Self-responsibility both reflects and generates self-esteem. People with high self-esteem feel that they are in charge of their lives. They have a sense of agency and self-efficacy. They take responsibility for their feelings, actions, and lives.
It requires a desire to review and learn from your mistakes in order to seek solutions and improvement.
Unlike girls, in adolescence boys are naturally competitive and aggressive, encouraging their autonomy and sense of agency. Girls’ self-esteem begins to suffer from the age of nine, and by adolescence, they fall behind. Feelings of powerlessness and the need for external validation, especially regarding appearance, increase, while self-esteem declines. Whereas boys generally tend to challenge authority more than girls, if girls are discouraged from taking risks or pursuing goals, they may develop an attitude of “I can’t,” instead of “I can.” Over time, such young women may develop a passive attitude toward life. This lack of agency and self-esteem can eventually lead to depression.
The cornerstone of building self-confidence requires accepting responsibility for our happiness as well as our unhappiness and problems. Only then, can we change. A survey showed that lottery winners eventually returned to their original state of well-being. Winning the lottery or finding Mr. Right provides only temporary euphoria. Ultimately, it’s self-esteem and our thoughts and actions that determine our sense of well-being.
The rub is that when self-esteem is low, it’s painful to take responsibility. People rather make excuses and blame others, since they already feel so bad. This is really annoying to those around them and creates problems in relationships.
Sandy* always procrastinated and turned in her work late with a myriad of excuses. When she was reprimanded, she resented her boss, blaming him, while her self-loathing grew. By encouraging her to take responsibility for her behavior and exploring her fears and self-criticism that fed her procrastination, she was able to change her habits. She discovered self-empowerment and began to feel good about herself. She won her boss’s appreciation, as well.
Self-responsibility neither implies moral blame nor guilt, but should foster a curious inquiry into how and why your life is the way it is. Look for solutions. Ask what assumptions, beliefs, or attitudes motivated your choices and behavior, and what actions can be taken in the future.
Avoiding self-responsibility puts you in the role of a helpless victim, waiting for others to change, so that you’ll feel better. That never works in the long run, because we can’t change others, and even their accommodation to our needs only provides a temporary lift.
Guilt and Self-Blame
The other extreme — feeling responsible for everything that befalls you can also injure your self-esteem. Blaming yourself for every accident, illness, and mishap presumes an unrealistic level of control. Nor are you responsible for someone else’s abusive behavior, but you are responsible for your response to it. Instead of asking why did he or she did that, ask “What beliefs do I have that allow me to permit it?” “What boundaries do I set?” “How can I better protect myself?” “What may happen if I don’t change my response?”
Ask yourself what would be different if you took responsibility for your happiness, your financial security, your safety, and your physical health? What are the benefits of not taking responsibility for your health, finances, goals, emotions, and relationships? Probably you feel better about yourself in areas where you are more self-responsible. You feel effective, raising your self-esteem. It will be lower in the areas where you are less self-responsible.
Mary* complained about the string of men in her life who took advantage of her sexually and financially. Rather than change her behavior and choices, she turned to family and friends who were equally selfish, perpetuating the pattern. When she finally realized that no one was going to rescue her, she began to change for the better. She took responsibility for herself and found her strength. Having been severely abused as a child, she had been convinced that no one could love her. Grieving her past and experiencing her anger at her perpetrators helped her to leave an abusive relationship and stop re-creating her family dynamics.
Self-Efficacy: The Transformative Power of Action
People feel more effective when they take action, and action-oriented people tend to have higher self-esteem. They take action despite how they feel. They don’t wait passively for things to change or expect others to change their lives. Although self-awareness of thoughts and feelings is important, if it preempts action, it can undermine self-efficacy, and ultimately self-esteem.
Keep in mind that action requires attention directed toward solving a problem, and includes journaling, expressing feelings, making a list, obtaining information, writing a letter, thinking through a problem, making a statement or decision, or even changing your attitude.
You may need support for the courage to change your behavior beyond writing and thinking. Consider getting a coach, therapist, or joining a 12-Step Program. You also may need practice. With each new risk taken, you build confidence and self-efficacy.
Think about an area in your life where your self-esteem is low. How could you take more self-responsibility? What specific, small step would generate a greater sense of self-efficacy and make you feel better about yourself?
Read steps you can take to Raise your Self-Esteem.
*Names are fictitious, composite personalities
Copyright, Darlene Lancer, LMFT 2010