How To Be (Truly) Responsible.
Cultivating responsibility without resentment is key to navigating this moment of extreme change.
I’m coming to learn relatively late in life that I was never taught how to take responsibility. What I understood about it was gleaned from my environment — primarily the expectations of parents, teachers, bosses, and a system that wanted me to conform in convenient ways then, and still does.
There is an urge towards mutual care and responsibility that is inborn in us, but in the process of growing up and acculturating, it gets layered with the grime and residue of trauma, power dynamics, fear, family patterns, dysfunctional psychodynamics, and resentment. Suddenly, responsibility becomes a duty, a chore, a burden…a dirty word…something to shoulder or avoid altogether.
Hence, the adolescent culture here in contemporary America and beyond.
Like so much of our conceptual reality, responsibility is currently understood within the control paradigm that we’ve been living in for generations. Here is what the dictionary has to say about it:
> the state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone.
> the state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something.
> the opportunity or ability to act independently and make decisions without authorization.
Reading this, I flinch and I can see why we have a collective ambivalence towards the act of taking responsibility; tied up as it is with blame and authority.
It’s time to cultivate a deeper understanding of the reality — the lived, direct, mystical, sacred reality — of this concepts so central to our relationships and culture. We’ve been on autopilot for a long time. If we want to navigate out of this habitual patterns of behavior that are driving us to insanity and our species to extinction, we have to wake up and initiate a quest for understanding that is in alignment with the Laws of Nature, the immutable Laws that govern equilibrium and right relationship on this planet. Looking at how we take responsibility, and what responsibility is meant to be, may seem granular, but in my experience, this kind of deep investigation always leads to the roots of behavior and that is where we can actually change things. Let’s not stay at the surface…If you’re with me, let’s dive in.
What Is Responsibility (Really)?
What is healthy responsibility? How can we know when to take responsibility for someone or something? Does our capacity for self-responsibility effect our ability to take responsibility for anything or anyone else?
My own investigation into responsibility began recently when I ran up against the limits of my ability to handle a family crisis. I saw how my sense of responsibility was working against me. Despite my best intentions, it was leading me to make bad decisions (more on this in a bit). As my eyes opened to the subtle dynamics, I realized that how we take responsibility says a lot about who we are in relationships. I saw that responsibility, like creativity, is a place where we become active agents in the interweaving of life. It is a way to exert influence on the system, so it must be undertaken with great care, intentionality, and awareness. I find that in fact, it seldom is. Like most of our relational dynamics, responsibility is something we do (or avoid) without thinking and in that unconscious space, we risk hurting ourselves and others.
At work, at home, in love, in parenting…responsibility is omni-present and essential to healthy collaboration or cohabitation. Anyone who has ever had a bad roommate or work partner knows how an irresponsible person can wreak havoc. That’s obvious. But, there are many ways even those of us who consider ourselves responsible people are unconscious in the ways we take responsibility.
Think about responsibility in relation to the places in your life where you are a leader. The places in your life where you strive for healthy partnership or collaboration. And finally, the places in your life where you are subordinate, junior, a student, or otherwise working “under” someone else’s influence or according to their rules. Are you clear about what is your responsibility?
Why is it that responsibility seems to change based on our status or authority in a situation? What is agency inside and outside the bounds of hierarchical arrangements? Today in a post-modern western context, so much of this is being challenged, but without a lot of understanding. We run the risk of shifting the burden of responsibility squarely from one set of shoulders to another and calling that justice or progress. How can we start to develop a praxis of responsibility-taking that is as fluid and dynamic as the changing nature of our relationships themselves and the context in which they exist.
The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, gives us a clue about where responsibility lives:
“Our relationship lives in the space between us — it doesn’t live in me or in you or even in the dialogue between the two us — it lives in the space we live together and that space is sacred space.”
I’ve come to see responsibility as this: one entity/person takes ownership of something that exists in the relational space. Something “communal” becomes personal. I agree to own the effects of a thing when I take responsibility for it. For example, a parent takes responsibility for the behaviors of a child. Or — ideally — a leader takes responsibility for the actions of their team. This can happen voluntarily and without illusion…which is a healthy act of responsibility taking. Or it can happen involuntarily and unconsciously, which can lead to stress and resentment. As we dig deep into the topic, we shall see that the act of taking something from the relational field into our personal field can have all kinds of consequences. When we are aware of these consequences, we can make informed judgments about what we can and cannot handle. We know when to ask for help and when to offer it.
The mystical teacher and collective trauma expert, Thomas Hübl, offers another nugget of insight: response-ability is our ability to respond. That ability is dependent on our capacity to actually hold, handle, and process what is happening. When we are contracted or triggered, we tend to react — and usually not so wisely. Healthy responsibility is when we take on something voluntarily and with confidence that we have the capacity for it (energy, maturity, psychic space, actual material resources, etc). Unhealthy responsibility happens when we take on something reluctantly or when it’s more than we can handle.
If you look at your relationship to responsibility…to yourself, your inner circle of family and friends…your community…the planet…what do you find?
As our culture shifts into an evermore collective mode — a transition away from our myth of separateness and the systems of control that arose from it — we will need to negotiate whose responsibility is what more and more often. We will need to become very good at knowing and then communicating our perspective and our abilities so we can determine in a fluid and context-dependent way what is yours and mine to tend. I’m talking about a world beyond the bullet points, chore lists, job descriptions, letter of the law and rigid contracts we currently rely on to help us determine what we need to do to stay within bounds and to get the job done.
Thomas Hübl sees personal and collective healing as essential to the ability to respond to the myriad crises we are facing in this moment of collective evolution. He says:
In a higher society, The Law (Tao, Natural Laws, God, Great Spirit…) is internalized so we need fewer and fewer laws to tell us what is right or wrong. A higher society follows the Tao. If the Tao is lost we need goodness, if goodness is lost we need morality, if morality is lost, we need power, if power is lost we have chaos…Right now, we are in a very delicate moment of a collective upgrade on the planet. We need to take responsibility for how we navigate it. If we don’t sign up for it voluntarily we will get more crises like COVID, natural disasters, political turmoil and violence…This is essential right now for our survival.
Each and every one of us has a part to play in the great clean up and awakening that is currently underway. We are all being called to take responsibility for what is unhealed in our past and for the future that is waiting for us to show up. This is personal and collective. And how it’s done makes all the difference. We can either perpetuate the situation by approaching our responsibilities unconsciously and full of resentment. Or we can do the hard work of healing in order to actually repair and restore the fragmented world.
What’s needed now is heroic efforts by groups of people in high states of coherence. Being able to identify the dynamics of responsibility within yourself and within a group is critical to functioning smoothly and establishing a field of trust that can carry us through.
When Responsibility Becomes a Burden
Sadly, much of what we call responsibility today is born out of our trauma and fragmentation. It’s more a function of survival in an isolationist paradigm — I need to take responsibility for my finances (health, property, dependents, etc.) because I don’t want to end up penniless in old age, a burden on my children or the system. It can arise out of a deep existential fear that no one and nothing has our back here or that our future happiness depends on a kind of martyr-like self-sacrifice in the here and now. It can also arise out of deep-seated feelings of guilt, grief, and shame related to the collective trauma of the past…some activism is born from this place.
When we are in an unhealthy mode of responsibility, we:
- Want to avoid inconvenient or uncomfortable truths by jumping ahead to fixing things.
- End up hurting the people we are trying to help by making decisions out of fear, avoidance of embarrassment, or shame.
- Mistake occupying a position of authority with the actual ability to take responsibility effectively.
- Overstep boundaries and take on other people’s stuff.
- Feel righteous in our views; blind to other positions and possibilities.
- Feel resentment when it all becomes “too much” for us or when those we are “trying to fix” resist fixing.
These result in what we call, the burden of responsibility: acting in ways that seem virtuous, but actually make matters worse. The burden of unhealthy responsibility is everywhere you look. Either we carry a great deal of guilt and shame about all the things we should be taking responsibility for; or we feel resentful and overwhelmed by all that we’ve taken on without the actual capacity to handle it.
I recently found myself in a state of paralysis around some big decisions my family had to make. Many of us found ourselves in this position in 2020 as COVID rocked our habitual stability. Doing what I typically do in my family, I took everything on my shoulders, but this time the burden was too heavy to bear. I began to collapse. I was anxious, erratic, confused, and eventually desperate. With the help of a close confidante, I realized not only had I taken on too much by myself, the crux of the problem was that I was trying to fix everything without hurting anyone. As soon as she pointed this out, it felt like a very familiar place for me — bending under the weight of too much responsibility, but at least everyone else is ok!
I am quick to take responsibility for things. This may sound like a virtue, and it can be. But, it can also arise from an unhealthy desire to mitigate the suffering of others in ways that actually robs them of their agency and denies their feelings and experience. If we go back to that idea of taking responsibility as being an act of taking something out of the space between into one’s own space, I often snatch things before the other even has a chance to fully experience what’s there, what the possibilities are. This happens in my parenting, my intimate relationships, and work life.
I don’t think I am alone in this kind of responsibility-taking. But, there’s also a way some people are responsibility-avoidant. Instead of snatching things from the relational space, they pretend it’s not there. They look the other way or hide under a psychic rock. Like a lock-and-key, these types can enable each other. When you have a shadow tendency to take responsibility for other peoples’ experience, you can attract people with a shadow tendency to abdicate responsibility. This has certainly happened to me in love, in work, and in friendships.
What is your tendency? Maybe it’s different at work versus at home with family, or with friends versus intimate partners. These differences can often arise based on what areas of our life are more challenging for us — where we have a tendency to contract, we have a tendency to muddle what’s in the middle of the relational space.
If we can identify our patterns, we can start to understand where our unique responsibility signature is helpful and where it can be unintentionally harmful.
“Who” Takes Responsibility Matters
In responsibility, our ability to respond depends in large part on which of the many “me’s” inside takes on the task.
The adult in me can handle a lot. When she is present we are in good hands. She is calm, compassionate, wise, strong, resourceful and creative. I can trust her judgment. When she takes responsibility for something she gets the job done. She is capable of offering a genuine apology, owning her part in misunderstandings and arguments, considering the needs of others in order to make good decisions.
When I get triggered or contracted, however, a wounded part will step forward to take the reins. These parts are generally immature and unable to assess the nuances of adult situations well. They are reactive and have poor judgment. When these parts show up to take responsibility, they often steamroll others, have no consideration, see things in black and white, make hasty decisions, and cause friction.
I’ve been working on taking responsibility for myself first — for these younger parts. The truth is, they were abandoned. And they need to be reclaimed and restored to health and wholeness within me. Until I can do that, I will continue to be reactive instead of response-able. This is trickier than it sounds. Some of these parts have been with me my whole life — they are so familiar they run almost in the background of my awareness. And they have perfected the act of being “the one in charge.”
There is a protocol I use when I begin to feel overwhelmed by the burden of responsibility in my relationships, life, work or parenting. This helps me shift the responsibility-taking to the part of me that can actually handle it. It requires a “time-out and tune-in” — sometimes a brief one and sometimes a longer one. Usually, I sit to do a practice like this:
- Notice: I notice that I feel overwhelmed or resentful and I tune into how that lives in my body. Not the thoughts or the stories, but the sensations. Does my heart hurt, does my belly feel hollow? Is there an emotional resonance present? I often notice that I feel “young” in this state. And usually scared, frustrated, or even sad. Disconnecting the feelings from the stories helps me get some “distance” from my attachment to what is happening.
- Call On the Higher: Holding these feelings, I search with my awareness for the adult in me — the experienced, capable, mature, wise one. We might call this a “higher self” or “Buddha Nature” or “Christ Consciousness.” (Or if it resonates more with you, call a deity, ancestor, or other protective guide.) I ask for help; call Wisdom forward to put my adult self back in charge. I know I’ve found her when I feel my sense of agency return — when I feel I actually have a choice in the matter (whatever the matter is). Ah, as uncomfortable or overwhelming as this seems, I choose to be here. I choose to face the situation as it is.
- Connect: The adult me/higher self must connect to the younger parts. She spends time soothing and holding them. And then — this is important — she helps them see that she is in charge. As a good mother or father would. The responsibility must shift from their hands into hers. Sometimes she has to wrest it from their grip. They will tell her all the reasons they need to handle it. She listens patiently and then vows that she will take care of it and will not let them down.
- Restore: As the young parts relax their grip, they melt back into being blissfully without responsibility. Natural order is restored when the inner children can play and the inner adult is in charge. My whole system relaxes as this equilibrium returns and I can feel my center again. I literally feel myself grounded, and with fresh perspective. Calm.
- Create: From here, creativity, confidence and courage are restored. Even if the situation is highly stressful, even if a lot is on the line, I know I can trust myself. Solutions that emerge from this place are usually good ones.
Obviously we don’t always have the space to go through a process like this when something needs our attention. But, like any practice, the more I do it, the more natural and automatic it becomes. Over time, I have found that I am feeling less like a victim, and more like a free agent. Even if my life circumstances or outcomes at work or in love are disappointing at times (of course, they will be), at least I know I made my choices consciously and have been responsible for myself. I can learn from that. I can live with that.
Responsible for the Whole
Responsibility is something we must practice. I know that I must take responsibility for myself. As they say, if you don’t no one else will. And I know there are ways that other peoples’ suffering is my responsibility. Not, as a martyr, but as a neighbor, a citizen, a friend, a fellow human being, and in my Buddhist practice: a bodhisattva.
I am curious about the possibilities that arise when I take responsibility for myself and for the suffering of others in a way that is constructive, healthy, and helpful. Not because I can’t bear it. But, because I CAN. This is the real process of taking responsibility. We can trust our response-ability — our ability to respond — to any situation because we have the capacity, the inner resources, to hold what is happening, to meet the moment, to allow ourselves or others to have the experience they are having without needing to change it.
In this life, I have the resources I need to heal, to grieve, and to process what arises in my experience; what comes through my roots; and even what I was born into in terms of the collective field of trauma. Not all of it, but what I can digest. As interconnected beings, your suffering is my suffering. The suffering of the planet and all beings is my suffering. In a very important and practical sense, there are ways I can take responsibility for my actions and the actions of my ancestors that have created inequity, environmental damage, and the extractive systems of oppression born of collective trauma. This is right relationship to the situation. There is an urgency to do this.
Our sense of responsibility to Gaia requires us to be in relationship to our grief and Her suffering. The suffering of all others — non-human others also and maybe especially. It can be overwhelming to tune into the reality of the situation at this point. Most of us (not all) have been avoiding it for so long. We need more and more people who can hold that reality from the place of their own healing. So we’re not reactive; trying to tackle the situation as a quick fix or giving up due to our feelings of helplessness. It is a testament to our deep compassion, that humans hate to feel helpless.
Some of us respond to stress by jumping to action (hyperarousal). Some of us shut down or numb out (hypoarousal). Underneath the layers of coping and strategies for survival we’ve so carefully built up around ourselves, there is often an emotion or experience that was too overwhelming to handle. We built these protections out of necessity. Tending to them, even now, requires us to feel what couldn’t be felt. This is hard and having the support of a skilled therapist or good friend can be essential. Coming into connection can make the process easier to bear.
Central to our ability to take responsibility for the whole, is our ability to take responsibility for the past. Speaking recently about collective and ancestral trauma and what is our responsibility, Thomas Hübl said this:
“We are not responsible for the actual actions of our ancestors. But, not looking and not wanting to be related to those actions perpetuates the unconscious effect they have…I perpetuate the destiny of that action and that’s an issue. The unconscious energy of the past will drive my life and there will be consequences. Not because I am responsible for my ancestor’s actions, but because I haven’t looked there — that is my responsibility. It takes courage to turn around and look at the past; to do that is to be part of the ethical update of that moment in history. If I am not part of it, it will continue. A ‘repetition compulsion’ will force it to recreate itself because we didn’t get to the root of the ‘crime’ that was committed. Unconscious energy is destiny. Conscious energy has a choice.”
Taking responsibility for the past may be the most important thing we can do in this moment to move us collectively into a place of coherence where we can actually deal with the effects of so many of those unconscious, bad, and evil actions. It will open our eyes to who we are and help us resource ourselves enough to respond effectively and collectively to the enormous problems we face. This will require a great deal of compassion. Fortunately, it’s already well underway as the practice of trauma healing goes mainstream and grows in popularity.
Many have been waking up to the dire state of things for a while, but COVID was a pause to facilitate it on a mass scale. As shame, guilt, fear, grief and other unprocessed emotions arise, we have to be aware and not let them hijack us — send us running for the cover of the patterns of avoidance that have kept so much pain under wraps. We want to respond, not react from the habits of the past. Real responsibility is a skill, a healthy sense of boundaries, a negotiation, and an honest reckoning. We can be clear about where our sense of responsibility is coming from and we can learn to help in ways that are deeply healing, not a temporary fix.
We have to also have compassion for ourselves when we see that we’re swimming in a cultural soup of warped ideas about who takes responsibility for what and whom. The cultural cues we’ve gotten from the beginning of our life are flawed. Your own dysfunctional relationship to responsibility was almost inevitable when you think about the way our society is structured around systems of oppression and isolation.
Living at the end of a control paradigm, as we do…we can barely see another way of being. We are standing right here at the event horizon of a new culture; a new era where human beings find their place in the great wheel of life; where we learn to take healthy responsibility for ourselves and each other. Imagine what that world would look like, feel like, be like. It’s beautiful…something to aspire to for our children.
From this place of understanding, we could rewrite the definition of Responsibility:
> the state or fact of assuming ownership of a situation and its consequences; being able to assess when this is for the highest good
> the willingness to be accountable for or care for something or someone
> the opportunity or ability to act independently and make decisions in accordance with what is right, real, and true in the moment.
And I would add:
> A state of mutuality arising from a direct knowing of our interdependence on each other and the natural world.
To achieve this, we start with ourselves, in our own homes and lives. We start with daily awareness practices. As always, the microcosm is a reflection of the macrocosm. We work on the smallest scale and the biggest changes are initiated.
What can you take responsibility for today? And what can you stop fixing?
We are living in a time for course correcting on so many fronts. We’re being asked to change ourselves, and our systems…fast. This is a time of extreme transition culturally, ecologically, politically, socially. In this time of re-evaluation and reparation, we are being asked to take responsibility for so many things that aren’t obviously ours. But, we look around and see only ourselves…if not us then who, if not now then when.
What I’m learning is how responsibility is central to our relationships — all of them. It touches the deepest questions of life: Who am I? What did I come here to do? Who am I in relation to others? How do I resource myself? Where am I attached to things being a certain way? What is my place in the great web of life? How we hold our sense of responsibility is a secret key to success in life and relationships. It’s a sacred covenant, not a system of accountability.
I hope this exploration of Responsibility is useful to you. I’ve included a personal essay, some journaling prompts, and a guided meditation here. All of this is part of an ongoing body of work called Coming Home. It’s a practice of deep embodiment and evolution that starts with each of us coming home to ourselves and becoming present to our precious time on this planet. It’s about healing, relational intelligence, and finding answers to Life in our intimacy with Reality. Grounded in awareness and compassion, it’s a descending path of self-knowledge inspired by mystical traditions and Feminine wisdom. If you resonate, you can find more of my work here.