The World on Your Shoulders

Looking at our interactions with ourselves and others we’re faced with two concepts again and again, the two Big Rs of relationships: Response and Responsibility.

Both can be active or passive, positive or negative, and we have control over both.

At least to some extent.


When something happens, we inevitable respond. Sometimes those responses are automatic–instinctual or habitual. As we become more aware of ourselves, we learn how to work with (or around) these automatic responses to add in some time for reflection, allowing us to be much more active and decisive in our response to a situation.

For example, if you hit me, my natural response would be to hit you back. It’s self-defense. It’s the very definition of a knee-jerk reaction. But because I know that immediately striking out can lead to more problems than it solves, I’ve developed enough self control to ask “What the hell?” instead of physically lashing out. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve overcome the natural response I once had and can now choose what my response will be.

Some automatic responses are easier to overcome than others. The ability to compartmentalize and put off dealing with disruptive emotions is a hard skill to perfect, mostly because emotions are very visceral things by nature. The same is true for some when it comes to learning to not just act on most things that come through their minds.

We learn to control our responses first by learning to observer them. If we don’t know what we’d do in a situation, if we don’t know what our base response is, it’s very difficult to rewrite it. Once we know where our baseline lies for a response, we can build filters and triggers in our minds (and, in some cases, in our bodies–physical actions that will help us gain time to pause and remind us to think) that will give us more direct control over what we do.

This leads to an active ability to take responsibility for our responses.


No matter what we choose to do–be it active or inactive–there are consequences. Rarely are all of those consequences what we wanted or what we expected.

When we get what we want from our actions and responses, it’s easy to take credit for them. We all love to pat ourselves on the back and revel in a job well done, right? But when things don’t go the way we planned–when our actions (or inaction) hurt us or others–we’re much less willing to own up to those results.

For example, if I write about a past relationship I’ve had and it helps people come to terms with problems they’re having, that’s fantastic. Huzzah! I’ve helped someone, good for me. But if that same article gets read by the person I was in that relationship with and they get upset–because they think I’ve portrayed them in a bad light, because it brings up bad memories for them, or for any number of other reasons–well, I have to take responsibility for that, too. It doesn’t feel as good as taking credit for helping people, but the simple fact is what I wrote hurt someone (even if that’s not at all what was intended).

Learning to take proper responsibility for the results of what we do is a very large step in personal development. It is only once we learn to do this that we can truly begin to address who we are and who we want to be.

The Caveat

Taking control of our responses and taking responsibility for what happens when we act are, ostensibly, good things. But, as with most good things, when taken to an extreme they turn on us.

If we try to control our responses too much, we lose that flare of spontaneity that keeps our lives interesting. If we put arbitrary rules and required responses in place and adhere to them blindly, we not only miss out on a lot, but waste a whole lot of energy missing out on things. The more complex the planned responses are, the more difficult it is to execute them and the more room there is for us to execute them poorly. And when we break our own rules, we breed just a little bit of self-loathing.

Before long, we can easily become uptight control freaks who break down whenever something doesn’t go as planned. That may work for some people, but if you’re coming through here, you’re a romantic and need to live a more free-spirited life than that in order to be happy.

Even worse than creating too many planned responses is taking on too much responsibility. It is quite easy to start blaming yourself for the actions and reactions of others and numerous other things that we don’t have direct control over. Before long, you end up with the weight of the world on your shoulders… and that’s a chore even for a titan, let alone a human.


The trick, of course, is to learn where the balance point it.

Learn what your worst automatic responses are and work to curb them.

Learn where the line between the effects of your actions and the reactions that others choose is. Take responsibility for hitting their triggers, but not what they choose to do (or do automatically).

And don’t even think about blaming yourself for random things that go wrong. For that matter, don’t take credit for the random things that go right. Just accept both as they are.

When it really comes down to it, you don’t deserve to have the world on your shoulders–either as punishment or reward. What you do deserve is to be able to stand tall and say “Yes, I did that” and deal with the consequences, both good and bad.

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