With all of the social distancing measures over the last year, we have been repeatedly told by public health officials that it is our responsibility to stay home and flatten the curve.
You are not responsible for the problem, but you now find yourself responsible for part of the solution.
It can be frustrating, it can be isolating, and it might not seem fair.
Although we may sometimes want to resist the calls to take responsibility, consider the other areas of life where you are not responsible for the problem but still need to be part of the solution.
If you’ve experienced trauma leading to mental health issues, you are not responsible for the problem, but you are responsible for being part of the solution.
The same goes for a heredity illness. You are not responsible for the problem, but you are responsible for being part of the solution.
Falling into a victim mindset only serves to strengthen the problem.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can check out my resource page for suggestions on how to find help.
What is responsibility?
Responsibility is the ability to respond.
Not paralyzed by fear, plagued by anxiety, or procrastinating, pretending the problem doesn’t exist.
Responsibility means being prepared, but not panicked. It requires planning, but not perfectionistic plots to control the uncontrollable.
Responsibility consists of accepting uncertainty, knowing you will do what you can control, and letting go of the things you cannot.
Responsibility requires a response proportional to the problem, adapting to obstacles as they arise.
The psychologist Jordan Peterson says the physical posture of responsibility is standing up straight with your shoulders back, in 12 Rules for Life:
To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language).
Why is responsibility important?
Responsibility is important because it provides a sense of purpose, in addition to building resilience amidst adversity on an individual and societal level.
Like an addiction, sidestepping responsibility may feel good in the short-term, but leads to exponentially worse pain and suffering in the long term.
A tiger metaphor by Steven Hayes seems fitting here.
Imagine you adopted a tiger cub into your home. It is cute, cuddly, and harmless. You notice it begins to purr loudly, and the only way you can make it stop is to feed it red meat. Over the months and years, you keep doing this, but the tiger is now several hundred pounds, requiring whole sides of beef. Rather than a cute purr, the tiger roars ferociously for its meat. You are terrified, so you keep giving him the meat so he will leave you alone. The more you feed it, the larger it gets, and the more trapped you become.
In this metaphor, feeding the tiger symbolizes sidestepping your responsibilities. There is temporary relief, but a long term cost. Each time you avoid responsibility, you are feeding the tiger, making the problem larger, giving up long term freedom and control.
Why do people choose to become trapped in troublesome tiger relations? Jordan Peterson explains one potential reason in 12 Rules for Life:
Sometimes, when people have a low opinion of their own worth or, perhaps, when they refuse responsibility for their lives they choose a new acquaintance, of precisely the type who proved troublesome in the past. Such people don’t believe that they deserve any better so they don’t go looking for it. Or, perhaps, they don’t want the trouble of better.”
Let’s go deeper into how low self-worth prevents responsibility and look at how to build a sense of purpose through responsibility to one’s self, one’s family, and one’s society.
Responsibility provides a sense of purpose
Avoiding responsibility destroys a sense of purpose. Purpose comes from a sense of contribution and connection to something larger than yourself. But first, it is necessary to take responsibility for yourself. By being the best version of yourself, you can then be the most helpful to others.
Being responsible for yourself
This requires taking care of your basic needs. In the recovery community, it is common to use the acronym, HALT. Are you hungry, angry, lonely, or tired? Regularly check in on your current state and address deficiencies where appropriate.
Another way to maintain self-responsibility is to organize the clutter in your physical environment and the chaos in your day-to-day life. Prioritize your sleep, nutrition, and exercise. If all of this sounds overwhelming, start small. As Jordan Peterson says, “Clean your damn room!” But as he also says, “Cleaning up your room involves cleaning up far more than your room.”
Doing something useful for yourself is the first step in reorienting yourself amidst the mental fog of purposelessness. As the fog begins to thin out, you can start to see beyond yourself. This leads to step two:
Being responsible within your family
Once you’re adequately useful to yourself and can help from a place of genuine giving, you can be useful to others close to you.
I mention genuine giving because many people try to be useful to others without addressing their own needs first. This often results in codependent relationships where you do things for others to fill a lack of self-esteem in yourself. It is an experience of toxic shame where we constantly feel the need to prove ourselves and receive external validation. This may feel like “taking responsibility,” but it is often unhelpful and is just feeding the internal tiger, masking underlying issues with self-worth.
See my article The Need to be Needed for an in-depth description of this interpersonal dynamic.
If you’ve worked through these personal areas and can engage in close interpersonal relationships based on genuine heartfelt giving, the next step is this:
Being responsible within the broader society
Being socially responsible can happen in various ways. Right now, it simply means staying home to prevent community spread of the viral infection.
During regular times, being socially responsible might take place in your work, volunteer roles, or leisure activities.
The key to maximizing your social responsibility is contributing in a way that fits your unique personal strengths. For example, if your strengths are working with people, and you value compassion, developing and applying these strengths allows you to maximally contribute socially.
A lack of fit between your strengths, values, and interests can hinder your level of usefulness in your work, resulting in a low sense of purpose within the role. Finding alignment between your abilities and your role requires first knowing your strengths and cultivating them.
Not cultivating and applying your unique strengths doesn’t just rob you of a sense of purpose, but it also robs the broader society of your potential contributions.
Although you may not be responsible for personal or social issues, you are still responsible for being part of the solution.
Avoiding responsibility comes with a short term gain at a long term cost.
Taking responsibility creates long term resilience and a sense of purpose.
This sense of purpose can be fostered by taking responsibility for one’s self by engaging in self-care. Responsibility can also be developed on a familial and societal level, offering a sense of purpose proportional to your ability to contribute your unique abilities.
you’ve seen me comment on your posts before, dear Steve, commending you on your writing abilities, but you outdo yourself here, standing amongst philosophers, Marcus Aurelius, for instance, Epictetus, eminent moralists, in bringing heart to your strong and disciplined account of “responsibility” – philosophy is perhaps your true dimension, just saying – all the very best, R ! chard
Great to see you on here again, Richard! I remember you used to enjoy my articles on veterans in transition to civilian life. Thank you for such kind words. Hope you are well! Take care.
I really appreciate the focus on personal responsibility. A well-written message that people need to internalize. We are part of the solution, and it is tempting to think that we can ‘bend the rules’ for some want or need, with unintended consequences the result. I will reblog this on my blog.
Thanks Eric! I believe the ethics of Emanuel Kant apply here. Universalize your individual Maxim. In other words, ask yourself, if everyone did the same thing, is that the type of world you would want to live in?
Crikey …. well this hit me rather hard. I’ve been feeding that tiger so long now that I don’t even know quite where to start. Everything you said there makes total sense. I look forward to reading more of your posts although frankly I’m rather worried. I think I’m going to be making some monumental decisions before too long. I wish I could just bury my head in the sand. Thanks for the post. Katie
It is, a collective responsibility for us, as a whole group of living organisms, to prevent the spread of this current outbreak, and, we must all, abide by the rules of the government, not just for our own sake’s, but for the good, of the, entire, human population on the planet.
I think one thing that’s regularly missed in the conversation about “needing to be needed“ is that people who are “more needy” tend to be socially marginalized. So we find ourselves looking after one another because others w needs are the people available to us. (Others in an AA group, for instance) And then other folks further justify our marginalization by defining us as “codependent helpers.” Of course the second thing that’s overlooked is the reality that people are wired to be connected with other people (belonging) and experience ourselves as valuable through those relationships (meaning, purpose). All of which you have written about extensively.
Thank you for sharing this! I completely agree. My article on the need to be needed covers this. I do want to go deeper into the marginalization vs. individual agency dynamic a bit deeper though. Thank you for highlighting this! I am planning on doing an article on the meaning of the serenity prayer to explore this dynamic further.
I may quote you on this definition, “responsibility is the ability to respond” … so well said!
No problem! Thank you!
I agree 100%. It can be deadly for high risk people. I like your perspective. We have a responsibility, so that we don’t spread it and make it worse, and contribute to the pandemic.
4 or 6 million people out of 7 billion people. Think about that for just a moment, really. That in my opinion does not represent a pandemic. 6 million out of 7 billion is not even 1% of the population. It would have to be 20% or more of 7 billion before I would even to begin the notion of a true pandemic. Break away from the heard. Use your brain,don’t fall into a sheeple existence. Don’t be a chump. All these people putting this much trust in the CDC and the media leaves me feeling like there is no hope for our future. I have to remind myself that it’s really not their fault or anyone’s fault,they have been brainwashed and pre-programmed, unknowingly. You don’t need a psychologist or at least I don’t,to come to that conclusion.