This is another reflection on the Florida Adlerian Society’s annual conference last Friday. One of the primary speakers emphasized the role of personal responsibility in mental health. I can imagine, taken out of context, how brutal that might sound. “Are we now blaming victims and ill people for their woes?” the person exposed to just that sound bite might wonder. “Is that what mental health professionals believe?”
The short answer is no, that’s not what we believe.
Embracing free will and the dignity of each person, however, ineluctably leads one to emphasize the role of personal responsibility in how one deals with what happens in life. This isn’t something new: it is ancient philosophy dressed up in psychotherapy clothes. So, while someone may suffer terrible misfortunes outside of their control, the impetus to decide what to do about it is within them. Seek help, or sink into despair? Reach up to grasp a hand, or reach out for a bottle, or needle, or some other vial of trouble?
Sometimes people do have some personal responsibility for what happens, and indulge in magical thinking in which bad things just randomly happen to them. I recall a person I met many years ago who got into trouble for buying drugs. He complained about the injustice of the level of trouble; he didn’t mean to do it. It just happened. (I’m pretty much quoting here.) I asked, how do you buy drugs by accident? How do you take a peaceful stroll around your neighborhood and accidentally end up lurking behind a shopping center chatting with the type of entrepreneurs who set up shop near dumpsters and concrete walls? Acting like there is no personal responsibility means that there is no effort to make things better. It’s just a lot of bad luck, from his perspective; no reason to change because you can’t change “luck.”
Often, though, human suffering is due to others’ actions. Just the same, an adult has some power to effect change. The responsibility is not for others’ bad actions, but to take some sort of action to help oneself. Sometimes people evade taking responsibility to make change because it will be uncomfortable, or embarrassing, or mean that they have to admit that at some earlier point they were wrong. Breaking off a destructive friendship or leaving a toxic work environment can be very challenging for a host of reasons, and leaving an abusive relationship can be dangerous. Reach out and get help. If the first, or second, or third person you go to for help is clueless – keep looking for the right help.
Typically, people do things that undercut happiness and health in some way and evade responsibility. People have habits that cause insomnia, for example, and complain, as if poor sleep side-tackled them in the hallway due to no fault of their own. We take on extra activities and complain about being too busy. People fail to set limits with their kids and then yell and throw consequences around when their children are irresponsible, disrespectful and unpleasant to be around. People make choices all day, often on auto-pilot, and a great many of us are prone to griping about all sorts of situations that result, as if stuff just happens without cause. Yes, of course, sometimes, stuff does happen…but, if you’re always five minutes late…that’s you. Not the traffic, not the cat, not the dog…it’s you. If your friends are inconsiderate, that’s not your fault, but it is your problem if you keep tolerating it. If you do tolerate it, then take responsibility for it and stop complaining. “Yes, good old Joe is always late but that’s just him; it’s not personal.” You’ve decided to accept it. Stop griping. If you can’t stop griping, you haven’t accepted it. If you can’t accept it, then do something: leave when he’s late. Put your foot down. Tell him off. Lie about what time you’re meeting and get there late yourself (it might work, once). Whatever; if you’re not prepared to do something about it then face that you have decided to let Joe be chronically late without regard for your preferences or schedule because you have decided tolerating it beats the alternatives you’ve identified of annoying Joe or losing his friendship.
Narrowing it down to mental health, whatever a person is suffering, help is available. How one lives is always part of healing. Proper amounts of exercise, sleep and nutrition are part of it, and things for which most people can take some responsibility. Seeking right guidance requires making choices. Unless you belong to a professional mental health association, your friends might not be the best source of professional advice on the specific strategies, to, for example, use mindfulness training, exercise and specific cognitive therapy techniques to rewire your brain and reduce obsessive-compulsive symptoms. You get to choose. That’s not blaming you for your suffering, but it is saying that you have the freedom, responsibility, and capacity to move towards healing.
Dr. Lori Puterbaugh
Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.