Taking Responsibility and Making Change
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | July 2016 (edited February 3, 2021)
We are molded by experience, but not helpless victims to uncontrollable forces. We have opportunity to help ourselves; the power to become.
Life is complicated. When scientists conduct experiments, they painstakingly eliminate influencing factors to isolate a single element. Even with great efforts, using double blind studies, and pristine environments, the results are rarely definitive, findings are carefully presented, revealing tendencies and probabilities, while acknowledging that exceptions exist—deviations that defy the norm. There will never be a perfect solution to relieve the ills of existence. We must take what is given and help ourselves.
Reality is complex. In life, numerous factors, mostly unknown, blur the predictableness of outcomes. We may do everything right, as far as we know, and still fail. Sometimes, someone appears to haphazardly stumble through life and still succeeds. Chaos does not rule the day. Actions matter. While what we do is not completely independent of surrounding factors, our choices do have notable impact on our futures.
See Life is a Complex Problem for more on this topic
Complex systems, such as our lives, when left to themselves slowly decay, moving towards chaos. Healthy living requires devoting energy towards personal development. We don't stagnate with inaction; we decay. Growth doesn't come from the stars aligning just right but from our own efforts. We create the better environments. We make the changes. We help ourselves within the realms of possibility.
See Supportive Environments for more on this topic
Helplessness: A feeling that personal efforts will fail to achieve desired outcome, leading to eventually giving up on a dream or desire. Helplessness is a close cousin of hopelessness.
Gaining Wisdom from Experiences
Wisdom helps us sort through experience and draw valuable lessons. The lessons are not immediately evident through the confusion of countless contributing factors. With a periphery quick glance, we easily misinterpret facts, only giving attention to prominent elements—the factors outside our realm of control. We assign blame, complain of unfairness and cry out, "I'm a victim." Unproductive blame, largely an unconscious process, blinds us from productive investigations into our personal role in the disappointments.
See Deep Reflection for more on this topic
While discussing psychological theories useful for therapy, a new student to the psychology curriculum at our school blurted out in frustration, "can't we just tell them to 'get over it'?" Her remark made the rest of the class gasp and giggle.
With nearly two decades since my education in psychology, I see the appropriateness of her suggestion. Many ailments hinder personal development; but often the greatest is our desire to fix something while not willing to just get about helping ourselves. We need to "get over it," whatever it is, and get to work, chasing the opportunities before us.
We can sit around and complain, pointing out the failure in the government, people, medical systems, capitalism, and our relationships. Yet, most likely, these systems will only change marginally over the course of our lives. Some of our complaints may be legitimate but massive change is unlikely. Our best course of action is to understand the systems we live in, learn to navigate them, and help ourselves thrive despite the outside challenges.
I'm not suggesting we ignore broken systems or work to change systemic inequality. We should. However, if we wait for these changes, hoping once things change our lives will be better, we will go to our graves discouraged, disappointed and bitter.
Dodging Personal Responsibility
We dismiss responsibility for struggling relationships, stagnating careers and a disappointing life by focusing on outside factors, blaming the world for our unhappiness. By dodging responsibility, we hinder our power to change. Life complexity requires a wider view; a view that includes acceptance that life is unpredictable. Success demands we effectively respond to distasteful surprises instead using surprises to justify failure. We have control to co-create our futures with surrounding circumstance. We don't have absolute control but we also are not helpless. We help ourselves by adjusting to accommodate the wonderous assortment of unplanned encounters.
See Flexibility for more on this topic
I have heard it said, “Whether we believe we have a choice or believe we have no choice, we are correct.” When we believe we have 'no' choice, we surrender to circumstances and give up.
Freewill is experienced by those who believe that their choices impact the future.
Through a series of lab experiments, Martin Seligman discovered a behavior he termed 'learned helplessness'. He demonstrated that animals were conditioned to be helpless when their actions couldn't escape a painful shock. After the animals learned helplessness, they would later endure shocks even when an escape was available. Reading about these experiments always makes me wince. However, the concept is insightful.
When we are conditioned to fail, we needlessly endure the shocks of life, failing to identify opportunities. We sit; we complain; we decay.
Success breeds self-confidence. When we believe in the self-efficacy of our action, we respond to life's unplanned punches; instead of cowering, we gather courage draw upon available resources and creatively respond.
Nasty obstacles will interrupt and delay goal attainment; instead of blaming, help yourself by responding with effective action. Confidence in our ability is necessary for change. We are the captain of our ship. We may not control the wind, but we can effectively help ourselves by adjusting the sails, and using the disruptions to push us towards our destination.
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