Self-Responsibility (Owning What’s Inside Rather than Trying to Change What’s Outside)

woman questioning here responsibility

You talkin’ to me?

Self-responsibility is the key to a happy and successful life.

Consider that there are two types of problems– “out there” and “in here.” By “out there” I’m talking about events and circumstances. Your neighbor’s dog does its business in front of your house every morning. Your mother-in-law criticizes how you’re raising your kids. A co-worker doesn’t do his/her fair share.

By “in here” I’m talking about your inner experience, particularly how you feel about whatever is happening “out there” —your frustration, hurt, anxiety, etc. In fact, there would not even be a problem “out there” if it were not a problem “in here.” In other words, if you felt peace, happiness, or contentment about some event or circumstance (neighbor’s dog, mother-in-law’s words) then you wouldn’t label it a problem, right? What is happening outside is a problem because of how you are feeling inside.

I share this because a good place to start resolving any problem is most always “in here.”

This is called self-responsibility. Responsibility is a big word. It has different levels of meaning. For example, a lot of people think of responsibility as doing your duty, or doing what you say you’ll do, or taking initiative.

These are valid definitions. However, I also think of self-responsibility as accepting that you are the source of your own perceptions, thoughts, feelings and behavior. You own these. 100%. Circumstances and events have no meaning inherent within them. You decide what they mean. (Remember my story from my last post, “Who’s to say what is good and who’s to say what is bad?”)

This also makes you 100% responsible for your relationships. Think of it this way. A relationship is not out there. A relationship exists in your head as the sum total of your thoughts and perceptions about another person and yourself as you interact with that person. In other words, a relationship is less about who and how another person is and more about the stories you tell yourself about this other person.

So, do you want to improve your relationship? Then you have to stop complaining about the other person, stop waiting for them to change, or stop manipulating them to get them to change (through harping, moralizing, guilting, punishing) and take self-responsibility, meaning responsibility for the story in your head.

Do you like your relationship? If not, are you willing to tell yourself a different story? I’m not talking about a story of denial or a story you can’t buy into, but perhaps a story that takes the edge off of your negative feelings. A story that shows an expanded awareness and a little more compassion for the other person. What would it sound like? How might it help you deal with this person more effectively?

So, let’s apply this to my examples. The poop on your lawn does not make you mad. Your thought that “This dog is ruining my lawn” or “My neighbor is totally insensitive” makes you mad. Do you want to improve your relationship with your neighbor as well as solve this problem? Then start with a new story. “My neighbor’s a good guy. He’s not aware of what is dog is doing. I’m sure he’d be alarmed to know I’m upset about this. He’d prefer I let him know than harbor bad feelings.”

The words from your mother-in-law are just words. Your thoughts that they mean “She is critical and unsupportive,” or “She thinks I’m a bad mother,” or “She has no idea what she’s talking about” cause you to feel hurt, inadequate or defensive. Do you want a better relationship with your mother-in-law? Are you willing to tell yourself a more compassionate story? “My mother-in-law cares. She wants to be helpful. I can listen to her point of view and still decide what I think. I don’t have to see things the same way she sees them to be confident in my parenting.”

The actions of your co-worker do not frustrate you. They are neutral, just actions. But telling yourself, “He’s lazy, or a selfish jerk” will probably make you mad. How might you change that story? “My co-worker is socially unaware. He connects with people to feel okay. I want to help him feel my support as I give him feedback.”

By the way, I’m not saying that you should not talk to people to set limits or work out differences and resolve conflict. It’s important to get sensitive issues on the table and work them through. That is a critical skill. (In fact, I just recently created a program on conflict resolution for the Udemy learning platform.) But my experience is that you’ll be far more successful if you first take your own responsibility by solving “in here”—your own perceptions and the stories that are creating your feelings.

Making the world better is an inside-out job. As someone once said, “It’s easier to put slippers on your own feet than carpet the whole world.”


1 Comment

  1. Ed Engel

    Every person should read this post every morning before interacting with others! We all have it SO backwards. At first blush it seems way easier to have it be backwards. But after years and years of listening to your counsel, I think it is perhaps easier to change “in here”. Thank you Roger for your excellent work!


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