I write because I hope to eliminate years or decades of needless suffering from your life. The key to ending needless suffering is clarity. I achieved clarity not through introspection, but by practicing absolute responsibility. Since I didn’t even intellectually understand the truth about responsibility until my 43rd year of life, it seems to me that I should start talking a lot more about it.
In a nutshell:
I am 100% responsible for my relationship to any person, group or family and to my own goals, values, ideas and problems. I am 0% responsible for anyone’s relationship to anyone else, or to any group, or to their own goals, values and ideas.
How does this play out in the real world?
My direct relationship to any other individual is 100% my responsibility. So that means that I never expect someone else to change. When I say never I mean never.
If my relationship with another person needs to change, I change.
Now of course, if I want something from someone I say so. If I think an agreement we had needs to change, I say so. If someone doesn’t live up to an agreement, I talk with them about it.
But I do not attempt to control their responses. They are responsible for their response, not me.
So for instance, if someone does not live up to their agreements, I start drawing boundaries. “I will not…” No “ifs”. I do not say, “If you stop cheating me, then I will…” No. I just say, “I will not work with you.” I do not say, “If you stop drinking, then I will…” No. I just say, “I will not hang out with you when you drink.” Notice. There is no attempt to stop the person from drinking. I am just saying what I am going to do.
What about conflict? When I fight with someone I get it over as fast as possible. I then never bring up the fight again. When I say never I mean never. Not passive-aggressively, not as a hint, not even as a moment of weird silence. I mean I never bring it up again.
Instead, I just connect with the person. If the person cares enough to fight, then they care enough to connect. Unless they are abusive. In that case I just leave, or else I let our relationship become trivial.
Notice, in all cases, I am taking 100% responsibility for my relationship to the other person. I never expect the other person to change. (I also do not expect anyone to remain the same.)
It is the same with my work, my art and my ministry. I and I alone am responsible for my business. It doesn’t matter how many other people screwed up. If I tell a client that I will do something and it doesn’t get done, it is my responsibility to make it right. 100% my responsibility.
I do not make excuses. I do not complain. And I do not blame.
If something has to get done then it has to get done. If I delegate, and I should and do delegate, then it is still my responsibility that I delegated it. And my relationship to whoever I delegate anything to is also my responsibility.
My own time management is 100% my responsibility. That means that if I want to say no I say no. Period. End of discussion. More important things will not get done if I don’t say no to less important things.
I list on my phone’s calendar the most important things that need to get done each day. As I do them, I celebrate. And as I finish them I erase them from my phone’s calendar. I celebrate because it is 100% my responsibility to get things done, and I deserve to be rewarded every single time I get anything done.
I do not attempt to control results. Any individual result could just be luck. But I do pay attention to long-term patterns. A pattern shows what’s really going on. If I have a pattern of bad results then I change.
It doesn’t matter how many other people did mean, unfair or downright terrible things. If I have a pattern of results, something about my behavior must change.
And that’s actually the easy part.
The hard part is to take 0% responsibility for things that are not mine. This is where I really needed an intellectual framework that, for most of my life, I did not have.
Remember when I talked earlier about conflict? When arguing, I say what I have to say and then I just drop it and reestablish connection. I don’t try to win arguments. Other people are just projecting, and there is nothing I can do about it. Their own projections are 0% my responsibility. However, to say what I believe or know is 100% my responsibility.
Supporting my friends is 100% my responsibility. Whatever they do in response is 0% my responsibility. I don’t expect anything in return. I never think anyone owes me for anything unless we signed a contract.
I don’t deserve anything. I don’t deserve anything good and I don’t deserve anything bad. “Deserve” just has nothing to do with it. If I start talking about what anyone “deserves”, that’s taking responsibility for things that aren’t mine. So for instance, other people can say no to me, and they don’t even owe me an explanation.
Let’s talk about some really tough stuff.
It’s really hard to deeply internalize the fact that whether or not your parents love you (or each other) is 0% your responsibility. That your spouse’s drug addiction is 0% your responsibility. That if two people who live at your house have such a violent dispute that a dozen cops show up to deal with it, it is all 0% your responsibility. Meanwhile, the way you relate to each individual in each situation is 100% your responsibility.
Everyone’s family is different. But just ask yourself, is this really my responsibility? Am I taking 100% responsibility if it is? Am I really taking 0% if it’s not? I mean, really, ZERO percent?
Here is a great way to tell that you are trying to take responsibility when you shouldn’t: any version of “if they do this then I’ll do that.” No. You just decide what you are going to do. There is a big difference between telling a raging alcoholic, “I don’t hang out with you when you drink” and, “If you drink, I’m not going to hang out with you.” The first is me taking 100% responsibility for my own relationship to the alcoholic. The second is my trying to take responsibility for the alcoholic’s relationship to his own drinking, which will never work out.
What matters is how you instinctively phrase it in your head. Of course you can always try to twist the phrasing around. If you do that you’re missing the point. The phrasing isn’t the problem. It’s the signal that you have a problem. If you instinctively phrase your relationships to others as “if they do this then I’ll do that”, then you are taking responsibility for things you shouldn’t.
Probably the simplest way you can tell you are taking responsibility when you shouldn’t is when you take sides. That’s a clear, definite signal that you are screwing up.
And if you are going so far as to label people, to diagnose them as if you are a trained psychiatrist, then you are definitely making a mess of things. Everyone is a different person in different situations. The moment you label, you are refusing to take responsibility for your words and actions in every situation.
Even your “self” is a bunch of different voices from different families in your head. You carry your family around with you, and so does everyone else. So that means that the voices can be from generations back. So you could be reacting to a situation but it’s actually your father that’s reacting, or even a long-lost great uncle.
And so here’s where the end of needless suffering really happens:
Finally, I learned to not even take my own side. I have blind spots, my memory is inaccurate, and I tell myself stories to make myself feel better. It was when I stopped taking even my own side in my own head that the world opened up to me.