Gain Freedom and Power by Climbing the 5 rungs of Self-responsibility


Traffic. Long checkout lines. Difficult co-workers or bosses. Technology issues. A fly buzzing against the window nonstop. And so on.

It can be almost funny when we find ourselves in circumstances that don't match what we hoped. Sometimes the irritation feels intensely personal. It can become a referendum on our whole relationship with life. (Why are you doing this to me God!?)

How we perceive and relate to undesirable situations in our lives and work determines to a certain degree our effectiveness, happiness, and even our self-worth.

Climbing the ladder of self-responsibility advances our resilience and wherewithal in navigating such situations. Like any #truechange, it's a practice that slowly erodes entrenched thought patterns with the passage of time. Old narratives fade as we re-orient ourselves again and again towards healthier ways of seeing things. With vigilance.

Observing ourselves honestly but without unnecessary criticism reveals where the growth opportunities lie. I suggest the obvious, learning to enjoy the practice rather than feeding frustration because we think we should be further ahead.

It's likely that each of us shows up at different points along this ladder in different types of situations, depending on our own personal histories and where our trigger points lie. That's certainly true for me.  I am not a stranger to blame/reactivity or the other rungs.


1. Blame/Reactivity


Fighting to preserve one's own sense of innocence in the face of circumstances that didn't go according to plan. Something other than oneself is accountable. The defensive posture is habitual and automatic.

Simple Example

During a frustrated client's call, “it isn't my fault our business partner didn't deliver to you on time. It's their fault. You're being unfair.”

Underlying Attitude

If others see me at fault, that threatens me on some level.  I choose to hold others responsible for challenging or unfortunate circumstances because it calms the fear and emotional discomfort that I unconsciously associate with being "in the wrong".

A blind spot

I don't realize that others are more sympathetic and understanding when I take ownership of a situation that I have certainly in some way contributed to, even if other factors also play into consideration.

Value expressed

Importance of others recognizing I am free of fault.


There are infinite varieties of blame/reactivity. It is safe to say that ALL heated arguments can only occur in the presence of reactivity and absence of self-responsibility.


2. Resignation


Submitting to a set of circumstances that are unpleasant or even harmful to me in some way because of my perceived inability to relate to that situation more constructively.


“I stay in this job with a boss that abuses my self-esteem because I have young children at home and the security is too important.”

Underlying attitude

I see that I have a choice relative to my circumstances but ultimately my actions reveal I don't believe I am good enough to change the circumstances in a way that can create positive change. I resign myself to the circumstances I am experiencing. What my heart wants, my longing, is immature relative to my rational considerations. I have difficulty trusting that there's better out there for me and accepting that requires willingness to transition.

A blind spot

Acceptance of an unfortunate situation in the short-term can be necessary. But at the very least, an intermediate term plan for renewing or exiting these circumstances are what good health calls for. Limiting beliefs that detract from one's sense of personal empowerment are at play. Of course, the way an individual perceives the situation is what dictates their actions--the person has not been able to clearly consider and understand the realistic choices that are available to them.

Value expressed

In this particular example, security over self-worth. This is another way of saying fear over self-love.


3. Response-ability


Recognition that there is always(!) choice in how to respond to circumstances. We don't pay lip service to attitude being what is in our power, we truly acknowledge it. This awareness is where a greater sense of freedom and personal power emerges.


“The person I am picking up is running late and we are going to arrive late to the event as a result. I choose to stay and wait because I see this as more important than being on time. I recognize this is my choice. Given the circumstances, I respond to what life presents rather than fighting against what is happening. With the dignity of my better self.”

Underlying attitude

I choose not to indulge the common temptation to blame or feel our lateness is a great, permanent tragedy. I manage my emotions and mental narratives in ways that are reassuring and constructive.

I see that my ability to choose my attitude relative to any given set of circumstances gives me great freedom to align with the higher values of my better self. I accept that life naturally and regularly presents circumstances which I perceive to be less than ideal.

I choose to consciously use these circumstances to test the best of my capacity. I engage in self-observation to not pin my emotions on anyone else or circumstances. My emotions are not an inevitable and logical consequence of what happens outside regardless of how much it may appear to me that way. The emotions I experience are my own and I am on a path of learning how to relate to them with greater and greater skill over time.

Value expressed

Empowerment through internal locus of control.


I may of course decide to engage in healthy dialog to reach a greater shared understanding with my companion. If I choose to voice frustration or disappointment, I do so in a mature way that acknowledges the emotions I experience are my own. I realize my emotions are not an inevitable result of external circumstances.

Secondly, in this case, I don't consider or I actively don't believe the circumstances which arise are connected to me. These considerations become relevant with the 4th and 5th rungs.


4. Unconditional Self-responsibility


I consciously choose to perceive that I am responsible for whatever shows up in my life.

True Story Example

After 30 years of failure after failure, a failing body, a disappointed father, William James was depressed and on the brink of suicide. He chose to conduct an experiment. For one year, he would believe he was 100% responsible for everything that showed up in his life. This choice and what he learned in that first year is what formed the foundation for the rest of his life. It led him to become one of the most famous philosophers and psychologists in American history.

Underlying attitude

When I choose to take responsibility for absolutely EVERYTHING, then my life isn't about luck or chance anymore. This situation is here, I am responsible, and I am going to do the best I possibly can given the circumstances.

What is objectively true in life is nearly impossible for us to determine definitively. It's clear that any number of people can see a given situation, not to mention life itself, very differently. What William James and countless others have shown us is that what is powerful and empowering is taking unconditional responsibility for ourselves and our lives. We make this choice because of the practical benefit. We work out for ourselves what leads us to live better, more meaningful lives rather than relying on the dogma of anyone else.

Values expressed

Practicality, empowerment, open-mindedness.


Various people have spoken about the law of attraction. Whether you believe in that or not becomes less than relevant under this approach. If you do happen to believe in it, then you have even more ample reason to take responsibility for what shows up in your life.


5. “Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.” ~Rumi


Everything that happens to me is favorable, comes for my highest good, if I am willing to practice seeing things that way--even the traditionally "bad" stuff.


“My friend ended up renting his house after all and I won't be able to get the rent-free and luxurious stay in Maui. Ok, well it's hard to imagine how paying rent and getting a smaller place is more desirable from my vantage point now. But what are all the possibilities of why something else might be better for me in the long run? What if a roommate becomes a lifelong friend? What if I am in the right place at the right time for something important because I was coming from a specific location that I wouldn't have been otherwise? Simple readily believable possibilities.”

The same type of thinking can go for missing a flight. Or anything we think of as "bad".

Also, what about people who got stuck in traffic on the way to the World Trade Center on 9/11?

And aside from this, what if the occurrences that are truly challenging grant us strength, resolve, and wisdom?

Underlying Attitude

Things will work out in a way in which my greater needs are served. Life is full of unpredictability. I can't possibly know all outcomes that will arise from this occurrence. I choose to believe that life is always friendly, even if my short-term outlook is skeptical.

Values Expressed

Practicality, faith, humility.


It's easy to see things like those mentioned in the example in the rearview. The trick is to think this way before you have the benefit of hindsight because it enables you to become less judgmental about what is good and what is bad. It allows you to navigate with the greatest possible happiness and from a place of greater acceptance and relaxation, greater effectiveness.


Experiment. Enjoy.