RESPONSIBILTY versus Response-Ability


Most of us hate this word.   It could well have been included in George Carlin’s 7 Words You Can’t Say On TV.

Duties,  bills, taking care of unpleasant business, doing things we don’t want to do.  We have saddled that word with every antagonistic thought we ever had about being “grown-up”  and added a sprinkling of blame in there too.  “You’re responsible for this, you screwed up, the buck  stops with you!”   The word implies fault, the burden of obligation,  indictment and, well, responsibility.

Is it any wonder we avoid the most important responsibility of all?   It’s not the “responsibility” of  being organised, or re-cycling plastics and glass, it’s responsibility for our own emotions.  When we do not take responsibility for the emotions we experience, our choice-making ability suffers because we cannot respond to the world around us as options/opportunities.  Instead  we respond by reacting to a world we have no “control” over and thus we  keep doing (and experiencing) the same things  over and over again.   If the outside world is telling us how to feel about ourselves, then we’re consciously or unconsciously giving someone or something outside ourselves responsibility for our feelings.

In our cause-and-effect world we instinctively assign emotional blame both on ourselves and others, “You crticised me – and that made me feel really bad about myself, what you said really upset me.”   or,  “I feel really bad about upsetting you and creating this big conflict.”  but the truth is that nobody causes ANYONE else to feel anything.

We can read every self-help book ever written, see every healer, clergy or guru and intellectually  understand the principles of  loving ourselves and others but until we take ownership and responsibility for our emotions/selves, we will be stuck in an analytical paralysis of thinking, understanding, and observing instead of doing, engaging and BE-ing.

When we’re asked to be responsible for our emotions it often goes something like this,

“It’s not my FAULT that I feel what I feel… it’s not my burden of obligation that my husband hurt my feelings.  I understand that the feelings are MY feelings… but I’m not the one that started them. I didn’t ask for this.”


“I don’t know what it means to take responsibility for my feelings… I feel them, I’m mad and sad… what more can I do?  What’s my burden of obligation here?  I’m not in control of what happens to me.”

It might help to think of responsibility as “response-ability” instead of as blame, fault or a jurisdiction of duties and tasks;   it’s simply the ability to integrate with your emotions, claim your own feelings and RESPOND to the outside forces around you and to the emotions that arise.    There is an important distinction here,   because most of us think that “responsibility” means that we need to make sure we take care of, avoid or JUDGE our own emotional reactions.    (They’re my responsibility and responsibility means CONTROL. I need to make sure I’m not sad, mad or frightened.)    This creates more internal conflict than it solves because instead we are setting up another layer of distance between ourselves and our feelings.  And, of course,  that’s what making other people responsible for our feelings accomplishes too.

Think about something you KNOW you can be response-able about.  Let’s take your shoes.  As you read the next part, think about how feelings are like SHOES in this example:

You know you have shoes, you wear them every day!  You would never look at your feet in your shoes and say, “my stupid boss is wearing my shoes.”  instead,   you know that they are an extension of you and that you make choices about them, you know that your shoes are there to help you move through life.  You would not judge your shoes in such a  way that extended to you as a Being, “I hate these shoes, they’re so horrible. I’m a terrible, awful person to have these shoes!”   If you found a hole in your shoes, or found that you had outgrown your shoes and couldn’t wear them anymore, you would not say, “I NEED to hold on to these shoes even though my heel and toes are hanging over the edges and the sole is all broken down, because I’m worthless.”    Of course not!   You wouldn’t pretend that your broken shoes didn’t exist or hide them under your bed or try to cover them up by wearing galoshes and you wouldn’t wait for someone to just offer you a new pair.   No, you would be able to respond to your painful shoes and change them to make them fit better, look more stylish or dye them to match the chartreuse dress in your sister’s wedding.      You don’t try to give your shoes to someone else and  then wonder why your feet are all dusty and muddy.   You would never look at your shoes and say, “Oh I wish someone would give me my shoes.  If I only had shoes.. then I’d be able to get up and walk.”   You wouldn’t wait for your shoes to leap on your feet in the morning spontaneously.   You would not try to control your shoes if they were sitting on a shoe rack and not on your feet and you would not try to control anyone else’s shoes if they were already on someone else’s feet!       Finally, you know you HAVE shoes, but you also know that you ARE NOT YOUR SHOES!

© Brilliance In Sight/Willow  2010