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More PsychNotes: Policies and Issues in Mental Health

January 29, 2018       

Personal Responsibility is Politically Incorrect?
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

My head nearly exploded when I read that a psychologist writing about “personal responsibility” was called “controversial” and “politically incorrect.”

“Politically incorrect?! Politically incorrect?!” I sputtered. “This is basic psychological science that has been demonstrated repeatedly for decades!”

What got my ire up? Media descriptions of Jordan Peterson, Ph.D. and his best-selling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos portrayed his central premise of “personal responsibility” as “controversial.” Sure, the way he presents his ideas may be too Bible-based for some and too irreverent for others but the underlying concept of personal responsibility is politically incorrect?

His ideas are not new but are based on decades of psychological research. Now this research base showing the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and other similar methods doesn't fit the politically correct narrative?

Frequently throughout my career, I've had clients who were so focused on blame they couldn't move forward. And it didn't matter whether they were erroneously blaming themselves or, more accurately, blaming the perpetrators of their abuse. The problem was the obsessive focus on blame. Blame causes a person to stagnate in the anger stage of grief. It doesn't allow resolution.

My response when the blame is self-focused is to first help the individual recognize the true source of the problem. But, secondly, when the blame focused on feelings of victimization, I would encourage them to take a different perspective: “Yes, you're right. That person hurt you. But that doesn't change anything now. You are now the one responsible for your life no matter what happened in the past. What steps are you going to take now to improve your life?”

This focus doesn't expect the world to change to make life easier on them. This approach recognizes that a person needs to deal with the suffering and decide how they are going to handle it.

However, this approach doesn't mean they can't try to change the world but that they first need to find personal relief and change the world from a position of strength, not from one of vulnerability. When we try to change the world from a position of vulnerability we are more likely to be in a protective mode which can also be victimizing.

So, for some politically incorrect advice, here's an excerpt from my audio, Change Yourself—Don't Wait for the World to Change:

“Don't let others determine how you feel. Even someone deliberately trying to make you feel bad doesn't have that kind of control over you. You choose how you feel. You choose how you react. That is the beauty of focusing on changing yourself and not others. No one can take away your choice regarding your feelings and your approach to life.

Even if you are imprisoned and treated horribly, you have choice in how you approach life. Mahatma Gandhi, generally revered as instrumental in the independence of India, showed how true this is. His methods of non-violent civil disobedience led to numerous arrests and over a total of six years of harsh imprisonments over his lifetime. Yet, each time he came out of prison he was not only more determined but more at peace. His prisoners did not determine his life. He did. He chose his life. And he was in control of it. No one else. No matter what they did to him.

You have this same choice about your life. And it is not likely to involve the kind of circumstances that Gandhi faced. However, you have your hardships. And your tragedies. But you have the same choice. The events of your life don't define you. Other people don't define you. You define you through your choices.“

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