge your own path, then there is hope for transformation; the power belongs to you rather than something or someone outside of you.
Sometimes people equate taking personal responsibility for their lives with letting those they feel mistreated them off the hook. It is possible, however, to hold people accountable for unacceptable behavior and still choose to respond in responsible and empowering ways. Two of my stepfathers did abuse me. It was wrong and deeply hurtful. I don’t condone, excuse or minimize it. I think each of them should be accountable for their behavior. That accountability may be legal and/or moral. I do, however, refuse to allow my stepfathers’ abuse to define me or to dictate my behavior for the rest of my life.
It is not helpful to blame your current life on circumstances. Each person must take responsibility for their own life. Blame looks to the past. Taking responsibility lives in the present. Blame is disempowering. Blame says “I’m this way because…” Responsibility says “This happened to me. What can I do now to heal and live with joy?” Taking responsibility is empowering. Blame looks for fault. Taking responsibility for your own life demonstrates a commitment to improving, healing, and growing.
It isn’t unusual for people to want their lives to be different, without actually making any internal or personal changes. But any empowering life transformation requires personal choice and action. As Leo Tolstoy once said “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself”.
In her book “The Happiness Habit”, Pam Golen shared the results of an interview with two brothers. One was a multi-millionaire and the other a homeless alcoholic. The brothers grew up in an extremely toxic home environment with alcoholic parents. Interestingly, each brother felt their current life circumstance was a direct result of growing up in their dysfunctional home. The rich brother described the experience as the motivating factor in his desire to do something better and succeed. The homeless brother designated it as the reason for his downfall. Each assigned his own meaning to his experience.
To take personal responsibility you also have to move away from co-dependence. Co-dependence involves taking responsibility for other people’s choices, and sacrificing your own well-being in order to please them. Living co-dependently is living in a state of fear. It is seeking to satisfy the perceived needs of someone else in order to gain acceptance. Co-dependence limits your ability to hear your own inner voice of wisdom and to make the choices and paradigm shifts that will inspire your life and bring you joy. Shifting into a paradigm of personal responsibility suggests that each person is accountable for their own choices, responses and lives. That doesn’t negate the fact that we are also all inter-dependent. We live in relationship with ourselves, with our friends and family, with our local communities and with the global community. Recognize the difference, however, between acknowledging and respecting how our choices and actions impact one another, and seeking to mold your life around someone else to the exclusion on your own needs and desires.
In order to accept personal responsibility for the course of your life, you must be aware that you have choices and what those choices are. If you are unaware that you have a choice, it is impossible to select a different approach or path. You are simply in default mode. The challenge is that you may not know what it is that you don’t know. In other words, you may not currently have insight into healthier more empowered ways to approach a situation. You may feel stuck, but can’t see a way out. This is one reason it is important to make time to seek out and learn about ways to develop yourself. Reading, listening to CDs on self-growth, watching DVDs discussing personal growth topics, attending workshops and seminars, meditating, and associating with groups and individuals who are dedicated to personal evolution can all be wonderful ways to help you learn healthier and more empowering ways to deal with your life challenges.
As we grow from childhood to adulthood we all are taught, and adopt, certain perspectives and beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. But beliefs are just a habitual way of thinking within your current paradigm. If current beliefs do not serve you, or make you happy, you can change them into ones that do. Any habit, including a habitual way of thinking, can be changed. It may take a bit of time and focus, but it is possible.
When changing a habit it often takes more energy to get started than to keep going. A good analogy is launching a rocket into space. The vast majority of the fuel required to send a rocket to the moon is used up in the first few minutes as the rocket gathers the speed and force necessary to escape the gravitational pull of the earth. Once that has been accomplished, very little fuel is required to keep it going. One vital aspect of personal responsibility is that of framing your experiences in the most helpful and mature way possible, because the meaning you give your experiences makes an enormous difference in the quality of your emotional life. This topic will be addressed in more detail in the chapter on Empowered Emotions. It is important to remember that choosing to view your experiences from a more comprehensive, inclusive perspective allows you to respond intentionally to events in your life rather than merely react to them.
Personal responsibility allows you to recognize that no past situation need determine your potential for success in life. It recognizes and acknowledges your past within a larger context; understands that your life is much more than your history. It allows you to unwrap the gifts that may have been overlooked in what you have gone through. It is a purposeful decision to not allow your life to be hijacked by your past or current suffering, but rather to acknowledge your power to choose something different. Some people who have come from the direst situations have achieved great things – not in spite of, but because of, what they learned from their experience. It can be convenient, even easy, to use the past as an excuse, but each of us has the power to choose to rise above events in our past and realize our true potential. It may not always be easy, but it is always worth the investment of time and energy.
We are taught that if we grow up in an unhealthy or hurtful environment, it means we are irreparably damaged. I actually have heard psychologists, parents and teacherssay a child will be “scarred for life” because of something they experienced. I’ve even heard this said in the presence of the abused child. What a hopeless paradigm. The message the child received is that they were broken and had no chance at a joyful and fulfilled life! Disempowering, to say the least.
There is a new and long-needed branch of psychology surfacing in the field of mental health: Positive Psychology. It is based on the idea that painful experiences do not create exclusively negative results; much deepening and strengthening can result as well. Since the inception of modern day psychology, treatment has focused almost exclusively on pain. This approach has done a lot of damage, in part because what we focus tends to grow and expand.
There can be definite advantagesto difficult experiences, including that of a tough childhood. In the book “Cradles of Eminence” by Victor Goertzel, Mildred Goertzel, Ted Goertzel and Ariel M.W. Hansen, the authors discuss over 700 famous and successful people in history who seemed to succeed not in spite of, but rather because of, their adversities. A scientific principle called the Adversity Principle asserts that lack of challenges yields only a small measure of growth and strengthening. The unprotected tree in the forest clearing that endures the most buffeting from the wind and elements tends to be much healthier and stronger than the one protected on all sides by other trees. Breaking the eggshell for a chick instead of letting it struggle can seriously compromise its ability to survive. Helping a butterfly escape from its chrysalis may spell its death, as is exemplified in this story.
A man found a butterfly cocoon. He watched the cocoon for several days. One day a tiny opening appeared in the cocoon. He sat very still and watched as the butterfly struggled for several hours to force itself through the tiny hole of its cocoon. Then it seemed to stop making progress. It appeared to the man as if the butterfly had gone as far as it could, and could go no further, so he decided to help the butterfly out of the cocoon.
He snipped the remaining bit of the cocoon with scissors, and the butterfly emerged effortlessly. There was something strange, however. The butterfly had a swollen body, and its wings were shriveled. The man watched closely, expecting that the wings would enlarge and expand to support the body, which would contract in time. Neither happened. In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its short life crawling around with a swollen body and deformed wings. It was never able to fly.
Though the man acted in kindness, what he didn’t understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the small opening of the cocoon were critical pieces of the process of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready to fly once it has achieved its freedom from the cocoon. Author Unknown
I certainly am not implying that we should seek out pain, or that we should purposely inflict it on others in some twisted rationale that we are somehow helping people to grow. We all have a right to be loved and treated with kindness, and we all have a need to love and treat others kindly. To act in opposition to that goes against our deepest, most intrinsic spiritual nature. What I am suggesting is that when we experience the inevitable hardships in life, those experiences can be utilized to help break open our hearts, to make us stronger and more resilient, and to cause us to grow in meaningful ways.
You are the only one who can live your life. If you are not happy with it, then it is up to you to find a way to change it. It is your responsibility to learn what you need to do to improve your life and make a paradigm shift. If you don’t change, your life won’t change.