When Does The Responsibility Become Ours?

Often people come into therapy stating they are stuck. Many of them can change that in an instant if they just backed themselves to make better decisions. Where we are often stuck is that we are still trying to connect with a past that went wrong in some way shape or form. A past, that for many, has not provided the tools to become an adult. Many of us are adult children who react as children when we feel triggered and threatened. We then resort to similar tactics that we have learned as children to cope and survive. Fear and shame becomes procrastination, fear and shame becomes rumination, fear and shame becomes anxiety, fear and shame becomes that inappropriate relationship that we cannot get out of because of fear and shame, fear and shame becomes that projection onto others, fear and shame becomes that lack of self-esteem that drives everything else. Fear and shame becomes that addiction to substances, sex, shopping or anything else that can be done to excess. They are all coping mechanisms to deal with who we think we are or are not.

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A lot of emphasis in therapy is put on the way we developed within the environment our parents produced for us. This is rightly done because this, for me, is the decisive factor in our view of the world and ourselves. We should caution ourselves about blaming because shame and dysfunction are generational and parenting is never perfect. Parents were likely shamed themselves and children do not have the cognitive ability to reason with or deal with the shame of others, hence the acquiring of toxic shame. This is a sensitive subject and an article in The Times today, tried to shed light on why therapy spends a lot of time “blaming parents” and putting responsibility elsewhere. Matthew Syed, a columnist writes critically about how lucrative parent blaming can be for the new commercially savvy therapy industry driven by the American west coast “search for nirvana”. Therapists, he claims, can charge thousands of dollars to rake over parenting styles that were too “helicopter”, “permissive”, “authoritarian”, “distant” or any other term the industry can find. He states parents are easy targets and the emphasis on parent blame has fractured families and created a generation of victims, who constantly blame others for their mental health troubles.

As a therapist, I agree somewhat and often make it very clear to clients that we are not looking to blame or shame imperfect people who engaged in an imperfect parenting style. There is no perfection in parenting that is practiced by people who are by nature imperfect. The key is to take responsibility as an adult for the consequences of this. Where the writer of the article didn’t go was the fact that people can rightly blame parents for an abusive childhood that might have included sexual, physical, emotional abuse and abandonment. Even so, we still have it in us to move forward. I believe as a counter to the article’s narrative, that any therapy model that deems itself responsible needs to examine where we came from as a basis for who we are. That is essential if we want to have a basis of understanding for change.

“In the moment” therapies are not deep enough for trauma based thinking. I strongly believe that once that awareness of any childhood issues is there, we have to take action to change it with a sense of self responsibility, self-discipline and self awareness of where we are heading. There comes a time when blaming childhood issues can no longer be a valid excuse. Therapy should also be about building bridges and not burning them. However, any new relationship with anyone should be built on realism and boundaries with forgiveness at its heart. That said, many people are indeed dealing with the consequences of parenting styles (often promoted by western governments) that encouraged discipline and strictness. The “be seen, not heard” and “do as I say, not as I do” family schema was sure to have left some marks on development. Most child development models deal with a concept of being brought up by a dysregulated other. To say that we disregard this and go forward with just the idea that we need to take responsibility without a firm grounding why, is unhelpful. We must never forget that many people who grew up in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s were subjected to physical discipline at home and at school, where the cane and the slipper were used to “teach” a lesson. I can remember being smacked around the side of the head by a vice headmaster who decided to give everyone punishment because nobody owned up. This was common at the time.

We are, however, a product of our childhood environment and that can be either healthy, extremely unhealthy or anywhere in between. This is where we get our blueprint for life that takes us into adulthood. That blueprint will often mean that we do not separate emotionally from our parents as we should when we reach a certain age. We are often stuck in an emotional age craving or avoiding attention and connection and that rules our lives and critically, our decision-making. We nearly always put that energy into activities and issues that we know are not good for us. Overworking is one of these things and we do this in the sense of never really being happy with what we achieve. It’s never enough because we feel we are never enough.

The result of all this is that we project our frustration and anguish onto others or we give others the ultimate responsibility of directing us. We check out of such responsibility for ourselves because it’s the easy thing to do. We then can’t complain if things don’t go our way or we get taken advantage of, as many often do. Nor can we just check out of our lives and let circumstances take over, blaming ourselves for being not enough and others who may have genuinely tried to help. When we have such a mindset, we filter out evidence to prove what we are thinking and disregard anything that might counter it including our own responsibility and ability to change.

As adults, there must be a point where there is enough awareness in mind of what troubles us to take action to move forward. Where that point is will be different for everyone but we all have it at some point in our lives. Therapy works on bringing this awareness (or should) and then help to facilitate change where needed. This is where we can put previous experiences into context, reframe childhood experiences and move on with our lives. I am not suggesting this is an easy process but it is a possible one if we are willing to be open to change. Our ultimate responsibility as adults is to face the task of changing what we need to to go on. There comes a time when blaming the past doesn’t help. As Scott Peck said in The Road Less Traveled:

“The difficulty we have in accepting responsibility for our behaviour lies in the desire to avoid the pain of the consequences of that behaviour”

He also said that :

“Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.” He goes on to state that self-discipline is self-caring”.

We all too often engage in instantly gratifying activities to avoid responsibility for our fate, thinking that someone else is responsible or will take over. When you hand the responsibility to others for your fate, you also give them power over you and you lose agency immediately.

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Dr. Nicholas Jenner

Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a counseling psychotherapist in online private practice working with individuals, couples and groups, dealing with codependency issues, severe depression, bipolar, personality disorders, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders and other mental health issues. He has been practicing online for many years and recognized early that online therapy was a convenient method for people to meet their therapist. Working outside the box, he goes that extra mile to make sure clients have access to help between sessions, something that is greatly appreciated. He also gives part of his spare time up to mentor psychology students in a university setting.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. karlaveens

    Thank you for this article. A wonderful summary. I struggle with solution focused therapies because I find them dismissive of a person’s journey but agree they do have their place. I think there is a saying or a thought to the tune of – in order to know who we are or where we are going, we have to understand the past.

  2. It becomes our responsibility when we have become not only self aware of what that responsibility is and why it becomes necessary to take the reigns as it were… but have also learnt exactly where we have come from and then we can learn where we are going. In the process we find out also what we are really made of as opposed to what we have long thought we were made of.