If the individual is totally responsible for their own experience, this lets other people off the hook for any consideration of the consequences of their behaviour.
Blame and Responsibility
My favourite forms of psychotherapy are those that are sometimes called the Third Force therapies. These (roughly speaking) emerged post-World War Two in the US. They are usually seen as emphasising the ‘agency’ of the person. That is, they see the person as an active agent (do-er) in their life — which means that they can take action to affect their experience. They seem to me to fit quite well the ‘can-do’ attitude that is part of American culture.
These therapies fit my own approach (prejudices?): knowledge is not only interesting for its own sake, it is there to be used to make a beneficial difference. And I do think that psychotherapy can make a hugely beneficial difference to people’s experience.
The Third Force therapies emphasise ‘responsibility’. If I can affect my experience for the better then I am responsible to some degree for my experience.
This can rapidly lead to blaming those who suffer. “Yes, you had a terrible childhood — but you have to do something about it, you can do something about it (you can change your experience), so: you are responsible for (to blame for) your suffering.” This kind of callousness I find repellent — but that is different to knowing where it is wrong (if it is).
I think it is wrong on a couple of counts. Firstly, we are not entirely responsible for our experience. Our experience is of something. And our responses are to that something. If our experience was entirely unrelated to what we experience (if we could feel good about whatever happened to us), I think this would be quite frightening. (Is it desirable to feel good about others’ suffering? Or our own?) This is not the intention of those who champion this line, but I do think it is one of the implications of it.
The second way that blaming people for their suffering is wrong I think is that it ignores other people. From the observation that we can influence our experience it is but a small step to the view that therefore we should change our experience. And from there, others don’t need to do anything…because the person suffering is totally responsible for their experience.
I think it is possible to understand how this kind of thinking comes about. Anyone who has experienced a major breakthrough will know of the exhilaration it brings. This can easily lead to grandiose thoughts. To adapt Abraham Maslow: when you get a new hammer, everything’s a nail. When we discover that we can influence how we experience our lives then it seems that the sky is the limit! From now on we won’t be miserable like we were, we will live a far more joyous and fruitful life! Limits are there to be overcome — and we don’t doubt that we will overcome them.
What’s more, this thinking can get results. Someone who has been feeling that they can’t do anything experiences a breakthrough, and they start doing stuff. And so they have good evidence that they can do stuff. And so will start doing more stuff. All of which is evidence supporting the idea that people can do anything and that limits are illusory.
And so we arrive at the individual’s being totally responsible for their experience. This leaves out other people — and, in one way, lets them off the hook for any consideration of the consequences of their behaviour. (If the other person is totally responsible for their experience, why does anyone need to consider the consequences of their own behaviour? After all, it is the other person who is responsible for their response. If I’m nasty the other person can still feel good; if I’m violent it is up to the other person how they experience this (and they should find a way to feel good about it).) I know this is not the intention of those who believe that individuals are responsible for their experience; but again, I do think it is a clear implication of this way of thinking.
My understanding of responsibility is that it doesn’t mean we are responsible for everything. I think responsibility means that we are able to respond: if we can’t do anything about something then we are not responsible for it. I am not responsible for the computer code running this site — I contributed nothing to it and have no way of influencing it (at the moment). I am not responsible for this code.
This understanding of responsibility is often described as ‘response-ability’. That is, I am responsible for what I can influence to the extent that I can influence it. I am basically not responsible at all for the code running this blog. But I am basically entirely responsible for the way I clean my teeth. Most of our lives are lived in the zone between not-at-all-responsible and entirely-responsible. For instance: we are somewhat responsible for our health. I was not responsible for being born a male with a white skin in Australia any more than other people were responsible for being born female and Aboriginal in Australia. My attitudes and behaviour will have a large impact on my relationships (although some people seem to be unpleasant to me whatever I do). My diet will likely impact how healthy I am — although some people seem to have metabolisms that thrive on a far worse diet than mine (which may largely be the result of genetic factors). There is a mix of our situation, our genetic inheritance, our attitudes and behaviour that all contribute to our health — and that we are responsible for to a lesser or greater extent.
The Adventure of Response-ability
How do we know how much we can influence our experience? I don’t think we can, in advance. We try things out, we succeed and fail, we learn from our success and failures; and so we develop a sense of our response-ability.
We sometimes make discoveries and have breakthroughs and find that we can influence our lives in ways we hadn’t suspected. We sometimes persist with things that remain stubbornly unchanged (and may respond by accepting these things or keeping on looking for ways to change them).
Our future is somewhat open, and we are somewhat able to influence our experience. And our lives can be the adventure of finding out how much we can improve our own life and other’s lives.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by