By Dr. Steve
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There's only one corner of the
universe that you can be certain
imporving--and that's your own self.
Responsibility is the second value that impacts the emotional climate. Responsibility,
along with personal freedom, shapes the emotional climate of your relationships. Simply
described, responsibility means taking care of your own actions, not the actions of
is not something you think, its something you do.
means being the uncontested creator of your life.
people find the act of taking responsibility a thrilling experience. When they get the
hang of it, responsibility brings true freedom. Its the chance to script your own
life. To be aware of responsibility is to be aware of how you create your own self, every
minute of every day.
have a friend who has chosen to give her time to an organization that helps sick people
every day. She is not paid in money but she doesnt need the money to live, and the
other rewards are great.
day I was sitting in her living room with some other friends when a woman came in and
said, Hey Jane, I got a couple of free tickets to the theater tomorrow. Do you want
to go with me to see the play?
was surprised by the offer and thought about it for a while. Then she said, Thanks
for the great offer. I appreciate it, but no. Im committed to taking a patient to
the park tomorrow. I will feel more like myself by doing that than going to the
can think of two ways in which juggling responsibility can undermine a relationship. Some
relationships become paralyzed by the tug-of-war created when two people attempt to force
responsibility on each other. Blame is one vehicle used to achieve such an end.
relationships become paralyzed by the chains of guilt created when one partner gives away
all their responsibility for the well-being of their life to their partner. Martyrdom is
the conduit for this shifting of responsibility.
woman living in a suburb of Chicago watches helplessly as her oldest son slips
further and further into drug and alcohol addiction. Night after night, he shows up with
excuses, lies, and pain. Eventually, things get so bad, she begins to feel trapped and
helpless. She watches as the young son she held as a baby slips away.
she is left alone in the empty house. After a particularly bad day, she looks up from her
kitchen table, angry and frustrated. She cries out loud, How could he do this to
me? She pounds her fist on the table and continues, He does not take
responsibility for himself, it just is not right. Finally, she says, My God,
sometimes he is just like his father.
son justifies his actions in a thousand different ways. He says, She doesnt
get it. She doesnt have a clue. She makes me feel like garbage. I told her Id
be home, but she still locked the door on me. She doesnt listen.
many ways, the relationship between these two is more like two lovers bickering than
mother and son. It points to the importance of taking responsibility. The situation is
complex and invisible to both of the characters in this example. A solution for these two
could only be found through hard work, and, I suspect, the use of a professional
the other end of the spectrum, imagine a family living in a comfortable, well-to-do home.
The father of the family comes home every day, sits down and reads his paper. The den is
his territory. The mother of the family is left alone and spends much of her spare time
involved in community activities.
is considered by others to be the best giver
around. If someone becomes ill, she helps. If the local school asks for volunteers, she
gathers a group to meet the need. But if you ask her children, they have a different view
of her. The womans children think she is cold and bitter.
home, she constantly complains.
one of you really cares, she shouts at breakfast. I do and do and do for you
kids, but I could drop dead for all you care.
real frustration she says, Im putting everything I have into this family and
Im not getting anything back. Doesnt anybody want to help me?
fact, this mix of real effort and confused separation from her family only makes the
does not realize the fallacy of her silent one-way relationships with her family. She is
too fearful to say, I need . . . . So she does for others, silently hoping in
her quiet despair that someone will give her the love and emotional nutrition she needs,
she deserves, and she is longing to have.
responsible, in this case, means making her needs known to her family. In her role, she
cannot see the responsibility for her happiness rests in her arms and not with others.
impact on the emotional climate is obvious and long-lasting. Blame creates an emotional
climate of resentment and shame. This emotional climate consists of hurt, fear, mistrust,
and emotional distance. The emotional wounds suffered by each person remain infected for
long periods of time. Caution and self-preservation dominate a persons every
movement in such a relationship.
Guilt, activated through the passivity of martyrdom, erodes the well-being of the
relationship as well. Guilt creates an emotional climate of disappointment, inadequacy,
the sense you are always letting your partner down, and never being good enough. How each
person has let their partner down is the theme of this relationship.
The abdication of our own responsibility is not unusual and has a familiar ring to it. For
example, alcoholics generally communicate the same message to those trapped in the
classical codependent relationship where one partner is a caretaker for the other partner.
The abdication of responsibility sounds something like this. I am going to be sick
and you are going to take care of me.
It happens everyday. Imagine a wife who calls in sick to work for a husband who is too
hung-over to go into work. Her actions bother her, yet fear and shame paralyze her. Her
constant cover-ups and his continual irresponsibility keep the relationship frozen in
anger, stagnation, and decay.
experiences in the Bridge-Builder groups taught me something very important about
the consequences of avoiding responsibility. I watched people, in the name of caution, not
do the things necessary to maintain their relationship-bridges.
would avoid conflict. They would avoid discussing the important issues of their
relationships. They would let the inertia of the relationship run things rather than risk
initiating anything. I noticed one thing happen over-and-over again. This observation led
to the following principle.
By avoiding responsibility, you will always create the
very outcome you were trying to avoid in the first place.
is odd what avoidance does to any relationship. Time-and-time again I have seen people
avoid being responsible. They may not want to rock the boat. They may not want to risk
rejection. They may not want to hurt somebodys feelings. They may not want to be
responsible for somebody elses feelings. But the outcome is the same every time.
about it. Have you ever tried to avoid conflict by swallowing your anger only to create
anger in spite of your best intentions? Have you ever avoided the discomfort of discussing
with your partner the importance of your emotional needs only to seethe with resentment
because your partner has not correctly guessed at what your needs are? Have you ever held
back in your relationship so as not to upset your partner only to have your partner become
upset because they sensed that you were not being emotionally honest with them?
reminded of a close friend who became involved with someone he should not have and he knew
it from the beginning. After just a week, there was no longer any avoiding the mistake
that he had made. Telling his new-found partner he wanted out of the situation frightened
him. He feared he would hurt her feelings. He felt excessively responsible for having
started the relationship. He did not want to endure the inevitable reactions he knew he
would receive when he would try to leave the relationship.
felt trapped and desperate--longing for, but not seeing, a way out of his situation. Not
believing he could get out of the relationship, he ignored the problem and hoped things
would get better.
something else happened. He called me and said, I am really having a bad week.
I asked why, he responded, Ive been depressed, confused, and uncomfortable.
Ive been drinking every night for the last two weeks. Ive missed work twice,
and when I was there, I actually got into a fight. The straw that broke the camels
back is I called my old girlfriend, which I swore I would never do again. We got
together for old-times sake, if you know what I mean. I cant figure out how, but my
new girlfriend found out and walked out on me.
talked for a long time. In the end, it was clear to us both what had happened. By avoiding
taking responsibility for breaking-off the new relationship, he went out and created the
circumstances that would allow the break-up to occur anyway.
he exasperated the original problem, because now he is in trouble at work, his emotional
health has taken a nose dive, and both his old and new girlfriends feel used and hate him.
Lastly, he feels worse about himself than ever before.
circumstances of this relationship were a challenge for him to choose to be responsible.
However, the thought of acting responsibly created great discomfort. The discomfort was so
strong, he avoided correcting the situation. His avoidance created a string of drama in
his life that sabotaged himself and his new relationship--all of which he was trying to
prevent in the first place with his avoidance.
else I know desperately wants to be cared about. He has made being in a committed
relationship a crusade. He has turned seeking out the right partner into a science. Yet
the same thing happens time after time.
finds someone and very loyally dates that person until things turn serious. When the woman
he is dating gets earnest, he begins to see someone new on the side.
end result is--he dates two people at the same time in order to have an out, or a safety
valve. It is a way to avoid his fears of commitment.
can guess what always happens. Each one finds out about the other and things get messy for
everybody concerned. He winds up alone, to start the cycle all over again.
by the way, the thing that he fears most about commitment? He is constantly afraid that
his partner will leave him, and he manages to make it happen every time.
we embrace responsibility and begin to enjoy the control each of us can and wants to
each of us can exercise control, direction, and guidance over our own lives. Without a
doubt, you are the uncontested creator of your own life.
I am going to give you a very specific definition of responsibility as it relates to
Bridge-Building. It might sound complex, but try it on for size. Responsibility is the
open acknowledgment that our behavior is a manifestation of pursuing conscious and
concept is very, very, important. Take your time and mull it over. If you can embrace what
I have just said, you will find a whole new way of understanding yourself and the choices
men have taught that most behavior in a relationship is in service of some
unconscious or hidden goals. If I had a dime for every-time someone looked at me and
said, Well, I am not consciously doing that or I did not intend to do
that, I could end world hunger tomorrow.
point is simple to understand, but hard to see in yourself. In truth, our unconscious or
hidden goals influence all of our behavioral choices.
question comes to mind. How am I suppose to know what my unconscious goals are if they are
time I am asked this logical question, I respond the same. It seems so deceivingly simple
that you will perhaps readily discard this explanation yourself. To discover your hidden
goals, all you have to do is see what the consequence of your behavior is. Thats it.
how your behavior impacts your partner. Watch the reaction you get. You may want to take
this a step further and watch all the ingenious ways each of us has created to cover up
our hidden goals. The next time you have a conversation, watch the interplay. If your
partner is crying over something you said, my best guess would be that you intended to
hurt your partner.
so many times we cover things up with the ingenuity of our adult intellect.
I didnt intend for you to take it that way.
I was just kidding,
Cant you take a joke,
You are always so sensitive.
You know how hard it is for me to get serious.
have a friend whose husband recently returned from a trip to Montana. He and his wife have
been married for years, but she did not go with him on the vacation. The first thing he
said when he stepped off the airplane was, Honey, I have great news. While on
vacation, I saw the most beautiful vacation home ever. Its the best. And now, its
ours. I bought a cabin in Montana.
was furious. There is nothing about the outdoors she likes. But, she knows sometimes her
husband does odd things like that. She gets angry every time her husband does something
she does not approve of. After she gets angry, she gives in. She explains it to me by
claiming she does not want to rock the boat.
She tells me, It is better just to let him have his way.
you can see where I am going with this. For the next six months, she will subtly beat him
up every day for the original transgression. She constantly says, I cannot
believe you did that!
you see what her hidden goal is? She does not solve the problem in the beginning because
her true goal is not to problem-solve. Her true goal is not to have an effective,
harmonious relationship. Her hidden goal is to be punitive and be powerful.
is nothing more powerful than the wrath of the self-righteous. Nothing is more satisfying
to my friend than to say, I told you so. She insulates herself from this truth
by telling others that she is long-suffering and self-sacrificing.
may even believe she is well intended when she says that she wants to keep the peace. She
does not see the inherent contradiction when she disturbs their lives for the next six
months by blaming him. Her hidden goal is to be punitive and powerful through her
self-righteousness rather than risk the give-and-take of conflict resolution.
end of their story, sadly, is through the avoidance of responsibility, my friend misses
out on the most satisfying part of life, a relationship shaped by responsibility and
obvious question to all that has been said about responsibility is how does this translate
concretely to the emotional well-being of myself and my relationships.
I wondered about that myself for a long time. It had become obvious to me how avoidance
always backfired but I still was struggling to understand the underlying principles of how
to activate responsibility in relationships. As time went on in the Relationship
Bridge-Building groups, I began to notice concrete changes taking place as to how
responsible people were becoming.
the Bridge-Builders became more and more responsible for what they were creating for
themselves, the emotional climate of the groups changed as well. Open dialogue, which
removed the obstacles between two people, replaced self-righteous indignation and
smoldering resentments. Blame and excuses started to leave peoples manner of
Open acknowledgment of other people's feelings and needs replaced long-winded
explanations. Patient attempts at listening and understanding how their words and actions
were affecting other people replaced defensive justification of a person's behavior.
Provide for your partner the things that you are
seeking from your partner.
This tip will take defensiveness and resentment out of the relationship. It will remove
the responsibility for ones well-being from your partner and place it squarely on
your shoulders. It will establish mutuality in your relationships.
spirit of this tip is simple. If you want someone to be open with you, be open with them.
If you want respect, give it.
principle reflects universal truths. You and only you are responsible for the people you
attract into your life. You and only you are responsible for the partners you choose. You
and only you are responsible for the attitude you take toward the circumstances in your
are responsible for getting your needs met in your relationships. You and only you are
responsible for the choices you make in how you stifle or nurture the growth of your
simply being willing to give to your partner the very things you are seeking from them,
your relationship will open up. The inevitable constriction that fear creates in any
relationship will give way to a more spontaneous relationship. It is much more work to
keep somebody shut out than to merely provide those emotional strokes for your partner
that you want for yourself. All you have to be willing to do is to take responsibility for
being a giving partner.
partner constantly mistreats you in your relationship, how might you be cooperating with
principle, once embraced, will remove much of the resentment and self-righteous
indignation from the emotional climate of all the relationship-bridges you build. Blame
and shame will become relics of the past.
emphasize once embraced. This principle of
responsibility is something which most people initially turn their head away. However,
this axiom cannot be denied.
premise of this principle is we continually create our lives. Each of us chooses to be
constantly in contact with others who are important to us as well as avoid any
contact where we deem appropriate. Our relationships, our destiny, every aspect of our
lives are all our own choosing. Some of us make the choice to avoid responsibility
for creating, maintaining, and sustaining these relationship-bridges. We surrender the
choices involved with creating our own lives. Consequentially, often times, we feel angry,
hurt, unwanted, and mistreated.
As I lead the Relationship Bridge-Building groups, I notice the same thing over and over.
Some people will sit week after week, never initiating any involvement with anyone. The
pain of their isolation and alienation is always evident from the looks on their face--the
loneliness engulfing them reflects how badly they want to be included. Yet, every time
somebody reaches out to them, they rebuff that persons overtures.
people have built walls around themselves. They deny the importance to themselves of
wanting other people to be attracted to them and involved with them. They protest
time-and-time again that they do not know how to relate to others.
explain their loneliness to themselves in terms of their perceived deficits--I am
boring, or I dont know how to make conversation, or I
dont know how to do it right.
people cannot see their own unwillingness to be a friend in order to have a friend. They
deny themselves the most simplistic and direct way out of their loneliness.
such, they are left without that which they say they want. They say they want to belong,
to fit in, to be a part of. They say they really, really want to create fulfilling
But what they want is in conflict with what they desire. What they want
is to be accepted and cared about. What they desire is to be protected by building
impenetrable walls around themselves.
desires inevitably win out over their wants, thereby leaving them feeling powerless and
befuddled. Powerless to effect any change. Befuddled as to how it always winds up the same
they spend their lives bemoaning their fate--telling the world about how well intended
they are but always winding up with the same results.
You can have only two things in your
relationships, intentions and results. Intentions don't count.
tip will do away with explanations, excuses, and expressions of good intentions. Things
that happen in your relationship will become very black-and-white. Choices made no longer
will be clouded by silver-tongued individuals who can talk their way out of any
circumstance. Excuses stop and acknowledgment becomes the law of the land. Good intentions
cease to be the currency people use for barter.
you ever seen someone who wanted something, but could not bring themself to ask for it? I
have seen many people who would not take responsibility for getting their needs met.
Responsibility in this sense, means being proactive, not well-intentioned. Proactive means
initiating a course of action congruent with the goal of getting your needs met, not
putting off until tomorrow what you could do today.
do you relate to this tip? Do you find yourself spending more time justifying your good
intentions rather than actively creating solutions to the challenges you face in your
relationship? What keeps you stuck in a cycle of good intentions rather than concrete
this tip as a springboard to become more active in those aspects of your relationships in
which you are falling short of the mark. Go ahead and transform your good intentions into
Take responsibility for what your behavior means--not
what you want others to think that it means.
this tip and watch how emotional honesty and directness will replace hedging and
ambiguity. Exposure of your true-self and a feeling of vulnerability will replace managing
someones impression of what you want them to believe about you. A heightened
awareness of what your behavior means will replace ignorance about the choices you make.
cannot tell you the numbers of time people have said to me, Well, I do not know what
I am doing.
want to plead with them and say, Every last one of us knows exactly what we are
doing. We have done it our whole lives. It is well rehearsed, much practiced.
your goal is to be responsible in your relationships, then it is time you take ownership
of the missing link. The missing link is taking responsibility for what your behavior
means--not what you want it to appear to mean.
responsible means you have the courage to come out of hiding. Being responsible means you
have the courage to be seen for who you are--not for how you want to be seen. It means you
are committed to giving up the crutches of rationalization and denial. It means you will
trade in the tools of irresponsibility such as passive-aggressive behavior for emotional
honesty, passivity for assertiveness, conflict avoidance for conflict resolution.
is one thing to remember when talking about the aspects of responsibility in your life, it
takes time to learn these skills.
first, many of us are overwhelmed by the awesome task of picking up the dangling bits of
woman asked for my help implementing these principles once. She looked at me and said,
It seems so hard, this idea of taking responsibility. I want to do it. But
responsibility is difficult.
sat down to talk, but she already had a plan in mind.
said, I have found that the best way to reach my goal is to begin each day in a
brief meditation. I say to the universe--please help me to recognize where and when I need
to take responsibility for myself. Only to recognize the need, nothing more. In time, I
can work on taking action. But my meditation helps me to understand. In a way, the
comprehension takes away some of the fear. And without some of the fear, I can begin to
truth is, there are many wrong ways to adopt responsibility and few easy ones. But
responsibility well worn is a very powerful tool.
Once you get the hang
of it, taking responsibility can be an electric experience. Responsibility brings true
freedom. Its the chance to create your own life. To be conscious of responsibility
is to be mindful of how you create yourself.
chemical dependency and its toxic impact on family members. Raise your
children to choose to be alcohol and other drugs
free. Learn how
to in Dr. Frischs, Psy.D. Recovery book series.