How to Take Responsibility for Your Life


There is something extra stressful and crazy making about meeting your partner’s family for the first time. I still remember my first first. I was incredibly nervous. Luckily it went well. My second first didn’t go as well as the first. The scene, Thanksgiving dinner with my family. My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving and I always try to make it to my aunt’s house. For weeks before my family dreams of our favorites: turkey and fresh cranberry, green bean casserole, Hawaiian rolls, and of course the pumpkin pie and home made whipped cream. Since my boyfriend wasn’t going home to see his family, I invited him to meet mine. I was nervous and questions ran through my head. Would he get along with them? Would they like him? Would he be comfortable with the kids, all the sports on tv, the politics, or the drinking?

Adding to the stress, I’m also the type of person who likes to arrive early or on time. My body does better when I can get to my destination at a relaxed pace and have time to settle in. My boyfriend was the opposite. We had talked about our difference in perspective around time but never figured out common ground. The best I could do is make a clear request when I wanted to leave. I did my best to make a request that accounted for holiday traffic and wouldn’t get us there too early. He said yes.

He was late. He didn’t call or text. By the time he arrived, I was angry. Coupled with holiday traffic that added hours to our trip, we spent most of the trip in uncomfortable silence. During the drive, all I could think is why couldn’t he own his own shit? Why couldn’t he take responsibility and apologize?

Mutual Responsibility

There is a way of being that I’m cultivating in my life— to take personal responsibility for my life and mine alone. Yet, to be considerate and compassionate that my actions have an impact on others, mutual responsibility.

Personal responsibility is the belief that only I am responsible for myself. Only I am responsible for my actions, my intentions, and my feelings. It removes all excuses. Only I am responsible for my happiness and achieving what I want in life. This is not easy. It’s way too easy to blame other people, things, or circumstances for my troubles.

Mutual responsibility takes personal responsibility a step further. It’s the belief that I’m responsible for my well being and that I impact the well being of others. When I care about my friends, my neighbors, and the planet’s well being I contribute to my own happiness. Through mutual responsibility I acknowledge that others have the right to their feelings and I acknowledges my contribution to their feelings. It places me in a position to learn and understand about my presence and impact in my friend’s lives.

I’m a Hypocrite

In self-help literature, it’s often said if you don’t like something in someone else, take a look in the mirror. It’s probably because it’s something you don’t like in yourself.

I am a responsible person. I try to keep my commitments. Yet, as I started to explore personal responsibility I began to see all the ways I wasn’t responsible. I am the pot calling the kettle black. I see all the ways I wanted someone else to take responsibility, someone else to make it all better, and someone else to stop doing what they were doing and make my life better. I see the fine line between responsibility, control, and blame.

The Cost of Not Taking Responsibility

I’m not the only one. I look around and I wonder how many people are truly responsible for themselves. Not taking responsibility may not seem like such a bad thing. Harmless really. A piece of paper is dropped and not picked up. Someone else will pick it up. You have a bad day at work. At home, you have a gruff tone of voice with your family at the dinner table. It’s fine, they understand that you had a hard day at work. You get on the scale and see you’ve gained 5 pounds. You feel guilty about not working out and those extra glasses of wine. Then the excuses begin about why you haven’t had the time to workout or you deserved the extra glass of wine. Any of these sound familiar?

As I explored the impacts of not taking responsibility in my own life, I started to see a trend. A trend towards right, wrong, blame, and fault. I saw an unwillingness to look at myself in the mirror. At the most extreme there are people who don’t just ignore their responsibility, they are skilled at shifting responsibility to others. Perhaps you’ve heard of these terms:

  • Gaslighting: The term “gaslighting” refers to when someone manipulates another into questioning and second-guessing their reality. In extreme, it’s when their reality is canceled and overwritten.
  • Blame shifting: The “blamer” has difficulty taking responsibility for their problems and will go as far as necessary to attribute blame for their circumstance to anyone else. They won’t accept ownership of their emotions, original intent, or impact of their actions.
  • Spiritual Bypassing: Popular amongst the spiritual crowd they use spirituality to avoid, suppress, escape, numb out and sidestep unresolved emotional issues, wounds, and uncomfortable issues in their lives.

The thread in these behaviors is that the person escapes their own responsibility, emotion, intent, and actions. That person finds a way to dodge their responsibility. This comes with a number of costs:

  • Loss of power. By denying responsibility, we step out of alignment with who we are and what we have done.
  • Loss of trust and respect in ourselves and with others which can ultimately damage a relationship.
  • Diminish your ability to learn, grow and change.
  • Loss of happiness.

Taking Personal Responsibility

Here are the ways I’m trying to cultivate my responsibility.

  • To remember, I am the only one responsible for my own happiness or lack of it.
  • If I want to be happy, I must decide what I want and ask for it.
  • To remember, I am not personally responsible for other’s happiness.
  • To remind myself I can’t control others.
  • To remind myself that my intent, actions, and energetic presence impacts others.
  • As often as I can, speak non-defensively and with vulnerability. Sharing all facets of what I’m feeling and thinking, whether positive or negative.
  • If others are “hurt” because of me, to give them the space and time to process any emotions and reactions, and not try to fix it.
  • To eliminate right, wrong or blame. Instead be with what is and seek to understand needs that are not being met.
  • To set boundaries and create accountability for myself and others.

I’m not good at this yet, but in practicing these principles I’m getting better. Each time I practice, I feel more empowered and it makes the next time a bit easier.

How to Be in Relationship With People who Aren’t Responsible

Not everyone subscribes to a value of personal responsibility or is ready for the vulnerability and self-reflection it requires. You may meet people who gaslight, blame shift, and spiritually bypass their responsibility. If someone’s not taking responsibility, there are two things we can do: take responsibility for ourselves and remember you can’t control others.

In taking responsibility for ourselves, we can keep our power and walk away with a sense of integrity and strength. We do this by clearly stating how someone else’s action impacts us and what you will and won’t do when that same behavior happens. We effectively draw boundaries and hold others accountable for their behaviors. Drawing boundaries enables us to separate ourselves from someone else’s judgments and impact. If someone continues their behavior than in the words of Nina Simone, “you have to learn to get up from the table when love is no longer being served.”

Thanksgiving Redo

If I had my own DeLorean, I’d go back to that Thanksgiving and had taken full responsibility for all the fear I had. I would have been more vulnerable with my boyfriend and my family about the importance of the meeting. I would have also drawn better boundaries around time. Now I know for next time.