Finding Your Spiritual Path Part 3: Personal Responsibility

Blog: Finding Your Spiritual Path Part 3: Personal Responsibility

By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.

In the previous blog post in this series, I had mentioned how important it is not to rush to forgiveness in response to betrayal. Generally speaking, when we have been wronged or betrayed we have a lot of internal experience that we need to explore before we can even think about forgiving another person. Therefore, it is important not to be rushed by anyone to forgive until you fully understand what work you have to do to get to the place where you can forgive truly and cleanly.

I also talked about how people who have been disillusioned by authorities that they placed trust in often experience an internal process of blame. This can look like self-questioning such as, “Why did I ever trust that person in the first place?” Or, “What did I do wrong to deserve this?” These are not helpful questions to dwell upon, because by their very nature, they imply a sense of self-blame. Instead, it is important to engage in a more constructive personal inquiry such as “What am I learning from this experience?” or “What led me to trust this person?”  Constructive self-inquiry is aligned with personal responsibility in that it helps us get to the core issues at play in the conflict rather than obsessing on the harmful action itself.

In my book Coming to Peace, I discuss the difference between blame and personal responsibility in this way:

It’s important to differentiate between taking responsibility and taking blame. Taking responsibility simply means trying to listen to the subtext underlying all conflict. It means sidling up to every situation where we’re being asked, in one way or another, to relate to others, and trying to learn as much as we can. The intentionality behind blame is completely different from that of taking responsibility. Blame, whether directed inward or outward, is done to deflect responsibility, often with the intention to punish.

The first step toward taking responsibility is deciding to look inward to gain understanding about the roots of our action.

This movement inward is exactly what is required of us if we are to fully understand the possible reasons we wound up in the situation we find ourselves in when we have been lied to or treated unfairly. If we follow these questions inward without blaming ourselves, the moment of betrayal actually becomes a gift. This is because it allows us to examine our motivations and intentions for having originally placed our faith in the person or organization that has betrayed us. If we take responsibility for understanding our intentions, motivations, and our reactivity, we learn a tremendous amount about ourselves that we may never have understood without the experience of betrayal.

Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist, who was imprisoned for fighting apartheid in his country and who was later elected president of South Africa, powerfully exemplified the act of taking responsibility for one’s own experience. Upon his release from prison after 27 years of hard labor, he said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

In his book Conversations with Myself, Mandela offers a stark look at the complexity of his internal response to each of the many betrayals he experienced. The book demonstrates his efforts to understand what his responses to these betrayals could teach him about himself. He allowed the betrayals to help hone his determination to clarify his intentions and motivations as he stood up to a system that was out of integrity. All of this effort afforded him the stability he drew upon to become the President of South Africa, the country that had imprisoned him. He could have easily been lost in a sea of blame – of himself and of others in response to his experience, yet he chose to hone his relationship with himself through it. We can also do the same as we take responsibility for our reactions to our betrayal and try to better comprehend and refine our understanding of what motivates us.

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