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The simple way to take personal responsibility

Updated: Dec 30, 2023


Wear a suit but don't be a suit.
Sense & decide the way you want to be, then be that way - Isola Bella, Taormina, Sicily.

'It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.' - Josiah Stamp


I too have suffered the consequences of dodging my personal responsibilities. As if other people were responsible for our conduct. Hiding behind grievances, governments or histories. Wasting energy talking about poor school provision. Rather than grieving its loss and focusing our energies on educating our own kids. Instead, I propose we are self-creating beings. Who have full responsibility for what we make of our lives. An existentialist philosophical stance ( see Guignon, 2021.) So to me :


"We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell." - Oscar Wilde


My emotions in writing this blog included sadness and anger. In particular, we still seem to struggle to take our personal responsibility. So as a response, this blog will detail some ways we can both dodge, and take, our personal responsibility. We begin with two of my favourite dodges : self deception and procrastination.


Self deception and procrastination


One way we can dodge personal responsibility is by having inaccurate views of ourselves. One part attracted to a narcissistic sense of ourselves. Seducing ourselves into believing we are more important than other people. So exempt from taking all our responsibility (Ripley & Ward, 2023.)


Another part may believe we are fundamentally worse than anyone else. So whilst some people say ‘if you [take the personal responsibility to] speak your truth, your tribe will be those who hang around.’ This part of may say ‘what if I speak my truth and no one hangs around?’ So we can avoid doing so. As if our actual selves were unsuited to take personal responsibility. We can also dodge personal responsibility by procrastinating.


Ruminating if only we wrote more, thought more, or found the perfect way to be then we would act. Choosing avoidance over hypothesis testing. As if any decision did not involve significant risk and loss. Instead, I suggest, we are already implicated in what happens in the world. A part of the mistakes, mixed outcomes, and sound decisions that have already been made. In these ways, taking personal responsibility involves accepting that our actions will be imperfect. I suggest another challenge to taking personal responsibility is brokering the fairness/loyalty trade off.


Fairness vs loyalty


Fairness and loyalty are both well established moral values. However which of these values we give priority leads to different conclusions about what is our personal responsibility. For example,


'As to speaking, I hold it a crime to expose a man's sin unless I'm clear it must be done to save the innocent.' - George Eliot, Middlemarch


As adults we must consciously decide which action is most responsible for us. Guided by both our moral code and emotions. Whilst also accepting that our actions may be viewed by other people as either a betrayal. In fact, sometimes, betrayal is necessary for things to change. Perhaps deciding between loyalty and fairness is actually a choice of who we betray.

'Betrayal is a terrible thing, but without betrayal there can be no development....In betraying someone (or something) one is protecting someone (or something) else. And that someone or something else may be – in fact is likely to be – of real value' (Phillips, 2012.)


Uncertainty makes these choices more difficult. Students of risk will recognise that the past is often the best predictor of the future but that often the past is also a poor predictor of the future.


This means individuals may only discover which things are possible by trying to do them. Requiring the appointment of yourself as the authority in your life and so becoming your own institution. So in taking personal responsibility, we have to accept the consequences of our decisions. Both known and largely unknown (Dungan et al., 2015.) Next, I suggest, the time frame of our habitual thoughts can affect how much responsibility we take.


Here and now


'If you spend too much time in the past you are going to get depressed, and if you spend too much time in the future you are going to get anxious, and the goal is to try to live in the present' - (Group, 2021.)

Taking more personal responsibility seems to involve responding to the challenges we face in the here and now. This is because we can over indulge in congratulations, or condemnation, about the past. Alternatively fantasising about ideal or terrible futures. Distracting ourselves from the responsibility we can take in the present. This is another dodge of mine.


Instead I needed to learn and move on. Identifying my unconscious patterns and implicit biases (Ratliff, & Smith, 2021.) Making decisions after a reasonable information gathering process. In this way, taking responsibility becomes an opportunity to do something different. That can be exciting as well as scary. How then to summarise what, I think, taking personal responsibility involves? In short, we each need to decide how we want to be, then be it.


Deciding how you want to be, then being it


So if we are to take our personal responsibility. I suggest, we need to habitually sense, then decide, the way we want to be. Then act that way. This means taking personal responsibility is a judgement. A judgement we make and are accountable for. From this perspective life is a serious business. Our decisions are consequential for ourselves and other people. Whatever we do cannot be undone. At the very least we have to live with and answer to, ourselves. Whatever we do. That may be hard enough. This way of conscious living is not easy. Instead, as Auden (1927) suggests :


'A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep

Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:

Although I love you, you will have to leap; Our dream of safety has to disappear.'


References


Auden, W. H. (1927). Leap before you look. Collected Shorter Poems, 1957. https://web.mit.edu/cordelia/www/Poems/Leap_Before_you_look.html


Dungan, J., Waytz, A., & Young, L. (2015). The psychology of whistleblowing. Current Opinion in Psychology, 6, 129-133. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2352250X15001839


Eliot, G. (2015). Middlemarch: a study of provincial life. ; Chicago / Turabian


Group. (2021, January 1). Booty call [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0tHswsB9Wg


Guignon, C.(1998). Existentialism. In The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Taylor and Francis. Retrieved 12 Nov. 2022, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/existentialism/v-1. doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N020-1


Ratliff, K. A., & Smith, C. T. (2021). Lessons from two decades of Project Implicit. A Handbook of Research on Implicit Bias and Racism. APA Books. https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html


Phillips, A. (2012). Judas' Gift. London Review of Books, 34(1), 14. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v34/n01/adam-phillips/judas-gift


Ripley, B., & Ward, S., (2023) Pride, Seven Deadly Psychologies, (BBC Radio 4)


n.b. I have also collated a list of other free resources on general health I have found helpful. You can find them here : CLICK HERE


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