16: Taking Responsibility

There are many things we must do for ourself, because they cannot be outsourced to others. This includes chewing and swallowing our food, learning, and most healing. We cannot rely on a convenient friend or a health professional to do any of these things for us. When misunderstandings or mistakes occur, it is likewise up to us to correct them. We have to do our own apologizing and forgiving, as well as cope with the inevitable times when we meet with rejection and criticism. And because we are not yet perfect, we must learn to deal with a certain amount of failure and defeat. Taking responsibility for our recovery is an indispensable part of healing the self-inflicted wounds of psychic self-destruction.

The greatest roadblock to our self-healing lies in our capacity to deny the truth about our faults and the merit of good ideas and methods. We have an almost unlimited power to defend our dysfunctional beliefs and habits and blame others for all our problems. This is why it is necessary to commit ourself to take responsibility to contribute to our own healing, renewal, and repair.

This work begins by taking ownership of our problems and all the distress they have caused. While nasty people, unexpected losses, and terrible tragedies may have been a major factor in our suffering, the primary responsibility for our repair and restoration of well-being is still ours. If we lapse into bitterness and blame, we will only bond ourself to these hostile people and events—and remain miserable and stuck in anger and defeat. It might be preferable if certain people made amends or contributed to our recovery, but we cannot depend on this support—nor can we command it.

Our effort to assume responsibility for our healing is frequently sabotaged by our subconscious resistance to change. There are four common ways that we may attempt to continue with the dysfunctional beliefs and habits that keep recreating our suffering. The first is to refuse to recognize that we are excessively self- absorbed, depressed, hostile, or anxious. The second is to assume we are so “special” that we are immune to the consequences of our behavior. We continue to believe that we can do anything we want, and there should be no cost or penalty for these indiscretions. The third is to assume we are entitled to stay indignant and uncooperative, hate our adversaries, grumble endlessly, and refuse to be reasonable until we are paid back for all the difficulties we have experienced. The fourth is to believe bad things “just happen” without any antecedent. It is “bad luck” or “accidents” that caused our distress or illness, and it is good luck that brings comfort and healing. We are not involved in either event except for occasionally being the victim. And since these events are always outside our control, we presume total innocence and freedom from any responsibility to do something to relieve our misery.

If any of this nonsense actually worked, millions of people would be happy, healthy and cheerful. The evidence suggests otherwise.

We hear many stories about how bad parenting can cause a life-long affliction with anxiety and low self-esteem. A broken marriage can cause permanent resentment and distrust. An unexpected, severe loss automatically leads to a persistent depression and hopelessness. Thereafter, there is nothing left to do but sulk in self-pity and despair, resent the enemy, and wait for a miracle to provide rescue from hell.

How absurd! Instead of waiting for a miracle, we must realize that we are the miracle maker we seek. As we gather all our resources and courage, we can then take charge of ourself to create many enduring improvements in our life. This is where acts of personal responsibility and self-reliance are essential.

Because we are the primary agent in creating and delivering the healing we need, we are the person who is best motivated and able to provide help. Even if others assist us with guidance, encouragement, and other support, unless we accept it into our hearts and minds and apply it in our life, it cannot help us.

While many problems are very severe and deep rooted, nothing good will happen until we choose to take charge of managing the bulk of our distress and dysfunction. Even when our basic problem is never going to change, we always have the option to learn how to live gracefully with permanent limitations instead of devoting our life to self-pity, agitation, and resentment. As reasonable as this perspective is, many of us still resist it. If we are constant in our reluctance to change our perspective, we may need to ask ourself if we are using our distress for some perverse reason. Are we persisting in our distress in order to control or punish someone—for instance, by becoming a burden to them? Are we just “on strike” to protest the difficulties in our life? Are we remaining partially disabled and distressed in order to avoid certain adult responsibilities or to procure special indulgences? There is a heavy cost to bear if our hidden agenda includes these motives. This cost is the continuation of our suffering and all of its limitations—including our bondage to depression and frustration. Energies that could go into creative living are, instead, taken hostage by our dark moods and motives. This is how we practice psychic self-destruction—often without conscious recognition of what we are doing.

Once we own our problems and the anguish they cause, we can embark on the search for good ideas and methods to help us. At this point, many people short-circuit this search with magical thinking. We assume that all we need is to begin with faith and hope and then success, health, and happiness will “just catch up with us.” This approach actually works only for people who are already very skilled and accomplished in most areas of life. Others, however, will find they need to add many important qualities and skills to their march toward mastery of their problems. The liberation of our health and joy in living requires more than a simple mental can opener. As ever, we need to add knowledge, skill, and hard work to our faith that we can repair our wounds and become more confident, cheerful, and productive.

Some individuals will attempt to “take responsibility” for their problems by intense wishing for a pleasant result. This is mostly useless fantasizing. When we take responsibility for our healing, we must develop and engage in:

  1. An optimistic outlook.
  2. Clear, practical goals.
  3. Right motives.
  4. Right methods.
  5. Right effort and behavior.

An optimistic expectation sets us on a path that invokes support from the best within us, helpful people about us, and from the universe at large. It also neutralizes the voice of gloom within us that always presumes disappointment will follow us wherever we try to go. Genuine optimism turns off our misery magnets and cuts off our tendency to attract the situations and events that we dislike.

Having realistic goals helps us focus our attention and energy on the specific habits and activities that will get us where we want to be. Many try to short-circuit this step in the naïve assumption that health is just a matter of “feeling good,” and our spiritual health is just a matter of loving God. We need more detailed and constructive goals than these. Concrete, realistic goals will help us shut down the part of our subconscious that loves to dither and procrastinate by strangling us with a demand for perfect plans and guaranteed success.

Appropriate goals also help us to concentrate on practical, small changes that will begin moving us in a healthy direction. If we think only of being rid of all distress and depression, the task will seem impossible. However, if we think of becoming slightly more comfortable and cheerful, we can conceive of such changes actually happening. Every small step toward progress can also bring greater confidence in who we are and what we are doing.

It is likewise important to check the quality and direction of our motives. If our intent is just to be free of distress, we are focusing on avoidance rather than progress. This kind of negative motivation may help us move away from what we do not want in our life, but it does not create maturity. Once we achieve some measure of relief from our worst distress, it stops working. Everything that annoys us is still out there. Wanting to avoid failure, sickness, and poverty is not enough to carry us all the way to success, health, and productivity. Healthy motives are directed by the constructive benefits we hope to gain—not just avoiding more disaster. We are driven to enjoy life, not just lessen our disappointment. We seek to be more creative and productive, not simply less frustrated. A healthy motiva- tion drives us to accomplish things that lead to fulfillment, not just a reduction of distress.

Right methods are crucial to success in any endeavor. Unfortunately the preferred method for many of us is to generate a strong passion for what we want. While this can organize and focus our attention, we cannot substitute positive thought and faith for the knowledge, skills, and work that are necessary for problem solving and achievement. Yes, the right attitude helps, but our eagerness must be complemented with understanding and specific abilities or we will create only a rush of excitement without any enduring results. For example, our capacity to manage wounds and losses will not be successful until we find a way to view our problems that excludes feeling helpless and abused.

A better frame of mind is often established when we find new meaning or a helpful lesson in our tragedies. For example, when we start to realize that we have held unrealistic expectation, we will be able to recognize that we constantly set ourself up to be deeply disappointed. As we incorporate this new perspective, we are often able to release many old feelings of anger and sadness and move further on our path to healing. When we must cope with the residue of fear, doubt, anger, and sadness, we will need specialized knowledge, virtues and skills. Managing resentment, for instance, requires us to know the art of detachment and forgiveness and the capacity to sacrifice our right to compensation. Managing depression requires that we sacrifice self-pity and complaining and learn how to find more joy in daily activities. Dealing with persistent anxiety requires our ability to detach, focus on what really matters, and access our inner strengths to master our reactions. These skills and virtues are the bare minimum that we need to successfully process irritating events and situations. Collectively they enable us to begin using healing insights and confidence to repair, renew, and enrich our character and memories.

Taking responsibility for our healing requires us to refrain from unproductive nonsense—not wasting time in sulking and blaming, nor sitting and waiting for someone else to rescue us. It also means that we cannot rely on positive fantasies, affirmations, or visualizations to perform all the healing. These practices might do a small bit to set us in the right direction and trigger positive attitudes, but by themselves they only stimulate our imagination.

For the religious, prayer may be added, but we should always expect to do our part in changing ourself and our situation. As the old saying goes, God helps those who help themselves. Even though neither Jesus or Paul said this—as far as we know—any fair reading of scripture should infer that we cannot substitute faith in divine possibilities for the work we must do.

Taking responsibility for our healing means that we pursue true health, mature virtues, and a high quality of life—not just try to get rid of some problem. Taking responsibility for the health of our body, emotions, and mind requires us to strive to transform our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, learn effective coping skills, and master the art of living. We fulfill this responsibility by engaging this work in a healthy manner and for the right reasons.

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