For most of history, humans have turned to the heavens in search of an explanation for our existence, for our lives, and for our death. We have found god in many forms and called god by many names. God provided us with a semblance of ground to stand on. An understanding that our lives are what they are due, in part, to a supreme being, an ultimate creator, a shaper of all things. And if our lives are not what we would have chosen for ourselves, the belief in a cosmic designer provided profound comfort.
As belief in god has dwindled, the questions and anxieties that were once spoken for have been made more manifest. Many of us struggle with making sense of why we’re here, what we should do with our time, and how to manage the fear surrounding our impending death.
The solution presented by existential philosophers was to replace god with the individual. This doctrine was illuminated in stark fashion by Jean Paul Sartre: “man is the being whose project is to be god”.
With those words he was making the case that man, each man, individually, by himself and through himself, is the ultimate creator of his or her life, and gives meaning to his or her existence. If there isn’t a god who is responsible for designing our existence, for imbuing our life with meaning, then who could possibly be the responsible agent apart from ourselves?
This is a terrifying realization.
To existential philosophers, the anxiety that accompanies this awareness is known as “ur-anxiety”. It is the most fundamental anxiety, an anxiety that cuts deeper even than the anxiety associated with death,” (Yalom, 221).
The awareness that each of us, individually, is responsible for our own life, our own despair, our own happiness, and our own misery, invokes in us a bewildering experience of groundlessness.
We frantically try to build something solid on top of the empty space beneath us. Sports, politics, tv series, personal problems and relationship conflicts all serve distracting functions. (For this reason, we sometimes have an unconscious investment in not resolving whatever it is that seems to be plaguing us.) Deep down, the awareness that we are responsible for our lives and the anxiety that accompanies said awareness lingers.
For therapists motivated by existential philosophy, the reality of personal responsibility is precisely that – a reality. Although I do not claim to know reality, evidence abounds that the acceptance of personal responsibility, even if not the fundamental truth as such, is key to happiness and success in this world.
Bringing clients into a relationship with personal responsibility – and the anxiety that accompanies it – is thus a critical component of change.
There are many objections that people voice. The most obvious one being:
But I’m Not God
Things do happen to us outside of our control. Even though we are “destined to be god,” we are not, it turns out, god. The project is doomed. Our power is limited. Our control is short-circuited. This is undeniable.
So how do we reconcile the view that, on the one hand, we are destined to be god, with the reality that we never can be? Some people escape the question by foregoing all notions of personal responsibility whatsoever. If I’m not fully powerful, then I have no power. However, another, more nuanced solution, exists.
This solution is two-fold. It includes separating the external world from the internal world, and further separating the external world into what can be controlled and what cannot be.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”
Epictetus put it perhaps even more starkly. “I must die. I must be imprisoned. I must suffer exile. But must I die groaning? Must I whine as well? Can anyone hinder me from going into exile with a smile? The master threatens to chain me: what say you? Chain me? My leg you will chain – yes, but not my will – no, not even Zeus can conquer that.”
When all is lost, or taken, still we humans have that single incorruptible, persevering trait that cannot be stolen, sullied, ridiculed or destroyed. Namely, our own attitude. Our own will. Our own state of mind. The stance we assume towards our adversity. It is precisely because this final relic of our humanity is forever beyond any outside party’s reach that we are ultimately responsible for it. Our only choice is whether we have the courage to recognize that responsibility, and the fortitude to do something with it.
Regarding the external world itself, the serenity prayer, ironic enough, offers a helpful guide. Change what you can, accept what you can’t, and have the wisdom to know the difference. But be careful not to use this as reason for quickly throwing in the towel. Resignation and acceptance are fundamentally different. Resignation is victimhood. Acceptance is courage. It is never an easy feat to stand tall in our own powerlessness.
One other word to the wise: we can change much more than we give ourselves credit for. Believe you can change something, be willing to experiment with old strategies, and that which once appeared stuck for eternity becomes surprisingly malleable.
Acceptance of Personal Responsibility as a Key to Change
Personal responsibility might be summarized as such:
“I always get the final say regarding my own state of mind; I am the one who gives meaning to my life; I have played no small role in creating that which is before me, and, if things are ever going to change for me in dramatic fashion, I am the one who must generate that change.”
If I reject these notions of personal responsibility, if I devote my life to uncovering evidence supporting my conviction that life is happening to me and not the other way around, then my motivation to change will be severely limited, if not altogether non-existent.
As Yalom writes, “Until one realizes that one has created one’s dysphoria, there can be no motivation to change. If one continues to believe that distress is caused by others, by bad luck, by an unsatisfying job – in short, by something outside oneself – why invest energy in personal change?” (Yalom, pg. 231).
Why should I strive to change things if I believe my efforts will be futile?
Why should I pursue personal growth if I am convinced it will have no impact on what occurs in my life?
Why waste time and energy changing myself if life is going to have its way with me sooner or later?
Clearly, nobody with such beliefs would undertake a serious endeavor related to personal growth. However, once they have opened up to the doctrine of personal responsibility, change is already beginning. They have already changed their position to life in a fundamental way. That is profound. And powerful. Future growth will occur almost naturally once this piece of the puzzle has been spoken for.
How to Practice Personal Responsibility
If the practice of personal responsibility resonates with us, we are in good fortune: at any given moment we can adopt its attitude.
It begins with the internal monologue we have with ourselves.
“It happened,” becomes, “I made it happen.”
“I can’t,” becomes, “I won’t.”
“I have to,” becomes, “I choose to.”
“I need,” becomes, “I want.”
“I’m so busy,” becomes, “I keep myself busy.”
It gets more edgy.
“I’m feeling depressed,” becomes, “I’m choosing depression.”
“I can’t find the right partner for me,” becomes, “I don’t want to find the right partner for me.”
“I’m just a person with bad luck,” becomes, “I seek out bad things to happen to me.”
“I don’t know,” becomes, “I’d rather not know, for if I did, I might have to do something about it.”
Try these on for size. See how they feel. See if they kill you. Even if they don’t feel “right”, there is a good chance that thinking this way will open up new ways of seeing. New ways of seeing results in new possibilities. New possibilities just may lead to new courses of action.
To acknowledge our personal responsibility in any given situation is as empowering as it is terrifying.
In the moment where we lose all fantasy of having something to cling to, we discover ourselves. This relationship with self, this view of self as the pre-eminent arbiter of our destiny and designer of our fate, is the first step in transforming our relationship with the external world.
When we deliberately practice the view that we have created that which is before us and within us, we are imbued with the power to create something new and different.
If you feel anxiety at this prospect, take that as a sign of encouragement. You are on the right path.
You may not be god, but perhaps you are the next best thing.
I will leave you with these words, courtesy of Yalom: “When all else fails, when the adversity cannot be overcome, still one is responsible for the attitude one adopts toward the adversity – whether to live a life of bitter regret or to find a way to transcend the adversity and to fashion a meaningful life in spite of it.”