Increasing Responsibility Is Increasing Power
Most of us believe we’re the heroes or the victims of our own life stories. We cycle through these two extremes as we move along the life path. But we don’t usually see ourselves as perpetrators, we hold obstinately to a narrative where we’re the ones who are misunderstood and mistreated in the relationships brimming with conflict.
This is one of those situations that couldn’t exist without the widespread unconscious use of the defense mechanism called projection. Projection is where we place that which we can’t or won’t accept in ourselves onto the people and structures around us. What better receptacles for our psychic garbage than the people who really have wronged us in some way, who really have harmed us emotionally or physically, who really have inflicted suffering upon us? It’s easy for us to fall into the trap of all or nothing thinking, we come to see these people as all bad, not as mixed bags with good and bad qualities but as the incarnation of the negative. Through this process of all or nothing thinking we prime the situation to make these people to take on all of our unwanted, felt to be dangerous psychic material too. With this transfer of responsibility anxiety drains out of us as. We protect and bolster that clung to narrative where we’re the heroes or the victims in the situation, where we haven’t played any role in the unhealthy environmental conditions or even played a role in the states of our own psyches!
While the lack of consciously felt responsibility offers a reduction in painful existential anxiety the price paid is that where there’s no responsibility there’s no power. When it’s others who are fully to blame for our lot in life, fully to blame for our unhappiness, fully to blame for our unhealthy environmental conditions and our distressed psychic systems, there’s nothing we can do except plead for them to change. We make ourselves subject to their whims, to their power.
The whole point of brining unconscious material into conscious is to expand the sphere of human freedom. When we’re not aware of the reasons for all of the choices we make, when we’re not aware of many available choices to begin with, we’re less free. And as long as we believe existential responsibility lies outside of us we’ll continue to think, feel, and behave in the exact same ways, which means our life path will become determined from without rather than chosen from within.
What we have to understand if we want to summon up the courage to look honestly at the more threatening aspects of our psyches, if we want to start to explore how we’ve contributed to the conflict in our lives, is that increasing responsibility is increasing power. We should be hungry for those areas of life where we have more responsibility than we believe. The irony is that we don’t want to be pinned to certain undesirable psychic material and it’s this very aversiveness to it that keeps us pinned to an unhealthy life path. By trying to escape what we interpret as ‘culpability’ we shoot ourselves in the foot, we block any possibility for positive change before it’s even had the chance to be considered, let alone implemented.
A great strategy Irvin Yalom uses to get clients moving towards a greater sense of responsibility is to diminish the since of guilt and anxiety by suggesting that even if the responsibility is only 10% or even 1% that’s still the area that needs to be explored since by definition it’s the only area where individual change can occur. We don’t need to be 100% responsible or even 50% responsible to find more productive ways of handling our situations. We just need to realize that certain product, healthy possibilities are currently obscure to us. Lighting them up starts with discovering where our power is located. As long as we remain the blameless heroes or the blameless victims we actually remain powerless as our behavior continues to be predictably determined by our perception of the forces outside of us.