Not my job

Recently I posted this observation:
(6-20-14 TW) The more responsibility you take...
And one reader wrote back, “Please say more about this.”
Okay.  Here’s a metaphor drawn from my work with victims (the self-defined kind) and blamers:
Think of responsibility as a circle you draw around yourself.
Everything inside the circle belongs to you.  Everything outside doesn’t.
By “everything” I mean both bad stuff – problems, demands, risks – and good stuff – solutions, rewards, opportunities.
Some people draw a small circle as a way of avoiding the bad stuff.
It’s their way of telling themselves “Not my fault” or “Not my job.”
They believe the small circle will protect them.
But it’s actually a trap.
Because you can’t solve problems that aren’t yours to solve.  So the small circle makes you feel helpless.
And the more demands you avoid, the less capable you become. So the small circle is weakening.
And the more risks you avoid, the fewer opportunities life offers. So the small circle leaves you feeling deprived.
So instead of safe on a cozy island of invulnerability, small-circle folks find themselves afloat in a sea of helplessness, weakness and unmet needs.


8 responses to “Not my job

  • leb105

    maybe some examples would help to illustrate?

  • Steve Hauptman

    Off the top of my head,

    ~ The wife who won’t stop criticizing her husband, then complains that he never spends time with her.

    ~ The husband who refuses to talk about feelings, then complains that his wife is unavailable for sex.

    ~ The partner who complains about an abusive relationship but rationalizes her refusal to leave it.

    ~ The “helicopter” parent who monitors her child’s every waking moment, then wonders why the kid never confides in her.

    ~ The anxious parent who refuses to address his own unresolved issues, then wonders why his child seems chronically insecure and nervous.

    ~ The alcoholic who blames other people for making him/her drink.

    ~ Any addict who blames his/her addictive behavior on externals.

    ~ The abuse victim who decides that all __ (fill in the blank — men, women, authority figures, priests, teachers, etc.) are dangerous and/or untrustworthy, instead of working through the psychological aftereffects of the abuse.

    ~ The codependent who complains of how burdensome friends or family members have become, instead of owning at his/her addiction to fixing people.

  • LongingForStars

    That’s a very good, clear definition of responsibility. And the examples are very helpful. I actually hate the r-word and this has been an issue in my therapy.

    I was a very dutiful, disciplined, reliable, responsible child and teen (different meaning of responsible, yes, but same word). I was the kind who was always trusted, given more responsibility at school, etc.. Oh and I was complimented on being responsible too. I was also responsible in the sense that I was told secrets, given confidences, burdens, by elders that children or teens should not have to hold. And then I was also responsible in a different sense because I decided that I would guide myself through life and not be defined by my circumstances – both in my attitude and my life work (career, etc.). And I worked hard for many years, overcoming hurdles, changing, growing, adjusting. But life still crashed badly and it got to a point where I realised that something deeper had to change, hence therapy. I see people who were nowhere near as responsible as I was as children who are living the kind of life I wanted, without even aiming for it. And I worked so hard and did not complain about my circumstances (even mentally). So now, when someone uses the r-word with me, it feels like a very violent slap on the face. I don’t say it to them, but I want to reply: what do you think I was doing for the past so many years of my life and what kind of low opinion do you have of me? What do you know about me?

    So this is a good definition, one that gets through to even my brain which usually short circuits at hearing the word. It makes me want to say that I want to learn to be responsible, at least in the relationships that matter, those where the other person is responsible towards me. For some reason, it feels like a risk, but it is one I want to take.

    I do wonder what word(s) you would use for the examples I gave from my life? Because in English the r-word would remain valid for them, in my opinion.

    I do have a very partial disagreement with the 2nd last of your examples but I will leave that for another time.

  • Steve Hauptman

    Well, this post focused on the dangers of avoiding responsibility, but I also believe it’s possible to draw the circle too big — to take on too much responsibility, or responsibility for problems that are not properly ours. That, too, is a path to feeling weak, helpless and needy. The most obvious example is what we call codependency, the attempt by one person to control and/or cure another person’s addiction.

    So healthy responsibility depends on achieving a balance between not enough and too much. I’m not sure what other language I’d use to describe your behavior, but I suspect (mainly from “life crashed badly”) that you’d drawn the circle too big, taken on too much, learned (or been trained) to lose yourself in the service of others. I work with many such people, and usually call that behavior control addiction — the compulsive, ultimately self-defeating attempt to control what we either can’t or shouldn’t control.

    Not to confuse matters, but I also use the word “responsibility” in another way, to describe one of the three healthy alternatives to control addiction. I explain it in “Practicing responsibility” (, where I write: “Truly responsible people, as I see it, are the ones who can (a) listen to themselves and (b) act in their own self-interest.”

    Feedback welcome.

  • Al

    I can identify with longforstars and the confusion about what I am responsible for…well, my inner monkey tells me EVERYTHING..LOL. and so I too would appreciate examples of how to draw healthy boundaries if possible Steve, anything helps. Al

    • Steve Hauptman

      Well, healthy boundaries are difficult to describe in the abstract. But one way to get a sense of what they look like is to talk about a human being’s personal or emotional rights.

      There have been many attempts to summarize such rights, most of which were developed to teach abuse survivors how to set healthy boundaries. Here’s one version:

      Personal Bill of Rights

      1. You have the right to be treated with respect.
      2. You have the right not to take responsibility for anyone else’s problems or bad behavior.
      3. You have the right to get angry.
      4. You have the right to say no.
      5. You have the right to make mistakes.
      6. You have the right to have your own feelings, opinions, and convictions.
      7. You have the right to change your mind or to decide on a different course of action.
      8. You have the right to negotiate for change.
      9. You have the right to ask for emotional support or help.
      10. You have the right to protest unfair treatment or criticism.

      ~ Forward Ph.D, S. & Torres, J. Men Who Hate Women & the Women Who Love Them. 1986. Bantam Books, New York.

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