Taking responsibility—for our attitudes, actions, and behavior—is a sign of maturity and good mental health. So, while we can understand that a five-year-old denies taking a cookie when his face is covered with crumbs, we are less forgiving of the adolescent who cheats on a test because “all his friends do.” As we mature, we develop more of an internal locus of control, (i.e. the understanding that our behavior is the result of our choices, not some unknown outside force.) Though by adolescence we generally have such an understanding, some of us occasionally still try dodging responsibility by laying the blame on others.
Healthy people see themselves as capable of action and change and take responsibility for making things happen. However, unhealthy people have an external locus of control—where they see themselves as victims—subject to the whims and wishes of other people or events. Though this blaming feels like an easy way out, it is actually a trap that keeps the person mired in his particular set of problems. In contrast, the person who is aware that they are the captain of their own ship and responsible for the choices that they make feels a sense of accomplishment, fulfillment, and happiness.
Unfortunately, it is far too easy to get stuck in the world of blaming, making excuses, or playing victim. The problem with this cycle is that it prevents us from learning the very basic fact that no matter the circumstances, we need to learn to manage ourselves effectively. We need to be responsible to solve problems, develop coping strategies, and use our social skills. And, even though some of us have a much harder time than others, in our social world we are expected to perform no matter what. So, while letting ourselves off the hook when we, for example, tell a white lie may feel good in the short run, it is detrimental in the long run because it can become habitual and get us in trouble.
When facing disappointment, it is important to see that what we are dealing with is not some situation visited on us by some nameless party, but rather the consequences of a series of choices—our choices. By walking step-by-step through the various choices that we have made which led to a particular result, we can figure out where making a different choice would have yielded a different result. By actively taking responsibility for our choices and their consequences, we empower ourselves to avoid the blame game or “poor me” syndrome.
Mornings are one long nightmare in the Cohen home. Mom wakes up late; did Dad forget to set the alarm clock again?! The kids dawdle—some get dressed first, some clamor for breakfast the second they wake up—so it’s really hard to get it together in any efficient way. And, Mom is out of Sugar Honey Crisp again! So Moishe tantrums, misses the bus, and must be driven to school. If only Moishe could behave in the morning, how much easier the day would be! Mom thinks, as she silently drives Moishe to his school.
Mom is fuming because she sees Moishe as the problem. But, when venting to Dad, he encourages her to focus on each step of her own behavior to see how her choices have led to this debacle. Could she take responsibility for setting her own alarm and waking up on time? How about drawing up a schedule so that the kids know the morning routine? Could she make sure not to run out of essentials such as favorite cereals? And, how about considering that little Moishe may need some motoring through the routine in order to be ready on time?
Though at first Mom blames Moishe, which feels both good (‘not my fault’) and bad (‘I’m stuck’), she is now beginning to examine her choices and see how they helped get her to where she is today. Once she sees where she is responsible, she is free to do things differently and achieve different results.
Taking personal responsibility is a constant struggle for all of us and, as such, needs to be the subject of many on-going discussions in our homes. Many people are very black and white: this is how Hashem made me, “that’s life,” nothing will change etc. The point is, however, that even when there is no choice in your life circumstances [you’re born short, you get frustrated easily, or live in a difficult family]—you do get to choose your reaction.
It is a constant struggle to resist the temptation to become a victim and work on dealing with the issue instead. But, when the opportunity arises, remind yourself that blaming someone or something else will not solve your problem. The opposite is true as well; taking responsibility will help us be successful adults who are confident in our coping skills, solution oriented, and willing to grow and change.
Dr. Sara Teichman is a psychotherapist and family counselor—formerly of Los Angeles—currently in Lakewood, New Jersey. She maintains a private practice where she sees adults, children, and adolescents. Dr. Teichman can be reached at 323-940-1000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.