Personal responsibility can, like mindfulness, mindset and self-identity, contribute to either more or less stress. However, personal responsibility is unique in that it is a tool that does not require that you wait to use it until there is stress present to manage. As stated earlier, there are tools of stress reduction (recovery techniques like sleep, massage, yoga, Tai Chi, taking walks, spending time outside, engaging in leisure activities, meditation, etc) that are in response to external stress. They are defensive in nature. Similarly, the tools of stress-management (mindfulness, mindset and self-identity are just a few) are more proactive in nature, but are still defensive, as they address external stressors. Additionally, tools of stress reduction and stress management can both contribute to stress if used incorrectly (think: over-exercise, negative mindset, etc).

I believe an understanding and efficient use of personal responsibility is also unique in that it neither reduces or manages external stressors and instead proactively prevents stress by creating a specific inner environment. The benefit to this is that it takes you out of a defensive or reactionary stance and puts you into a proactive or initiative stance. This change has a spill-over of cascading benefits that I will get into more later.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, let’s get clear on some ideas. One of the first roadblocks to truly understanding this concept is that when we start talking about “taking responsibility” for something our buttons can get pushed because we mistakenly think that we are now talking about “who’s fault is this?” or “who is to blame?” I want to get you out of the defensive position and into the proactive position, which means we need to abandon fault and blame. Personal responsibility is not about fault or blame. In fact, a good understanding of personal responsibility is the opposite of blaming in many ways.

First, let’s break apart the word “responsibility.” It is simply the ability to respond. It is not a burden, weighing heavily upon us because it is unwanted, or because of implied fault or blame. Yes, that is what this word has come to mean for many of us. But that is because we have created a noun, a thing, out of a verb, an action. Responsibility is meant to be a state of being, a living action, not a dead weight. Responsibility is truly about what we choose to do, not what we have to do. Learning to make that distinction (and that it is a choice) allows us to have power over our lives. In a very simple way, taking responsibility is simply saying, “I have power in this situation. I acknowledge the choices that I have made, I see that I can make more choices and that I am able to take action.” Conversely, blaming is putting the responsibility on someone or something else, it is electing to give our power in any situation over to something outside of ourselves. (No, thanks!) The exciting thing about this is that when we focus on responsibility being about action it becomes about freedom. (Yes, thanks!)

Yeah, I see you “but what about….?” I see you raising your hand and I know what you’re going to say, “what about when someone….? What about when they….? I was just minding my own business and someone….” This isn’t about when something is out of your control. In reality, almost everything is out of your control. This is about what you do even though it is out of your control.

I’ve learned a ton of what I know about personal responsibility from mindset writer Jill Coleman, who breaks this down so perfectly: “We can control our response, even when we’re not the cause of the problem.” That’s from her aptly titled blog entry, “It Might Not Be Your Fault, But It’s Still Your Responsibility.”

Another reason to release the focus we may have on blame or fault is that it is often non-productive. I tend to file things under either “productive” or “non-productive” when I am thinking about them. I can still choose a line of thinking that I find non-productive, but I recognize that it isn’t necessarily going to help me solve a problem or get to a goal I have in mind. I’m going to use an example from my own life, in the winter of 2014 I was driving home when someone ran a red light and crashed into my car, totaling it and scaring the living daylights out of me. Was my totaled car the “fault” of the guy who ran into me? Was the other driver “to blame” for this traumatic event? I find these questions to be non-productive for my goals. My goals at the time were to get a new car (that’s what car insurance is for) and get over my new fear of driving (that’s what being compassionate and gentle with myself is for). Figuring out who was at fault and who was to blame do absolutely nothing to get me closer to those goals.

Of course I went through several stages of emotion and down many different lines of thought. And they weren’t all productive. That’s normal. It is 100% part of the process, we have to think a thought, sometimes we have to think it a lot, to know whether or not it is useful. And that was also a choice in that when I became aware/mindful of what I was spending my energy on I could choose to let go of it as best I was able and then refocus my energy on something that was actually productive in obtaining my goals, in this case calling the insurance company, practicing self-compassion and being gentle with myself. Those were the responses I chose, that I had the ability to choose. That was my responsibility in this situation.

Looking for who to blame or who is at fault can also bring us into a stance of judgement. I find judgement to be non-productive and instead choose discernment. What is the difference? Judgement is an arbitrary assignment of “good” or “bad” to an outcome while discernment is the evaluation of whether or not an outcome is good or bad for us. The partner of discernment is acceptance. Acceptance is not acquiescence. Acceptance is the ability to acknowledge the facts of what is happening, what we are feeling and thinking. This gives us a good platform on which to start looking at our options, making choices and taking actions to get us closer to what we want. Both discernment and acceptance are huge tools in our ability to respond.

Another tool of responsibility is compassion. And this is yet another reason to release fault and blame. With assignment of fault and blame comes a host of judgements which can in turn escalate a situation by firing up our emotions. We have all been there, hell I was there earlier at the DMV, but here’s the thing, it doesn’t get us what we really want. When you are seeing red, steam is pouring out of your ears and all you want to do is HULKSMASH you are probably not going to be able to make a good choice that gets you closer to the things in life that you want. If you can practice using your discernment, accepting the situation for what it is, having compassion for yourself (and maybe even others embroiled in the situation) then you can take responsibility and start getting down to the business of moving toward what you actually want.

All of these could be blog posts in their own right, and very may well be in the future. What I am most excited to write about, though, is the incredible power that personal responsibility has to completely change the way you live. While that last sentence has some of the flavor of a late-night infomercial I can’t really think of a better way to say it. This is where the benefit-cascade comes in that I mentioned earlier. I think the best way to get into this is to talk about my personal experiences.

In my explorations with personal responsibility I’ve started working with a concept I call “absolute responsibility,” meaning that I take 100% of the responsibility for everything in my life. No matter what is going on I am responsible for it. Things not going my way? That’s on me. Want them to go differently? That’s my job. Things totally awesome? I contributed to that, too.

I see my best expression of absolute responsibility as operating with clear boundaries, feeling empowered and able to choose what serves me so that I can fulfill my purpose.

I regularly call on my compassion, acceptance and discernment to guide me through this. I also use big heaps of mindfulness, mindset and self-identity (skipped that part? Click here to review! It’s like choose-your-own-adventure blogging!) to help me navigate this.

This process can sometimes be lengthy, and it isn’t always something I can do in the moment, instead I rely a lot on journaling to help me work through things. I have become more skilled at this over time, though there are lots of clumsy moments and that’s when compassion really comes to the forefront. When I am looking at choices that I have made that led to a situation I don’t want to be in it’s easy to start beating up on myself. In those instances I remember to ask myself, “is this productive or non-productive?” I also remind myself that mistakes are a part of the learning process. Being angry at myself or ashamed of the choices I have made shut down the learning process for me, I don’t get to see where I could have made a different choice or where I would like to course correct now in the present. One of the cascading benefits of this for me is that it becomes easier to extend these courtesies to others, even when their choices have led to me being responsible for a situation that I am not in control of, as mentioned earlier.

Ok, let’s start: in 2009 I became a yoga teacher, this was the start of my career in the fitness industry. There were a lot of things I enjoyed about that job and found fulfilling (teaching people, helping my students find confidence and strength, wearing swim trunks to work) and many things that I disliked or found stressful (working for people that treated me badly, having to support things I didn’t believe in or agree with, feeling powerless over my financial and employment situation). I am going to take 100%, or absolute, responsibility for this. Within this is the acknowledgement that I control my choices, behavior and actions. I always have power because of that. I cannot control outcomes, but my choices, behavior and actions can influence them. Looking at the outcome that I was not happy with I can move backwards and see what choices, behaviors and actions influenced that. And that can give me a good understanding of what to do next.

I felt powerless in regards to my financial and employment situation. I was trained in Bikram yoga, which meant that I could only teach at certified Bikram studios, which dramatically cut down the amount of studios I could work at and therefore the amount of classes I could teach and money I could make. It was also the frequent practice of many studios to require that teachers engage in non-teaching work that was unpaid (of about 3 hours total work, only the 90 minute class was paid), I didn’t agree with this but at the time felt powerless to do anything about it. Most of the time I felt trapped working at studios where I didn’t agree with the employment practices but I couldn’t see an alternative. I also felt resentful and was often engaged in conflict with my employers.

Furthermore, I had practiced Bikram yoga for several years before becoming a teacher and was friends with all of my teachers so I was privy to their complaints about issues with their employers. I was aware of a culture of abuse within the studios in regards to how teachers were treated, spoken to and compensated. At one point, in an attempt to increase my experience so that I might make more money I took a temporary teaching position in a far away state that eventually became permanent.

I hoped I would get a raise, I hoped I could return to my home and be more in demand and get more classes, more respect and better treatment. I did nothing to find out what I actually needed to do to make any of those things happen. I didn’t ask how I could qualify for a raise or try to negotiate on my own behalf. I didn’t express my unwillingness to work without pay. I didn’t vocalize that I was or wasn’t okay with certain types of treatment. I chose to become certified in only one type of yoga. Because of that I was often in a defensive stance, having to protest something and involved in a seemingly endless series of conflicts. I did not have total control over the outcome (it was still my employers’ choice to not pay for certain types of work, to speak to employees in disrespectful ways, to not compensate hard work with raises), but I did have control over the choices that I made that would bring me closer to or farther away from the outcome I desired.

What eventually shifted for me was when I realized that I had a choice. I could choose to not work for someone who treated me in ways that I did not want to be treated. This took years for me and required that I go back to school and switch careers and quit teaching yoga. This aligned with my values and in fact is something that tremendously improved my life, helping me find a way to explore my passion while contributing to my own and others’ betterment. I am now tremendously grateful for the opportunity to learn these lessons because I am able to see my own power and strength much more clearly and I use that power and strength on a daily basis.

Was it my fault, what happened while I was working those yoga teaching gigs? Am I to blame for being in that situation? You can ask those questions if you want, but for me it was the four years I spent putting blame and fault onto my employers that kept me in a situation that was not good for me, so I don’t find much function in those concepts. It wasn’t shifting fault or blame onto myself that allowed me to make the change I needed to make, it was changing my perception of myself from being a victim of others into being an agent for my own life. And it was a huge change. It was a scary change. It was also rewarding, fulfilling, satisfying.

Now this is a big example, but it doesn’t have to be. Anytime you change your internal conversation from questions of why or when, as in “why is this happening to me?” or “when will I be able to_____?” you shift from asking questions about things you can’t control to things you can. Your new questions become, “what can I do with this?” or “how can I approach this?” This puts the power back into your hands. This is the essence of absolute responsibility.

I see my best expression of absolute responsibility as operating with clear boundaries, feeling empowered and able to choose what serves me so that I can fulfill my purpose.

Powerlessness doesn’t let us even get close to glimpsing our purpose, let alone fulfilling it. Taking absolute responsibility can be a frightening experience, full of difficult emotions and challenging to wrap our heads around sometimes. The payoff for that effort is the opportunity to live in alignment with who we know ourselves to be, fully engaged with our own power to live in that honest way, and in full possession of our ability to respond. The good news is that, just like riding a bike, it just takes practice.

The benefit-cascade of this practice is that I have become more action-oriented. Not in a superhero way (maybe a little…), in the way that I now choose the actions that align with my values and make choices that I know will move me that much closer to my desired outcome. When I’m doing good with this practice I can acknowledge and accept my mistakes and learn from them because I actively release blame, I take the emotion out of it. This lets me then ask something along the lines of “now what do I do?” and again select the choice that makes the most sense for my values and my chosen direction. If I am dealing with an outcome that is the direct result of someone else’s choices I can still hold that person accountable for their actions without blaming them for my unhappiness. I can hold good boundaries of what I am responsible for, which lets me actually work on those things, instead of hoping someone else will or won’t affect them. Or as I like to tell myself: “don’t wait, initiate!”

The end result of this is that I often feel like I have a voice in my own life. I feel like my choices matter, and that I have choices. I feel powerful. And I feel free.

And because I feel these things I believe them. And because I believe them, I act as if they are true. And really, that’s what makes them true.

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You guys! This blog entry was so long and I know I have barely scratched the surface on these ideas. I hope that you enjoyed this and got something useful out of it. I’m curious what your own process is for feeling powerful in your life, for creating true ownership of your life, and for ultimately living the life you want. Please share in the comments!!!

Elias Gross