“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
– Marcus Aurelius
On this podcast I talk a lot about being responsible for for your own actions and thoughts, but what does that really mean? How do you actually accomplish this?
When you take responsibility for yourself, you recognize that it’s your own thoughts which create your feelings. You can step back and see that you can change how you view a situation. Regardless of what anyone else does or says, you are in command of your emotions. By choosing to think differently about what is happening around you, you don’t give power to other people over how you feel.
If we are upset because of what someone else said, we don’t blame them for how we feel. No one can make us feel anything without our permission. And while this is great in theory, it is hard to put into practice. Even our language makes it easy to blame others. “You made me so angry!”
On the flip side of that, we do not own someone else’s feelings. If they feel something, it is their own thinking that creates their feelings. They are responsible for how they feel, not you. This doesn’t mean that we have to be jerks. We can be compassionate and understanding. But if they don’t like something we say and they blame us for how they feel, we don’t take ownership of that.
What does it mean to be responsible?
Let’s break down the word: responsabilis, which is latin for “to sponsor or pledge, to be answerable for.” And -ility which means to act. So in a nutshell it means, “to act in the way that you have pledged”.
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good person should be. Be one.”
– Marcus Aurelius
I think the biggest key to taking responsibility for you actions comes down to one thing:
Choices are active. Being responsible means choosing to take action, rather than being acted upon. Choose your response to others instead of just reacting. Reactions are giving up our ability to choose.
In every situation, we have choices. They may not be many but we always have a choice.
Rather than simply waiting for something to happen so you can respond, be proactive and choose to act.
Don’t just avoid doing evil, choose to actively do good.
Rather than avoiding saying mean things, choose to say encouraging things.
Rather than trying to not get angry, we can work on being kind and compassionate.
Rather than avoiding an uncomfortable situation, face it head on with courage.
How do we get better at taking action?
As with developing any skill, the first step is awareness. The more aware we about what we think, what we say, and what we do, the more we can choose those things, rather than reacting. Awareness always takes lots of work. It means that we can’t run on autopilot. The brain tries to be efficient by relying on emotions or gut feelings. These are shortcuts. Being truly aware is hard. It means that we look at the situation, applying logic, think about options and outcomes, then act on our decision.
As we become more aware of our own thoughts, words, and actions, we need to take some time to think about what kind of person we want to be. We need to ask if those thoughts and actions help us become the kind of person we want to be? We need to plan how we want to act in a given situation. Then act.
If there is one thing that I can recommend that will really help with this, it’s paying attention to the language we use. We can practice changing our language. “I felt sad when I heard what you said.” Even further: “I felt sad, because I thought X when I heard what you said.”
Taking responsibility for our thoughts and actions is not easy. But I think it becomes easier when we take an actively making choices, rather than just passively avoiding uncomfortable situations. Be the driver of your life, not just a passive onlooker.
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