The New Oxford American Dictionary defines responsibility in several ways. The two most relevant to this post include:
1. the state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone
2. a moral obligation to behave correctly toward or in respect of: individuals have a responsibility to control personal behavior.
In Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life by Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D., the term is broken down into “response” and “ability.” The concept is that it involves an ability to respond and has nothing to do with blame. One may not always be able to respond to a situation, but they can still respond to the pain it might have caused.
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. also uses the idea of response-ability, describing the capacity to choose and remembering to be in charge and make careful and thoughtful choices. This is the ability to respond to life without placing blame upon one’s self.
Why is this distinction important? Many people confuse taking responsibility with assigning blame. Blame is disempowering or victimizing. Taking responsibility, in part or in whole, for what is actually mine is empowering. Am I responsible for an approaching hurricane? Of course not. Am I responsible for making decisions about how I’m going to deal with it? Absolutely.
Another reason why this distinction is important is that people feel responsible for the feelings, actions, and situations of others. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t some aspect that may be mine to manage or respond to, but I only have limited response-ability. Other people maintain the right to be wrong, make mistakes, interpret comments, and respond with their own feelings. I’m not response-able for those. Can I learn to be careful with my speech? Yes, to some extent. But, the choice still belongs to the other person about how to interpret what I’ve said and it often involves patterns from the past that I cannot predict or control.
I find it important to check if my sense of “responsibility” is really located in the present moment rather than a worry about the future or a carry-over from the past. Then, if it is in the present moment, I actually ask myself if the current concern is really within the area of my own “hula hoop.” Is it that close to me? Can I do anything with it? Is it really someone else’s response-ability rather than mine? Then, I can choose my response. If any of those questions suggest that this issue isn’t really mine, I can interrupt the tendency to blame and shame.
Boundary setting is an important part of this process. If my boundary is punctuated by gates that I control it will be helpful when considering my response-ability. If my boundary is open, without gates that I control, it is very tempting to take ownership of someone else’s responsibility even if there is no response-ability on my part.
The basic question for me is always, “Does this belong to me and is there a way that I can reasonably respond.”