Roger Vilardaga

Being responsible or taking responsibility?

I always struggle with the concept of responsibility. Daily I work with people who have a hard time to take responsibility for their own life. And it is my job to help them to do better. But how can we understand responsibility?

Is it possible for people to take responsibility for their lives and their behavior? Behavior is influenced by the context[1] and behavioral change van only happen by changing the context. That context is mostly made up by matters we did not choose and that we cannot influence much. Nobody picks the place his cradle stands, or the possibilities and barriers that life offers. We do not choose our genetic potential, the learning history we go through and we do not choose who we are and what matters to us.

And yet it is hard to believe that we cannot exert any influence, that we are turned over to circumstance inside or outside ourselves. We can, even if it is very limited, apparently influence our lives. We can choose between certain options: will I get out of bed in time, set an alarm, sleep late? Will I eat healthy or not? Will I take the bike or the car to work? At what time will I eat lunch? When we are conscious of our options we can choose from those options. By making an image of the different options, the expected outcomes and the goals we have, we can make a selection what outcome is feasible and desirable. The fact that we are capable of creating that image gives us a certain amount of freedom.

And are we then responsible for the outcome? That would be weird, since the outcome we imagine is often not the outcome we get. Often, we don’t have enough information to know where we will end up. If everybody would be able to perfectly predict the outcome we would never make mistakes and we would only make the right choices.

We often hold each other responsible. We have laws and rules that tell us for what things we are or are not responsible and sanctions are being delivered when we don’t take responsibility the right way. News and newspapers are full of this: people who have made mistakes and are held accountable. Or people who have done something well and are being cheered. Responsibility is hence a social concept, with which we maintain order. Often it gets a moral connotation: we judge the people that do not take responsibility as we see it.

But responsibility also has a psychological side. Taking responsibility, as I see it, is a tool. It is something we do, because it helps us to get more control over our lives and our behaviors. If accidently I break something and clean up the mess, I have more control over my life than if I leave the mess lying there. By cleaning up I keep my house clean. If I hurt another person and apologize, I have more control over my life than if I ignore it. Indeed, by apologizing I repair the relationship with the person, who’s feelings I have hurt. This allows me to keep this person in my life in a enjoyable way. It is not because I am responsible, but because I make myself responsible, that I get more control over my life. Taking responsibility is a skill that leads to more prosperity. And like other skills, you get better at it by doing it.

There are many psychological methods that help people to take more responsibility by which they can experience more control over their lives. ACT[2] is one of them. The core processes of values and committed action help to see what actions you can take and what direction these actions take you. Is the outcome such that you don’t have to undergo unpleasant experiences? Or do your actions contribute to what matters to you? The core processes of acceptance, defusion, being in the moment and taking perspective help you to get the clearest perspective on your options, the consequences that come with it and how you can take action without being withheld by difficult emotions or thoughts. Practicing these processes in your life will get you into an ongoing process of trying, experiencing and adjusting.

© J. A-Tjak.



[1] This is an assumption from  functional contextualism. More informatie you can find on https://contextualscience.org/contextualism or in the book Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K.D. & Wilson, K.G.  (2012). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change. New York, The Guilford Press.

[2] ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K.D. & Wilson, K.G.  (2012).  Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change. New York, The Guilford Press.