False Responsibility—Mistaken Ownership, Blame
In previous Letters we have been discussing various aspects of responsibility and self-esteem and mentioned that responsibility usually means accountability, being held accountable for the consequences of one’s behavior. We will use this meaning of responsibility, though responsibility can also mean “response ability,” the ability to respond to life. Our approach has been to encourage a person to take responsibility, be accountable, and to build self-esteem. However, there is a kind of responsibility that is not true responsibility, but false responsibility. Getting stuck with false responsibility feels awful and can lead to anxiety, depression, anger, and sometimes rage. Therefore it is important to understand what false responsibility is, how it comes about, and how to end this responsibility. In the June Letter we discussed how self-esteem is related to responsibility. In this Letter we explore some ideas about the relationship between false responsibility and self-esteem.
DEFINITION, TAKING ON FALSE RESPONSIBILITY—HOW AND WHY
False responsibility is simply responsibility that does not belong to you, that you do not own, that is not yours. Having responsibility that is not yours can happen in two ways. One is when someone tries to make you responsible, to get you to accept responsibility that belongs to him/her. He tells you that you are at fault, that you are to blame for something that has happened or for the way he feels or for some chronic situation or for some combination of these things. This is done through manipulation, using guilt, shame, blame, and anger to induce the feeling of responsibility. This is a strategy for avoiding one’s responsibility.
The other way to have responsibility that does not belong to you is when you take the initiative to take on this kind of responsibility. You make someone else’s responsibility yours. This is done because of guilt, shame, fear, and confusion. As human beings we have the ability to take in and take on feelings that do not belong to us, that we do not own, that we have not created. The positive aspect of this ability is empathy, the ability to know what another person is feeling and to imagine ourselves in their situation to know what they are experiencing. This ability gets distorted when we intentionally or unintentionally use it to take on someone’s else responsibility for their feelings or behavior.
There is a long list of situations and feelings that we take responsibility for that don’t belong to us. Most of this begins in childhood. We are blamed for a situation that we did not cause. “This is all your fault,” we are told. In a profound way we believe that we caused something and that we are therefore to blame, that we are responsible. We accept blame when we should refuse it. Much of what children take responsibility for can be very complicated having many subtleties. For example, we may have been told that we caused our parent’s divorce. Sometimes a child is not told this directly but indirectly with accusing comments like, “If you didn’t misbehave so much you mother and I would not argue and this would not be happening.” Since they are getting divorced a child thinks that he/she caused the divorce and is responsible for it.
Why do children believe that something is their “fault” when it is not? First, children are not capable of understanding the dishonesty and falsehood of statements designed to transfer responsibility. Second, in an effort to maintain the connection, the relationship, the attachment to a parent, it seems preferable to agree and to accept false responsibility rather than suffer the loss of connection. In a state of dependence this loss can be frightening and sometimes terrifying.
Being attacked with anger, rage, or physical violence weakens us. In this weakened state we are very vulnerable to accepting blame. A clear example is child sexual abuse where the abuser attacks the child with anger, rage, or physical violence. The child thinks that this must be my fault. Surprisingly this thought helps the child to feel safe because it creates some feeling of control over his or her life. “If I am responsible I can stop what is happening.”
To result in false responsibility, being blamed must be accompanied by accepting blame. There are many reasons why a person would accept blame. Feeling guilt, shame, fear, or confusion can weaken us, take away our strength and self-esteem, and make us vulnerable to accepting blame. In order to refuse false responsibility we need the strength that self-esteem gives us to say no. “No, I do not accept blame or responsibility for what you are saying is my fault.” Children, adolescents, and some adults do not have the understanding, sophistication, and strength to say no.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF FALSE RESPONSIBILITY
Taking responsibility (ownership) for our feelings and for any situation that we face empowers us. We can use our feelings to help us understand what needs to be changed in that situation and our will power to make that change. For example, if I take responsibility for the behavior that angered my boss I can change that behavior and be more successful at work.
If we take responsibility for feelings that are not ours and situations that we did not create, the responsibility can depress us and/or make us anxious. We then become angry and resentful. False responsibility is false ownership. We feel powerless and helpless. The feeling of responsibility just sits within us causing us pain. We can become frustrated with and angry at ourself. With understanding a person may say, “These feelings of guilt and inadequacy are not my feelings. Because they are not mine, even though I feel them, they do not come under my control and there is nothing inside me that I can use my will to change. Therefore I reject these feelings and do not take responsibility for them.”
Point of Empowerment: Feelings that we feel but do not own are like aliens, foreign objects, that take possession of our body. Our goal is to rid ourself of them.
When we take false responsibility our self-esteem drops because we blame ourselves for not being able to change the feelings and situations that don’t belong to us and think that there is something wrong with us. To create self-esteem for ourself we ask the question, “How am I doing?” If we try to change something about ourself and repeatedly fail the answer to that question becomes, “I am doing poorly. I am failing.” We don’t feel good about ourself. Our self-esteem is going down. When we discuss ending false responsibility and rejecting blame, we will see that when we refuse false responsibility we become happier and our self-esteem goes up.
Point of Empowerment: Accepting or creating false responsibility generates depression, anxiety, anger, resentment, and low self-esteem.
EXAMPLES OF FALSE RESPONSIBILITY
Here are some examples of false responsibility.
- Since it looks like rain your partner asks you if he should take an umbrella. You say no. He listens to you and gets wet when it rains. He blames you for getting wet denying responsibility for his decision to leave the umbrella home. You wrongly accept the blame and take responsibility for his decision, responsibility that does not belong to you.
- You made a mistake at work and your boss feels furious with you. She claims that it is your fault that she is so angry. While her frustration may be justified her fury is not. But you agree with her that her fury is your fault, blame yourself for her reaction, and take responsibility that does not belong to you.
- Your mother is unhappy with your school grades even though they are very good. You feel responsible for her unhappiness even though her unhappiness is based on unrealistic standards and expectations of perfection. You have mistakenly take responsibility for feelings that belong to her.
- You try to help your father stop drinking. While he says that he appreciates your help he does not change. He blames you for his drinking because you “didn’t help him.” You accept this blame taking responsibility for his behavior which you do not own and are not responsible for.
- Your parent repeated hits you saying that you “stress her out.” This abuse causes you to feel shame and you blame yourself for your unhappiness though your unhappiness is caused by your parent’s behavior. You hold yourself responsible for a situation, physical abuse, that is out of your control.
- Your elementary school teacher doesn’t like you and tends to blame you for problems with her class. Being a child you cannot argue with the authority figures in your life so you think that the teacher must be right. With self-blame your self-esteem and self-confidence drop. You may even cause problems in class that are actually due to the teacher’s expectations of you. As a child due to your inexperience in life, you have accepted false responsibility. Accepting false responsibility in school could become a habit that you bring home.
- Your spouse continually feels inadequate and states that you cause him to feel that way. You accept this blame because you doubt or are unaware of your right to refuse the blame. You start to feel inadequate. You are feeling a feeling that does not belong to you.
- You see how frustrated your son gets when he loses a competitive game. You become more frustrated than he is and yell at him. Part of your behavior comes from caring about him and taking on his frustration. But since this frustration does not belong to you it makes you overly reactive to his moods. In addition, you are very competitive and “have to win.” This makes you prone to taking on his frustration which does not belong to you.
- You are told that you should know the reasons for your spouse’s angry outburst. Your spouse does not explain the reasons but leaves them vague. In this vagueness you take say to yourself, “I don’t really understand the reasons for this anger but I agree that I must be responsible.” Accepting false responsibility does not happen without your agreement.
In this Letter we discussed aspects of false responsibility—it’s nature and destructiveness. Blaming other’s for our feelings, behavior, and our life’s circumstances is very common. It is frequently part of the political discourse of our times. Social and political change, like individual change, is only possible when we, as individuals, accept ownership of our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and become responsible for them. When this occurs we become free to make the changes that will enhance our life.
In our next Letter we will identify more sources of false responsibility and talk about recognizing and refusing false responsibility.