If you were here at LifeMatters® taking calls and seeing clients in person like I do, you might be surprised by how people get their lives twisted in knots because they don’t know what they should and should not take responsibility for. You see that a lot in my work.
If you asked me for a good rule about where to draw the lines of responsibility, I’d begin with the distinction between what you can control (for which you are then responsible) and what you cannot control (for which you cannot be responsible). That is, you are responsible for your own actions, but not for things that you cannot act upon.
It’s a simple division on the face of it, but a good place to start. Most of us can strike the appropriate balance, but problems arise when people go too far in either direction. Some people won’t accept responsibility for what they have control over but others take responsibility even when it is more appropriately left to someone else.
The first kind of person is easier to spot. They pass the buck pretty quickly. They make excuses for all sorts of things. When the chips are down, you don’t want to depend on them for anything important. When things go wrong, you get blamed no matter what they did. Sound familiar? Is there anyone who hasn’t met one or two buck-passers in their life?
People on the other end of the spectrum aren’t always as obvious. They don’t annoy you. They even look pretty good, appearing confident and competent, making it easy, even tempting, to rely on them for whatever you need. Just who are these people?
One is the woman who is praised by her family for being the “strong one”. Someone always “needs” her. As soon as something has to get done, she steps up to take care of it. Nobody else ever has to. She’s been doing it so long that it’s automatic for her, but lately she has been really resenting it. She thinks, but does not say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if someone would pay attention to my needs for once?” Breaking out of a tiresome old role would be great for her, but that’s really hard to do because everyone is so used to looking to her for everything. She calls LifeMatters because she just can’t find time for one more task, and it’s usually a task that someone should be able to do on their own.
Maybe you’ve met her, or maybe you’ve met her counterpart, the father who supports his 26-year-old son. Yet, his son could get out of the house and start looking for a job, but eight months have gone by since he filled out an application. With dad paying the bills, there is no pressure on the son to contribute. Is he ready to be a responsible adult? Doesn’t seem that way, but who is giving him a push? The dad won’t. He could set some limits and expect his son to try. But, rather than let his son learn from his mistakes, the dad chooses to do it himself and make sure “it gets done right”. As time goes by, he learns to live with his frustration.
Chances are, if you asked anyone close to these situations, they’d be clear that this woman and this man over-extend themselves (everyone, that is, except those who need them to keep doing it). But ask them directly, and likely they’ll confess doubts that they aren’t doing enough. Try suggesting they set some limits, but you’ll likely see that they think they can’t honorably choose to say no when they’re asked for one more “favor”.
Imagine yourself in either of these lives. How might you find yourself taking too much responsibility for someone else? What obligations, priorities and values might lead you into doing so?
Then, ask yourself a few questions. What would be your guidelines for knowing what you are responsible for? How would you know what you can hold someone else accountable for? Your ideas will be interesting to consider, but be sure you read next week’s follow-up post for some guidelines you can use.