Taking Responsibility For a Change

An Article by David Cornfield

So, you think you want to change. It's not a mere coincidence that you are reading a magazine focused on self-development and personal growth. You really want to give up patterns of behaviour that get in the way of achieving your personal definition of success.

Okay. Think about something you want to change about yourself but can't get a handle on. It could be that you can't seem to pay your bills on time, or quit smoking or maintain an intimate relationship - whatever your personal struggle happens to be. Now, pay attention, because the next step is not what you were expecting. I want you to forget how much you hate this behaviour of yours and ask yourself instead if there is any way you are choosing it. Why? Because if you haven't chosen it, you are a victim, and victims can't change anything.

Being powerful involves making choices and taking responsibility for those choices. The victim stance denies responsibility for making choices. As such, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you see life as something that happens to you, there is not much point in trying to do anything about it. Only when you become aware of your choices do you know that you can make different choices. To perceive yourself as having no choices is to feel powerless. If you feel powerless, there is no point in trying. If you don't try, you never find out the power you have, and you become the victim you imagined yourself to be.

This is not to suggest that you always have control over your destiny. In life's poker game, fate deals you certain cards and you have to play with them. Sometimes you get a lousy hand. Sometimes life puts you through an ordeal you are powerless to prevent. When this happens, your status as a victim is laid down by fate, not by stance. More frequently, success or failure is determined not by the hand you are dealt but by how you play a mix of good and bad cards. The victim by stance acts as though he or she is not in the game. They are innocent bystanders, observers not players. By denying their response-ability, they relinquish their power. They choose to have no response, so life chooses for them. That in itself is a choice - a choice to stand aside and be powerless. To recover your power to change who you are, you have to take responsibility for the choices you make to be who you are.

If it is true that you choose to persist in your dysfunctional behaviour, then it is a cop out to say "I can't change ". The truth is, you won't change. At some level of your being you are choosing to stay stuck. You have reasons for your choice and, for now, those reasons feel more compelling than the reasons you give yourself for changing . Otherwise, you would be making different choices. Until you uncover and address those reasons, you will continue to make the same choices, and nothing will change. In the meantime, one way to start taking responsibility is to reframe your language. When you notice yourself saying "I can't", try substituting "I won't". See where it leads you.

Our choices are shaped by our wounds. The wounds we carry are too numerous and varied to catalogue. This one was neglected. He feels unloved and unlovable. That one was overprotected. She is frightened of the dangerous world she never learned to meet and overcome. In some way, our confidence and trust were damaged. We survived by becoming experts in living with our hurt. We learned to navigate the territory of our wound, and now we are reluctant to leave that behind to strike out into unfamiliar ground. The boy who was ignored learns to maximize the benefits associated with being invisible. As an adult, he may tell himself that he is tired of being neglected, but without noticing what he is doing, he heads for the shadows - even if it means sabotaging the success that would make him the centre of attention. The girl who was put down as being stupid learns the value of lowered expectations. Less is asked of her. No one sees her as a contender. When she makes her move, she has an edge because it takes people by surprise. It is a coping strategy that she is at home with. To be recognized for her intelligence would feel exposing, and unfamiliar. The child who was deprived of love, of material things, of beauty, often learns to live in deprivation and feels uncomfortable with riches. If this preference for deprivation is not consciously acknowledged, the child grows into an adult who unconsciously avoids success.

We hide our choices from others because they are embarrassing choices - choices to be lonely, invisible, exploited, unsuccessful. We hide our choices from ourselves because to admit our power over them would be the first step towards making different choices, and we really don't want to abandon the tried and true for the unknown. Instead, we convince ourselves that we are victims who want to change but cannot. In this way we give up our power, lock ourselves into old patterns and avoid responsibility.

And because we are hiding our choices not just from others but also from ourselves, catching ourselves in our own denial is not highly recommended as a do-it-yourself project. We need a friend, or a therapist, or a support group strong enough to challenge the denial, honest enough to point out the ways that we are sabotaging ourselves, and compassionate enough to support us as we go through the feelings of shame and humiliation that are inevitably associated with acknowledging embarrassing choices.

We may also need a ritual. In the path of human development, there are discontinuous level changes where the individual is called upon to make a leap from one state of being to the next. One of the most significant of these is the passage from childhood to adulthood. In traditional societies, this transition was marked by a ritual of initiation. After an initiation, it was clear to everyone, including the initiate, that the time had come to give up childish things and act responsibly. In our modern society, rites of passage are increasingly forgotten and ignored. Lacking a ritual to transform the way we are seen by others and our own expectations of ourselves, it is easy for our young people to continue drifting in a never-ending adolescence. A social event where our community acknowledges our adulthood and where we willingly take on the rights and responsibilities that go with adulthood helps us to heal the wounds that keeps us in the childish place of no power.

Our innate responsiveness to the challenges of life runs through us like a river. We can dam up the flow of our spontaneity, but only by blocking our energy and our emotions. When we deny our response-ability, we give up our aliveness. One of the central teachings of Buddhism is that human unhappiness arises from our struggle to avoid the pain of changing. Do we really want to change? The answer is "yes and no". Our personality structures crave stability, and resist change. Our souls want to dance with the natural rhythms of life. As ever, we are faced with choice - do we wish to feed our closed rigid mistrustful "no", or our open flowing spontaneous "yes"? This agonizing decision confronts us from moment to moment as we go through our lives. It is never an easy choice. We need courage, humour, forgiveness, faith and support to continue to say yes, to surrender to the flow of our spontaneity and responsiveness, to stretch ourselves towards our bliss.

David Cornfield

Taking Responsibility for a Change was first published in Eye for the Future Magazine, May 1997

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