A big topic in personal development is taking responsibility and being in control of one’s own life. You’re told to stop asking “why me?” and start asking “how can I learn from this?” and “what can I do to make this better?” when faced with an undesirable situation. And that’s all good. In fact, it’s one of my core messages as well. But today I want to delve into the topic a little deeper. How much control do we actually have? How much responsibility? If you’re giving a PowerPoint presentation and the computer crashes, is it your fault?
I like the idea of everyone being 100% responsible for their own life. That means that there’s never anyone to blame but yourself, which can be considered somewhat frightening, but it also means that you have the power to fix whatever you consider ‘wrong’ about your life.
In theory, and if you ignore a few key aspects, this seems about right. You can control your thoughts and your actions, which means that you’re in control of the results. If you didn’t get to where you wanted, it’s because you didn’t put in the work / were too negative / depended on others who screwed you / etc. etc., and it’s all your fault.
But what about your genes? You can’t control them, can you? And maybe your parents didn’t give you a good education. Or you just happened to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time and grew up in an economic recession that didn’t allow you to ever be financially independent.
The questions, arguments and examples above seem to suggest that the responsibility and control we have over our life are to a great extent illusory. And yet, I still act on the basis that I am 100% responsible for my life (most some of the time, at least). Later in this post, I will explain why I don’t think the statements in the paragraphs above are contradictory, and how I think you are responsible for your life. But first, let’s have a look at what two great minds of the 20th century had to say.
Freud vs. Sartre
I am by no means an expert on Freud or Sartre, and the ideas I will present as theirs are likely to be oversimplified. Nonetheless, I think they offer helpful perspectives and will contribute to this debate on responsibility.
In Freud’s world, individuals are greatly influenced (if not controlled) by their unconscious mind, which in turn was influenced and, in a sense, created by a person’s upbringing. The early relationships with one’s parents as well as other experiences during infancy were thought by Freud to be of special importance in the development of the unconscious and of subsequent symptoms he would call neurosis and hysteria later on.
One could conclude that Freud believed in some degree of predetermination. Since the unconscious is formed before the conscious mind and continues to grow and exert influence over it throughout a person’s life, it is only logical to assume that people never have full control over their mind and actions. On top of that, we are, by definition, not conscious of our unconscious mind. This means that, even if we wanted to be free, we could never really know what it was that was secretly controlling us.
The only way Freud saw for us to at least get some control back was to make unconscious thoughts conscious through various psychoanalytic techniques. However, this process would require years of work, a lot of money, and could never recover all of one’s repressed thoughts and emotions.
What does this mean with regard to responsibility, though? We’ll come to that later. Let’s first see what Sartre had to say about all this.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s whole philosophy of Existentialism stemmed from one assumption alone: that there is no God. Because of this, people are brought to the world without an inherent purpose or essence. When we are born, we simply exist, and it’s up to us to create our essence through our actions.
Sartre dismissed Freud’s notion of the unconscious as unscientific and said that human beings were ‘condemned to be free’. Because there is no ultimate reason for our existence, there are also no excuses and we are fully responsible for every action we take. After we die, it is our actions that determine who we were (in a very literal “you are what you do,” or rather, “you are what you did,” sense).
Instead of saying that we should be responsible for what we do, Sartre proposed that we are invariably and always responsible for all that we do, without exception and with no way out. Even if you deliberately limit your freedom, he’d say, you can only do it because you are free, and there is thus no escaping freedom or responsibility, for that matter.
What’s it to be, then? Are we only a little bit free and mostly governed by our unconscious mind or are we condemned to be free and responsible for our actions with no possible excuses until we die? Let’s first take a look at why the very first examples in this post were so confusing.
Control and Responsibility
The reason why the examples I gave in the beginning seemed to contradict each other is because they didn’t belong in the same category. Some made you wonder what you’re actually in control of, and thus what is ultimately your fault, while others tried to make a point about your responsibility(/ies). Differentiating these concepts was what helped bring more clarity to this discussion in my own mind, and I hope it helps you get there, too.
I’m defining control as being able to choose a specific outcome. Within the control category, there are then things that are within our control, if only theoretically, and things that are outside of our control.
An example for something I can control to some extent is how I move my arms. I can choose to move my whole arm up, bend it at the elbow, let it fall, move only the hand or a specific finger, etc. I can’t, however, play the harp, because I do not have the necessary control. Theoretically, though, it is possible for me to gain more control of my arms and learn to play the harp. Controlling, then, is not black and white.
Outside of my immediate control is the arm of someone next to me. For as hard as I try, I can’t move someone else’s arm as I can my own. An even clearer example are the laws of nature. Even though I could try to manipulate someone into moving their arm the way I want them to or use force to try to control it, I cannot change the laws of nature. Gravity is there whether I want it or not, and so is the electric force. Time will dilate and my mass will increase if I move faster no matter how hard I wish I didn’t know the theory of relativity and that the world made some sense again.
We might not be in control of everything around us (in fact, there are probably a lot more things we are not in control of than things we can actually control), but that doesn’t mean we aren’t free. It simply means that our freedom is limited. And luckily for those of us who wish to have a big influence on our life and the world, there are ways to gain more control.
Having more money, better connections, people working for you, the respect of others, being famous, etc., gives you more control and influence over many aspects of your own life and even of other people’s. Ultimately, though, there will always be way more things outside of your control than inside. I like to think of it this way: no matter how rich, happy, healthy or well-connected I am, someone could shoot me in the head and kill me anytime without me even noticing. My point is not that you should fear what you can’t control. Rather, you should accept your vulnerability and the fact that there are things you have absolutely no control over.
You actually gain more control over your life by ignoring the things you can’t control. You might not be able to stop something bad from happening to you eventually, but you can control how you will perceive it, what meaning you’ll give it, and how you will respond to it. When you stop fussing at the fact that something bad happened to you, that’s when you can start choosing how to respond and ultimately determine what impact you’re going to let that situation have over you.
There’s a saying that goes: “Life’s not about waiting for the storms to pass… It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” That’s what this is about. Bad things will happen. Deal with it.
And by this I mean: take more responsibility. But what does that mean, exactly?
Dictionary.com defines responsibility as “the state or fact of being responsible, answerable, or accountable for something within one’s power, control, or management.” (emphasis mine)
Thus, when I said you are 100% responsible for your life, I lied. You are 100% responsible for what is under your control. In short, you are responsible for your decisions. So while I, like Sartre, believe that you are always responsible for all your decisions, I disagree with the notion of being responsible for everything. As Freud showed, you can’t even control everything within your own mind, let alone your surroundings and the world. You are, however, responsible for your actions and your reactions to external circumstances.
Here’s an example to clarify: You live in a really nice suburban house with a great garden. If a dog comes and shits on your yard, it’s not your fault. But now it’s your job to clean it up.
Because you chose to have a garden and not protect it completely from dogs (through a high fence, dog-targeting lasers or whatever), you have to accept the possibility of a dog shitting on it. After the act, you’re the one responsible for cleaning the garden (if you want it to be clean, that is).
This story teaches you two steps that have to do with responsibility.
First, you have to accept that all your actions have consequences. Some might be more probable than others, but you can’t forget that it is possible for you to be hit by a falling piano because you chose to walk on the street. Note that the most important word here is “accept.” You have to fully accept the possible consequences of what you do and draw power from that vulnerability, not the other way around. Otherwise you’ll be paranoid all the time because you’ll give your power to control your emotions and thoughts away to possibilities, which is the opposite to the fifth power of what I’m trying to say with this entire article.
Second, you have to take full responsibility for how you deal with whatever happens. This step might be even more important than the first because, to a large extent, your ability to consciously respond to what happens to you will determine the quality of your life. Of course the quality of your life doesn’t boil down to one decision, which is why it is so important to always take ownership of your thoughts, emotions and mindset. If you habitually steer your life towards positivity with positive thoughts and emotions, you will build positive momentum. If your days suck and you complain about it all the time, you’re going to feel ever worse, which is going to help you make your days suck even more. Take an example of two imaginary people who just lost their jobs.
The first one is habitually negative. By this I mean that his usual thoughts create emotions he doesn’t want to experience and, when faced with a situation he doesn’t want, he resorts to thinking those same thoughts. He probably also extends that negativity to the people around him, thereby attracting more negative friends into his life and repelling the more positive people. He would probably blame the system or his boss for having made his life miserable and expect the government to create a new job for him. Meanwhile, he stays at home playing video games and drinking beer and sinking further into his own negativity.
The second one is usually upbeat and positive. He is initially sad with the news but remembers that he can feel whatever he wants and goes back to feeling happy. From there he realizes a new sense of freedom he didn’t have before. Although he liked his last job (why else would he have applied for it?), it didn’t leave him with enough time to pursue a business idea he had had with a friend. So he finds a part-time job that meets his standards and calls his friend-and-future-business-partner with the news.
Who do you think is more likely to succeed (whatever your definition of success is) in the long run, even though both were faced with similar situations? And do you see why it would be unwise to base that judgement solely on the decision they made after losing their jobs without taking into account their usual state?
Well, guess what, you are responsible for your usual state, and all of the others in between!
Before we go on, let’s take a look at a question I asked in the beginning: if you’re giving a PowerPoint presentation and the computer crashes, is it your fault?
We now know that the issue at hand here is not whether or not the crashing is your fault. Assuming you have no direct control over the computer, projector, software, power outlets or any other factors that can influence the projection of the presentation, a crash can’t be your fault. What can and should be discussed is where the responsibility goes. The defining factor here is choice.
If you chose to do your presentation using a medium that might not work, be it a computer, specific software, or something else, you are no doubt responsible for dealing with it when it fails you. It is still not your fault, but you can’t blame anyone else and can’t expect them to fix your problem for you either.
What if it was your teacher who demanded a PowerPoint presentation? In that case, you can’t be responsible, for you had absolutely no choice whatsoever, but it remains your problem and you will probably be expected to deal with it. It is not fair, per se, but it’s the truth. This goes to show that sometimes we have to take more responsibility than our ‘fair share’.
This is one of those situations which separate the weak from the strong. Strong people take the extra responsibility while weak people run from it like the plague, blaming everyone else and giving all of their power away in the process. Again, the distinction between those who take a lot of responsibility for their own lives and those who don’t is not black and white. And while most people fall under what could be called a ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ range, it’s worth considering two extreme cases.
At the very ends of the spectrum are the people who either ignore everything I just explained or don’t understand a crucial part of it. They can both be considered ‘weak’, since their mindsets, despite being almost diametrically opposed, deprive them of power and of a positive attitude. The ‘syndromes’ I will describe may have some similarities to mental illnesses, but they are not to be regarded as such. I believe that most people suffering from these ‘syndromes’ can improve their lives by raising their consciousness, becoming aware of what they are doing, and taking appropriate action.
Like the name suggests, people suffering from apathetic syndrome are… you guessed it: apathetic. They take as little responsibility as possible for their outer and inner environments, blaming other people and outside events for their mood and their mood for their reactions instead.
They see responsibility as being inevitably linked to blame and always give it to someone else. They are the victims of the system who don’t try to turn their lives around because of the ‘economy’ or any other ghost-enemy. They are not content with their lives, but think it’s not their job to change them.
It’s not that these people are powerless, they simply choose to ignore whatever power they have and the possibility of getting more. Instead of at least trying to figure out how to fix problems they are faced with, they say “it’s not my fault!” and expect someone else to fix their problems for them.
If you are suffering from mild apathetic syndrome yourself, or find that you could be (d)evolving in that direction, you can slowly take control of your life again. Here are the first few steps I would suggest based on how I started taking more responsibility for my own life:
- Make sure you understood the concepts explained in the article. Having a theoretical understanding of where you should be gives you more clarity about how you can proceed next.
- Pick one goal and stick with it. Theory is good, but it won’t help if you don’t put it to work. You don’t need a complicated goal-setting process for this. Just pick one goal you can see yourself achieving with some effort within a short period of time (a week or a month, for example).
- Choose a topic and learn more about it. One way to start taking control of your life is to be more informed in general. The more you know on a certain topic the better you are able to make decisions and the less you’ll be influenced by your environment.
- Pick an area of your life and take control of it. Revamp your eating habits, start going to the gym or decide to take responsibility for your finances. You train your ‘responsibility muscles’ by using them, so choose an area of your life and take control. Inform yourself however you need, but don’t let anyone tell you what to do in that area. Slowly you can start taking responsibility for more parts of your life the same way.
- Eliminate your biggest time waster and use your time differently. If you currently watch a lot of TV, stop. You’ll find you have a lot more time on your hands and can now use it as you wish. As a bonus, your overall happiness level may rise simply because you stopped watching fear inducing shows like the news.
Take one of these steps and implement it as soon as you can. When you start seeing results, come back and implement another one. They were made to help you gain more control of your life by consciously making decisions and thus choosing how you want to live.
If you don’t identify with the description of the apathetic syndrome, you can use the tips if you notice someone who could use a little push to try and get them to take more responsibility for their life.
My Fault Syndrome
As the name suggests, the person I’d characterize as suffering from MFS regards every negative situation as their fault, conscious- or unconsciously. Along with the helplessness that comes with apathetic syndrome, they are also filled with guilt.
Their problem is not so much taking responsibility, it’s taking the wrong kind of responsibility for the wrong thing. Instead of focusing on what they have power over, they feel guilty for things outside of their direct control. This is not only very frustrating, it also doesn’t in any way help fix whatever it is you might want fixed (which is part of the reason why it is so frustrating).
Let’s take a look at an example. Say an MFS-er ‘hurts’ someone else’s feelings. The MFS-er is going to be very frustrated to know that they were the cause of someone else’s suffering when he realizes that there is nothing he can (directly) do about it. Other people’s feelings are their responsibilities, and all we can do is change the way we say things; we cannot force them to change their feelings (that’s outside of our control), but we can try to convey our message more clearly (which is inside of our control) and give the responsibility for any interpretation to the person interpreting the message.
Here’s another example: when a strong person loses his job, he may initially try to figure out what he did wrong, but will quickly turn his attention towards how he can be better in the future (so that it doesn’t happen again), and what he can do immediately to remedy his situation, whether that means applying for more jobs, starting a business, or whatever other action applies to his specific circumstances. He would also not harbor guilt, because he takes responsibility for his thoughts and emotions and knows that he works best when in a positive mood and focused on the immediate present and the future instead of the past. The MFS sufferer simply doesn’t leave the first phase (feeling guilty and sorry for himself) and thus takes significant more time to move forward.
So, in short, these people either (1) take more blame than they should and don’t focus on what they can change or (2) get trapped in feelings of guilt for things in the past, which makes it more difficult to move on, or they do both, blaming themselves for something they couldn’t have avoided for a long time after it happened.
If you find yourself in this situation or know someone who might be, take a look at these tips and implement a few of them or show them to whomever you think might benefit from them:
- Forgive yourself. Write down what you feel guilty for right now and really forgive yourself for everything. It may take a lot of time, so don’t expect to be guilt free in one day. Choose the easiest thing on the list, work on forgiving yourself for it for some time and, when you’ve managed to do it, move on to the next.
- Learn to focus on the present. Throughout the day, remind yourself to be present especially when a concern from the past pops up in your mind. Do not blame yourself for past mistakes or think about your regrets. Rather, work on fixing what you can right now and forget about what you can’t fix. For more one staying in the present and why it’s so important, check out my article Now Is All You’ve Got, and Part 2 as well.
- Learn to separate your responsibilities from those of others. This one is going to take more time and I can’t really teach you how to do it, but here is one tip to get started: if the way you feel is your responsibility (and it is), then the others are also responsible for how they feel. Be careful not to fall into the trap of ridding yourself of all responsibility and ignoring your duties – if you have read this far, you already know that is not the way to go either.
Your Personal Syndrome
In case you haven’t noticed, most of the distinctions I have made so far aren’t black and white, and this is no exception. Not only can our degree of apathy or ‘my-fault-ness’ vary over time (even within the same day), we can also jump from one syndrome to another on different occasions. While most people are strong in the same way, weakness can manifest itself in a variety of ways.
So, instead of trying to figure out whether your actions are more apathetic or MFS-y, you can look at them as either weaker or stronger. The formula to becoming more responsible for your life and stronger, then, is very simple: find out where you usually make weak decisions and make stronger ones instead. Stronger decisions not only make more sense, they can be felt, too: taking the necessary responsibility leaves you with a feeling of being powerful, while the opposite may provide a sense of false relief but will strip you of your power in the long run.
How To Become Stronger
This article already provides plenty of tips and concepts to get you started on your way to becoming stronger and more responsible. If there were one last tip I could give you, though, it would be to read personal development material.
Whatever material you can get your hands on – be it free blogs like this one and others (this article lists some of my favorites), ebooks, books, audio or videos – consume lots of it. You will be introduced to a lot of notions and ideas that will further help you take more control of your life and you will slowly raise your consciousness by reading material from people who are more conscious than you in particular areas of life. I truly believe that the one habit that contributed the most to my growth in the last several months has been to read a LOT of personal development material.
Along the way I have noticed that this is a very long-term investment – I have read about many concepts last year that I am only beginning to grasp right now, and I believe it is because, at the time, I wasn’t developed enough for me to be able to understand them. I also believe that it simply takes time for our subconscious to assimilate an idea – such as the vibe of financial abundance, the notion of being responsible for one’s own life, etc. – and fully integrate it into our identity.
Repetition is also important: if you read about one topic only once, you might forget it before you even had the chance of starting to grasp it; if, however, you read a certain post every few months along with others on a similar topic, not only will the different perspectives help you ‘get it’, the repetition will tell your subconscious that the topic is important to you and it will do most of the work of understanding it for you. Then one day you’ll be minding your own business when it simply clicks. And that is an awesome feeling, I can tell you that!