A boss is stressed about finances and takes it out on their employees and then wonders why their business is under performing; leading to more stress about finances.
A person speeding down the highway gets angry at the police officer for parking where they aren’t easily seen. Later that month they are even more frustrated by the added financial pressure of a speeding ticket and believe they live with relentless bad luck.
A student leaves their project until the last minute and gets upset with the teacher for not accepting it late, or for giving them a mediocre grade.
A spouse gets upset at their partner and gives them the “silent treatment” for not noticing the hard-work and effort they put into the relationship.
What do these examples have in common? They are examples of reactions and blaming patterns that add unnecessary stress, resentment, and anger to our lives. They are some of the tools we use to deflect ownership of our impact on situations. The problem is: denying or avoiding ownership doesn’t free us from our impact on situations, it further enslaves us to learned helplessness.
We define ourselves a great deal by where we draw the line between “I caused this” and “this happened to me.”
Many people struggle to take ownership of problems and issues to their own detriment. If an event isn’t a direct cause-and-effect between their action and the result, then it is not their’s to own; any small outside interference negates them taking ownership of their actions (i.e. if I run into a parked car, but the parking lot was busy and the car was parked close to me, it isn’t my fault). We can also have the opposite reaction: we can take responsibility for far too much that happens around us, no matter how small our role (i.e. if I park close to another car and they run into me, it is my fault).
In my experience, many people wrongly assume that we ONLY need to own what we actively choose: if we didn’t initiate it, or if we were only “reacting” to something else, then we’re not responsible. We can easily miss the value of owning our reactions and omissions.
1) Reactions: Many people believe their actions are justified if it’s a reaction to an event, rather than caused entirely by them. For example, a bad day at work can become permission to be short-tempered, irritable, and angry toward a partner or friend. Experiencing stress can permit the use of alcohol to cope with it. Someone being rude excuses us being rude in return. Experiencing abuse warrants abuse in return. The list goes on. When we own our reactions, no matter what we are reacting to, we take back the power and clarity of mind to be our authentic selves.
The question is not “if” we are accountable, but how.
We cannot always own our circumstances, but we own our reaction to them.
Every reaction has a precedent, a standard of what is an appropriate reaction. We often inherit these standards through observing people in similar situations. They become our excuses. We often see this in children with the phrase “But everyone else is doing it!”
Circumstances do not absolve responsibility.
2) Omissions: Forgetting, ignoring, avoiding, and being absent are the most common roots of a cause by omission. These are often the most difficult for people to take ownership of because they did not initiate the event by their presence, but by their lack of it. A beautiful form of owning our omissions happens often in the sports world when players take ownership of a loss based on what they didn’t do, rather than what they did. We often see expressions like “we just didn’t have it in us,” “we failed to execute our plan,” “we didn’t have our focus,” etc. A professional takes responsibility for what isn’t happening just as much as what is.
They can also be the result of someone else taking initiative while we stand idly by. The problem is when something goes wrong, we are quick to blame and become upset.
An example is when you are packing for an exciting adventure and your partner takes the initiative to get some things ready. They are fairly confident they got most things and you both do a quick double-check of the key items. After being on the road for an hour, your partner quickly remembers that they forgot to pack some easily forgotten but important item, like a camera, toothbrush, cell phone charger, or sunglasses. We are more likely to blame our partner for forgetting in that moment, although we are just as responsible since we could have easily played a bigger part in helping to pack in the first place. It was our omission, not our action that contributed to the event.
Owning the part we play in events, no matter how direct or indirect, is an invaluable quality that helps us maximize our potential and often minimize stress. As Alex Haley once wrote: “Either you deal with what is the reality, or you can be sure that the reality is going to deal with you.”