Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
July 2013 - Volume 13, No. 7
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Personal Responsibility - and its pitfalls

In much of my writing, here and elsewhere, there is a consistent theme - an overarching insistence on being fully responsibility for my life. Hence the "pay attention" that bookends each of these monthly newsletters.

I have a simple formula for it:

Whatever I think, whatever I feel, whatever I do - I am responsible.

The source and context of this formula is the more complex subject of human passivity, our desire and insistence that somebody else be responsible. It is a primary problem with men in my couples’ counseling - men not taking responsibility (or even knowing how) for effective emotional sharing.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m to be in charge of everything in my life. Rather it can mean that if I am not in charge of things per se, at least I am usefully in charge of my response (to whom or whatever is in charge). 

The Hero

We love our heroes - sometimes even when we don’t fully agree with them. (Even the English can thrill at the movie “Braveheart.”) Most recently we have State of Texas Senator Wendy Davis, with her 11 hour filibuster to (at least temporarily) defeat a punitive abortion policy designed against the women of Texas. She showed up, she saw clearly what was going on, and she acted (an ordeal of great personal endurance). She may not prevail in this issue at the moment, but that’s not my point.

Personal responsibility may be something that someone grasps in a deciding moment by which something of value is accomplished by a personal act of courage. There are parents who will without a moments hesitation put their own life on the line for the safety of a child. We may consider that genetic, but it still represents that quality of personal responsibility we admire in each other. 

Or it may be a lifelong pattern of integrity and honest dealing.


Now what if someone wants me to be or take responsibility for something that I didn’t do. Somebody is trying to put something onto me that doesn’t belong - whether it is a blame or a even a credit. I would say that with very few exceptions, each of us has been in a childhood situation where either a parent or a teacher has resorted to the trick of “blaming” everybody until the true culprit will admit culpability. In those moments each of us have also made meta-decisions about how much to trust our parents or superiors, about whether our friends are trustworthy and at what price, about who I am whenever there is trouble around, and about whether the world at large is a safe place. Often the results of such experiences form the basic belief systems that operate throughout the rest of our lives (as well as provide a living wage for mental health personnel). 

It may be as simple as my own way of discerning which of my cats is the culprit when I arrive home and something has happened in a place where the cats know they are not supposed to be. The guilty one is the one who immediately exits when I show up, or speak with a louder voice. (Maybe my cats will soon need therapy. I’ve noted that the only animals that suffer from neuroses are those that live with humans. Can you imagine the embarrassment of it, sitting in a ‘family’ therapy session, while they catterwail about my inadequacies in feline management techniques!)    

The determining of fault is a major tool of social control. On a positive level, our legal system is designed to determine fault for the sake of applying the laws by which a society orders itself. But let’s say I’m in need of employment, and I’m unable to find a job. Personal responsibility can be used to mean it’s still my fault I’m unemployed, and therefore the argument can be used by others disallow me any useful form of public assistance. Or allow it only if I accept shaming as well.


Here’s where human nature emerges at its best/worst. It is a particularly human trait, though an immature one, to project our own faults or blame onto someone else. Any of us who grew up in families with siblings, usually understand this. When I sketch the ‘family tree’ of a new client, one of the things I look for among siblings, is who is/was the one to take major blame when something went wrong - whom I’ll sometimes call the family “sin carrier.” The term “scapegoat” frequently emerges when studying family dynamics. 

From relationship and family dynamics all the way to international diplomacy, hostilities, and military engagement, the tendency to project our worst onto others, makes for damaging distortions, and untold damage.  If only the functioning art of personal responsibility could allow us to retract our projections, the potential for peace would be greatly enhanced. 

The Dark Side of personal responsibility - Anger & Guilt

One of the great problems in teaching people to be personally responsible, is that some of what we’re expected to be personally responsible for isn’t originally our problem. Sometimes when we’re dealing with issues of anger and guilt, I realize that it’s not my anger or guilt I’m dealing with. When someone has projected their anger onto me - there’s often nothing I can do about it because it’s not mine. When I work with folks with “anger issues” - again there are some situations where the anger they carry has been projected upon them by someone else. A good psychological rule is that when it’s not my issue, there’s not much I can do about it, except give it back where it came from. And in many cases, the original carrier simply won’t accept that. So the easiest thing to do with it is to pass it on to someone down the line of vulnerability. How much stress gets passed from a boss to a manager, to an employee, home to a spouse, to a child, and on down to the family dog, who then chews the carpet. There are conscious exercises where we can learn to unload anger and guilt in a way that begins to free ourselves, and doesn’t burden it onto others.  This conscious acting is itself an example of personal responsibility.  But the danger is that the most vulnerable and least resourceful among us usually pay the highest price.

It can be the same with guilt. Our culture, especially as a beneficiary of our Jewish Christian tradition, lives in a “pass-on” or “pay it forward” of guilt. Much of our (anglo-centric) American spiritual heritage came through our Pilgrim ancestry, and lives on, even independent of our personal religious heritage. No wonder our national rate of incarceration is so much higher than anybody else. From my vantage point, the prison industry is second only to the drug industry as the growth industry of choice for secure investment purposes. Our financial and human investment in defense and “homeland security” should also be a national embarrassment except for the blindness of our prevailing “make ‘em pay” philosophy. In our culture, we seem to need our enemies in order to ‘purge’ ourselves. 

To See Clearly

No, to be “personally responsible” can often mean to see clearly when the problems placed upon us are not our own problems. Sometimes it means giving them back, and not carrying them ourselves. Frequently our “rush to rescue” is a guilt response. Perhaps I am not responsible for what my ancestors did to your ancestors. Let’s just fix it together, rather than guilt it. The motivation may not be as strong, but it’s cleaner.  

That’s closer to what I originally mean when I define personal responsible as the hallmark of mental health.  It means being aware of who I am and what I am doing, as well as what others are doing around and to me. Then, like Wendy Davis, we become willing to show up, see clearly what’s going, and act.

Pay attention

Comments (2)

  • your best yet

    I thought this newsletter was really great! It was simple.... yet really hit home for those of us who accept blame and those of us who cast blame upon others. Can I come back?

    — Beami Carpenter, 7/1/2013
  • Great newsletter! Reminded me of two of my favorite quotes:

    “Take counsel with thyself, and remember who and what thou art.” ~ Mandos, Silmarillion

    “Know thyself.” ~ Oracle at Delphi

    — Ken M., 7/1/2013

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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