You were abused. Neglected. Raped. Ignored with impunity. Told you’d never amount to anything. Laughed at—literally—for your beliefs. Swindled out of your life savings. Beaten with a vengeance. Abandoned to the ages.
You may be stifled by feelings of guilt, shame, fear or desperation. Seeking refuge, you search for the most prudent antidote, the perfect concoction of wisdom and practicality that will transform your circumstances. In this search, you likely heard this phrase: “take responsibility for everything in your life.” This is one of the most ubiquitous phrases in the personal development space. One of the greatest propagations of the age is that if you merely say you’re going to take responsibility for everything in your life, you will become transformed.
I’m not a fan of the “take responsibility” phrase. First, it’s extremely generic and superficial. It’s become a truism, accepted without an ounce of critical thought. The second reason I don’t respect the phrase is because at its core it’s ludicrous and narcissistic. It assumes that everything is all about you, and that’s insane because so much of what happens in your life has absolutely nothing to do with you.
No, you cannot, and should not, take responsibility for everything in your life.
You can’t take responsibility for being raped, for example, because there’s nothing to take responsibility for. This is one of the great scandals of the rampantly individualistic, egoist society we live in. You can only take responsibility for what you do, and when horrific things happen, what you choose to do in response to what has transpired.
This persistent use of this platitude also has to do with our tendency to present the false either/or premise with respect to all of our circumstances. There are clear evolutionary and neurological reasons for this—processing our circumstances in an either/or fashion is simply easier for our brains to do than to attend to the nuances.
However, don’t assume that announcing your intention to take responsibility for whatever has afflicted you will do anything; it won’t. Only action will.
Announcing your intentions may be well meaning, but it’s not dissimilar from partaking in what Joel Runyon has referred to as “inspirational porn.” It gives you the sense that you’re accomplishing something, when you aren’t actually doing anything.
I know this well, because I was a master at it for years. And it magnified my suffering; it did not alleviate it.
Instead, after much paralysis and inner turmoil, I began to take responsibility in silence. I recommend that you do the same. Don’t assume you need to plan; you rarely do. You already have the intention in your mind and heart, but it must be released. It cannot be released by talking. It can only be released by doing. By taking responsibility in silence, you become a vehicle of service. You become ever so slightly removed from your ego, and you have nothing to fall back on. No planning. No deliberation. No discussion. Only the work.
The work is what will save your life. Nothing else.
But the common thinking of the age generally goes something like this: You’re either playing the victim, blaming everyone else for what’s happened to you, or you’re taking full responsibility for everything that happens to you. This is a false dichotomy, and it is pernicious. The reality is far more complicated, something far too many people—particularly in the personal development sphere—are exploiting.
Try telling a mother who’s lost her infant son to “take responsibility for it.” Really? You have absolutely no idea what that does to someone unless you’ve been there.
The "take responsibility" propagation also hides behind a veil of empowerment, but it’s often just delusion. Declaring your desire to take responsibility might work when dealing with the trivialities of life—but when it comes to the devastating wounds of your past, it’s foolhardy.
Grief simply doesn’t work like that. This view presupposes that one can simply make a decision to get better by owning it, and then they’re in the clear.
Not so fast.
Owning your pain is indeed a beautiful, often supremely healing, act of courage.
But it is a process, and most often, a very, very long one. That’s what so many people simply do not understand, or care to understand.
I live with cerebral palsy. I spent my childhood—and much of my adulthood—consumed with shame about the fact that it was a part of me, and always would be. So sometimes I sulked, whined, complaining from my interior, wailing in my weakness.
I’ll be the first to admit that these were not particularly helpful ways of dealing with living with CP; indeed, they were often harmful. I had to learn to live with the condition, and with myself. In a way, yes, I had to own it. But taking ownership of something is not synonymous with being proud of it. And acceptance is not the same as approval.
Particularly when dealing with the adverse circumstances of life, there is a great diffidence between what we say about responsibility, and what we do.
Want to take responsibility?
Do, aggressively and quietly. Live as if your life were not your own, but a gift to be given to all those who would dare to be moved by you. Forsake your ego, your shame, your fear, not by saying pleasantries, but by giving all of yourself to your body of work, and then—only then—will authentic grace, strength, and ultimately, transformation, be given birth.
But this is incredibly difficult. It is a practice, cultivated slowly, echoing through the years of what once was, and what you long to see transpired.
The alleviation of shame is one of life's greatest tests. You do not have the time or the ability to confront your shame with platitudes. Action, honest self-examination, critical analysis and the willingness to tangibly change are most certainly the cornerstones of opening up the possibility of transformation. And when it comes to life's devastations, it nearly always begins with acknowledgment.
Your rape is not your fault. It takes courage to understand, and accept this. You are a victim, and often the greatest aid in beginning the process of healing is in admitting this. Though the fear of being seen as weak often precludes this most essential step.
I face my weaknesses boldly, but I don’t—even for a minute—pretend to see them as some sort of cosmic blessings. They can be used for good, but that is my choice and my choice alone, and one I know that will require a great amount of my soul’s veracity to engender.
To say anything any differently—to be told that you merely need to take responsibility and move on to some sort of revelatory transformation, is to rob the sufferer of the wound inflicted upon them. It does damage so great that most people don’t even realize it’s damage, thus propagating the suffering.
It is also often told on the back of instant gratification; i.e., it’s easy to assume that if you “take responsibility” for something, you fix it.
This is idiocy, plain and simple. As one of my mentors—Megan Devine—says, “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”
This is vitally important. Though a phrase like this is not generally allowed in our collective lexicon. It’s viewed with suspicion, as if it presupposes weakness. Too bad the reality is the opposite.
Don’t take responsibility with words. Take responsibility with your actions. Take responsibility in silence.
You don’t take responsibility for your brokenness unless you are directly responsible for it. Only you know whether and when that is the case. When it is, act accordingly. Face your wounds with bravery, and forgive yourself for how you’ve treated your very body and spirit.
When your brokenness is not your responsibility, don’t delude yourself into “claiming” it. It can’t be claimed. But it can be faced. That is far more courageous, more beautiful, and more transformative than merely trying to alter your perception of a devastating experience.
But do not expect the act of facing your brokenness to happen overnight, because it won’t. To say it should is to rob you of the experience of being human.
Scars are permanent. How we react to them is not. A broken person revealed carries more internal transcendence than the greatest of teachers, for that person has chosen to take what is most inimical within them and offer it to the world around them, with shaken, imperfect love.
It may not be bold. It may not be readily apparent. But when found, it is a gift of profundity.
So I say to you: your wounds are not your fault. Coming to terms with that will bring forth a love so strong that no one will be able to stand in your way.
A ferocious multitude of beauty resides within. It is found in your brokenness, and outside of it.
I have successfully loved with abandon only through my actions, and nearly always through my lack of words.
Words have the ability to affect. Actions wreak effect. I’d much rather have the latter. The world will almost always want to give you the former, because it requires virtually nothing from you. The latter, however, is an offering of tremendous import. It is the honoring of the calling, not the decision to honor the calling.
It is the act of wading through your wounds, not the voicing of your intention to face your wounds.
It is the performing of the hair-splitting, mundane, excruciating work—done while no one is watching, not the shouting of your abilities from the rooftops.
It is, at its core, the beneficence of the greatest warrior: the warrior of service.
We need many more of these warriors in the world. I always wanted to be one myself, but spent most of my childhood and adult life merely thinking about it.
So I don’t say I’m going to take responsibility for anything. Instead, I act. And when I don’t, I forgive myself quickly, undertaking a thorough process of self-examination.
The first choice—to fixate on saying, not doing—did not destroy my life. But it did prevent it from coming into being. I had not done what I am attempting to do now.
I had not gifted myself to the world, in all my weakness, pain, and yes, strength.
It was only when I finally admitted that my wounds were not my fault—not my responsibility—that this began to transpire.
But it has only begun. The rest will evolve slowly. It will be tremendously painful at times. But it is what I must do if I want to live authentically.
And I must do that.
It is the essence of love.
My highest calling.
Perhaps it is yours as well.