Recently I let someone down. I had made a commitment to do something and the honest truth was that I forgot about it. I didn't take the time to put it in my diary and make it a priority. So what to do? I could make a variety of excuses - something came up; I had another emergency; the kids were sick; I got stuck at work etc etc. Some of these things are true - I am quite busy; things do come up that take my attention away. But, ultimately, they are excuses. The only purpose they would serve would be to ease my guilt for letting someone down - it's not my fault. It's what psychologists call 'cognitive dissonance' - the ability to have different or inconsistent thoughts to what actually is/has occurred. In the end, I decided to apologise and tell the truth and accept the consequences. I'll go more into that decision in a bit.
There is plenty of discussion on social media on taking ultimate responsibility - that everything is your fault. I believe that has taken the message too far - there are certain things in life that are clearly not your fault. Being involved in a car accident where the other driver caused the accident by their negligence is clearly not your fault. But now you are left with the responsibility of what to do about your injuries and damage to your car. How will you get to work and so on. So in this blog I want to discuss the importance of taking responsibility for our actions and decisions, even if we are not necessarily at fault. But more importantly, I want to discuss the psychological benefit of not giving excuses and taking responsibility.
You may have met people who tend to have an excuse for everything. When they are late it's because of the traffic. When they don't do something it's because someone else didn't do their part and so on. What if they behaved differently? What if instead of saying they were held up due to traffic, that they apologised for being late and offered to work on it in the future? How differently would you feel hearing that instead of the reasons why they were late? Chances are, you would probably appreciate the apology more because it feels more genuine. An owning up of contributing to some part of the problem of running late, especially if you have made an effort to be on time. The reality is, your friend hasn't made an allowance for unexpected hold ups. They aren't responsible for traffic congestion, but they are responsible for giving themselves enough time to get through it or find an alternative route.
The reasons we offer excuses for our behaviour is to allow ourselves to not feel bad about the situation. We might feel disappointed that we've run late for an important meeting, but if we can rationalise with ourselves that it wasn't entirely our fault because of other factors, then we can feel a little bit better. However, the opposite is not true either - it is not that you should beat up on yourself for making a mistake. That is not helpful - you are not stupid or a loser or any of things your mind might tell you. You have made a mistake. You are human, it is bound to happen. But you can take responsibility for that mistake and work to improve your behaviour or habits. If you are someone who tends to leave tasks to the last minute and as a consequence are always rushing - then you can take responsibility for your procrastination. You can ask yourself why do you leave things to the last minute and strive to improve on that situation. From an emotional point of view, this is a much better outcome.
Back to my situation of offering only an apology. I've written before around values that we want to live our lives by (see the blog post here and youtube video here ). One of the ways we can cope with the discomfort of making mistakes is by reaffirming our values - the way in which we want to live our life through our actions and behaviours. For me, a value I hold is honesty. Therefore, if I truly believe that I want to live my life through honesty, then I have to accept that being honest comes with consequences. That means owning up to mistakes. So I can be disappointed that I forgot to do something and let someone down, but I can help myself through that disappointment by living by my values and owning up to my error, and not offering excuses. Further, I can pledge to work on that part - by making sure I put important dates in my diary and prioritising them. Lastly, my apology needs to be genuine.
Taking responsibility is not about bashing yourself over the head for your mistakes or taking responsibility for other people's errors. It is about recognising and following through on actions that contribute to a more meaningful life.