On Responsibility

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

Recently I counseled a couple with marital problems in my office. The husband came to session one day with a coffee stain on his shirt. He said “she did it to me again…made me ruin another shirt.” Apparently the wife was driving the car and had to stop abruptly causing him to spill coffee on himself. “He doesn’t believe in lids,” the wife explains. I asked the husband what he expected her to do, pay attention to the road or pay attention to when he was going to take a sip of coffee. If this husband couldn’t take responsibility for something as small as spilling coffee on himself, it appeared obvious he was not going to take responsibility for something larger, like a family.

We see over and over again the abdication of responsibility. Parents blaming teachers for their children’s poor school performance; smokers blaming tobacco companies for the consequences of a lifetime of smoking; baby boomers blaming an unhappy childhood for everything from drug addiction to failed marriages. The prevailing social climate seems to say “if anything bad happens it’s somebody else’s fault, and I shouldn’t have to pay for it.” Blaming others and not taking responsibility may make you feel better temporarily, but it actually keeps you mad longer.

Many writers have addressed this issue of the erosion of personal responsibility.Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People defines responsibility as the “ability to choose your response.” He goes on to say that rather than blame circumstances, responsible people make their behavior “a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling.” Suze Orman, in The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom makes “being responsible to those you love” the fourth step toward financial freedom before “being respectful of yourself and your money.” Responsibility to others comes BEFORE self-respect.

Psychologists teach us that self-esteem increases when we maintain quality relationships with others. Taking responsibility for ourselves, our children, our family, raises our self-esteem, lowers our angry reactivity, and improves our functioning in work and in life. People who fail to take responsibility tend to stay mad longer, blame others for their failures, and maintain low self-esteem. When we take responsibility for our actions and emotions we feel more empowered to stop unnecessary anger.

The capacity to accept responsibility is central to maturity, and the key to success in relationships, learning, business, financial matters and even one’s physical and mental health. When we accept our responsibilities to family, community, and country, we help make the world a better, more peaceful place.