Right Responsibility

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Could being “more responsible” be bad for you?

Irresponsibility as a Clinical Concern

When working with clients in mandated treatment situations, the concepts of responsibility and responsible action take center stage. This assumption is often valid given the fact that the client was recently found guilty of a criminal offence.

Most of my clients are also on probation or parole and are held to a higher standard of conduct and restricted from more activities than ordinary citizens. Once again, the bar is raised on what constitutes responsible behavior.

Certainly I see plenty of irresponsible behavior. Clients failing to meet their state-imposed commitments to find legal work, to pay off fines and fees, and to keep probation and treatment appointments. For many, failure is born of unskillful patterns of thinking: depressive hopelessness that robs a client of the belief that they can succeed or an external locus of control that highlights outward obstacles to the exclusion of inward resources, just to name two. Clients will whine, manipulate, and malinger inability in an attempt to be “let off the hook.” Each of these thought processes and behavioral patterns are rich targets for therapeutic intervention, and I am pleased rather than dismayed or disapproving when I find them because I have found a place where my skills may make a difference in the client’s life.

Too Much of a Good Thing

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As good as it feels to expose the roots of irresponsible behavior for review and revision, the push for greater responsibility has a dark side. When a client is failing, it’s a tempting mental shortcut to attribute the failure of a client to something within the client rather than to consider all the possible factors both internal and external.

Another way to illustrate the difference between careful analysis and shortcut thinking in assigning responsibility is the difference between “accountability” and “responsibility.” The word accountability I take to mean “being held to account” for some sort of performance or duty. Accountability is usually imposed from without. It completes the sentence “I expect you to…”

Responsibility, by contrast, means “able to respond.” It refers to the intrinsic ability of someone or something to perform a required action. Responsibility describes a condition, rather than an expectation as “accountable” does. Although these words are often used interchangeably in everyday dialog, the distinction is important.

Often we assume people are responsible (able to respond), so we make them accountable (expected to perform). Should our assumption prove false, we get failure, and worse still, the people who failed to live up to our expectations may blame themselves wrongly for the failure. Not only does this interfere with properly diagnosing the problem and devising a solution, but inappropriate self-blame can wind up pushing a person towards learned helplessness and depression.

Right Responsibility

Rather than simply “being more responsible,” I’d like to advance a more nuanced position. My wish for all my clients is to arrive at a wise assessment of what they are actually responsible for (able to respond to) and what is beyond them. In the words of the Stoic philosopher Epictitus, “some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” A more contemporary source, the Serenity Prayer, concurs with “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”

Stephen Covey describes the situation in still a third way: draw two circles one inside the other. The outermost circle is your “circle of concern.” It include all the things you worry about, whether you affect them or not. The price of gas, your performance evaluation at work, and the response to your marriage proposal are all likely within your circle of concern. Whatever is outside that circle is either completely outside of your awareness or something you’ve decided to abandon as a topic of concern. Inside the inner circle is everything you can actually control: your “circle of influence.” Things outside both circles are beyond us and we know it. Things inside the inner circle we can affect, and we know that too. Trouble emerges from the “donut” between these two circles: things we are concerned about but for which we have no ready response. In Covey’s conception, wisdom is making both circles the same size, either by growing our abilities and thus our circle of influence, or releasing our care and attention from things beyond our control.

Right responsibility requires good insight. The “wisdom to know the difference” is hard-won both from remembered experience and reflection. To neither sell ourselves short nor to overextend or overstate our power is a never ending struggle, and legions of psychology experiments demonstrate how easy it is to misjudge ourselves.

Yet the rewards for knowing your true limits are many. Having an accurate read on your ability level is necessary for growth, since progress depends on challenging yourself with something just outside your current level of competence. Recognizing and accepting what is currently beyond you not only gives you deserved release from unrealistic goals, but also more resources to concentrate on what can be changed.

Once someone’s signed on to the idea that there’s such a thing as right responsibility — owning up to the things we can affect and yet disengaging mentally from things beyond our control — there’s still the issue of accountability, or more directly, what others expect of us. Since responsibility is an inner state of being and accountability is someone else’s judgement of the same, they are bound to diverge.

Bosses, spouses, and parents will all have their expectations, and while it’s one thing to realize when they are unrealistic, it’s another to deal skillfully with the problem. It’s bad enough that people important to us will expect the impossible and then become disappointed at the inevitable, but their disappointment comes with potentially dire consequences. I’ll never forget working with clients with alcohol and substance abuse problems just as the recession of the late 2000’s was peaking. Everyone on my caseload was required to find work and pay fines and fees lest they go back to jail, regardless of the economic realities of the times.

Oddly enough, the solution lies within the model itself: others’ opinions of us are largely beyond our control, and best left alone. Certainly there’s room for influence, for negotiation and managing expectations, yet beyond this point the best move is to shake our heads, do our best, and handle the consequences as they arise. Inevitably we will all be held to account for things outside our ability to respond, and in those cases, the best response is self-knowledge and acceptance.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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