We have six inches of snow on the ground. It’s lovely in a Currier and Ives sort of way, but the knowledge that this winter weather could carry on for another two months led me to pull out this photo, taken last spring in Highland Park here in Rochester.
This scene is a lovely example of the landscape architecture of Frederick Law Olmstead, who also designed Central Park in New York City. Olmstead saw art in the ever-unfolding landscapes of nature, and he used leaves and blossoms as his paints and watercolors.
This metaphor of blooming is on my mind as I ponder the topic of self-responsibility. Like the blooming trees at Highland Park, self-responsibility unfolds in three major stages. I’ll describe those below, with two requests: first, notice which stage resonates with you, remembering that you may be in different stages in different areas of your life. And second, whatever you notice, please don’t shame yourself. Let the beauty of these cherry and hawthorn trees remind you of the nature of growth. We are where we are. Whether we are in the bud or in full bloom, there is beauty in each stage of our development.
Stage 1: Not wanting self-responsibility
We each possess an intuitive sense of the way life should unfold. Ideally, our parents modeled for us how to handle our strong emotions and how to soothe ourselves. They provided a safe haven to which we could return after stretching ourselves to take risks in the world. But your parents or caregivers may not have had the skills or resources to be fully responsive to you, holding and shepherding you while you learned how to be responsible for yourself.
Now, in a mistaken effort to replace what you missed as a child, you seek another person to be responsible for you. This is completely understandable. Unfortunately, it is also completely ineffective, which explains why Stage 1 is the most challenging of the three stages of self-responsibility for sensitive people. In Stage 1, life is frustrating. Other people fail to cooperate. You feel disempowered, not realizing that you are unwittingly giving your power away.
To move beyond Stage 1 you have to face the grief, powerlessness, and loneliness of your childhood experience. It is very difficult to hold all that by yourself. In fact, the overwhelm of trying to face intense feelings all alone is arguably the worst part of the original pain. This is why most sensitive people need skilled company to make the move towards taking more self-responsibility.
There’s one catch, though: you must seek support with the intent to learn how to take responsibility for yourself. If you try to get your support person to take care of you, you are back in your old pattern, trying to make the world give you what you didn’t get. A skilled practitioner will help you with this by being responsive to you, while gently but persistently refusing to take responsibility for you.
Stage 2: Taking responsibility—but only when you are motivated by pain
In the second stage of self-responsibility, you begin to take responsibility for yourself—sometimes. This is a big step forward. However, your commitment isn’t consistent: you attend to your pain only when it gets too bad to ignore. Or you do it inconsistently. Or grudgingly. In short, your self-responsibility is conditional.
It can be tricky to see this inconsistency in your own behavior. But imagine you had a real-life little girl who developed a mysterious rash all over her body. You would never dream of saying, “Well, honey, I’ve taken you to three doctors and none of them knows what it is, so I guess you’ll just have to deal with this.” You’d move heaven and earth to find out what was wrong and get her the help she needed. That is what unconditional care looks like.
In Stage 2, you might take time off to rest, but only when your body gets so run down that you get sick. You might figure out what kind of diet makes you feel your best, but only eat that way sporadically. You might invest in learning powerful inner relationship modalities like Focusing or Inner Bonding, but only practice them when you feel miserable.
As a result, you go in and out of cycles of pain. Cycles of pain and relief are the hallmark of Stage 2. There is good news, here, though: you are repeatedly exposed to the stark contrast between how you feel when you are taking responsibility for yourself, and how you feel when you aren’t. And this painful contrast is inherently motivating. You can only step into a pothole so many times before you wake up and say, “Enough! I’m ready to take responsibility for preventing this.” Once you think that thought, you are on your way to Stage 3.
Stage 3: Embracing self-responsibility in a proactive way
The biggest shift by far, which will bring you a true and lasting sense of inner safety, peace, and joy, comes when you make the commitment to embrace self-responsibility unconditionally. Like the two earlier stages, Stage 3 presents its own challenge. In this case, the challenge is a spiritual one. To fully embrace self-responsibility, you need more than just personal will power. You need a spiritual commitment.
By “spiritual,” I don’t mean “religious”, although the two sometimes overlap. Even if you aren’t religious—or if spirituality isn’t a word that resonates for you—I’m guessing you have some sense of something bigger: a force or energy that exists in, yet beyond the material world, and that transcends the level of the personality. I haven’t yet met a sensitive person who didn’t have this sense of the spiritual, whatever name they gave it.
Why is a spiritual commitment necessary to fully embrace responsibility for oneself? Because we can’t do it alone. Here’s why. The areas in which you struggle most to show up for yourself are the areas in which your Loving Adult Presence is sketchy or absent. Yet it is from a place of Loving Adult Presence that you can best learn exactly how to show up for yourself, day by day and moment by moment. Einstein said it best: we can’t solve our significant problems in the same consciousness in which they were created.
One powerful way you can shift your consciousness is to meditate with the express intent of connecting to your spiritual intuition. That’s why I’m such an advocate of meditation for sensitive people. When you meditate and then ask for help from the deep quiet within, the necessary insights, actions, and means will come to you to move towards greater self-responsibility.
Also, we can support each other in making this shift of consciousness in the safety of a structured peer listening partnership. It’s as if your listening partner can lend you his or her uncluttered presence around your toughest issues, helping you develop that presence with yourself. This kind of support is a godsend to sensitive people, which is why I’m so passionate about teaching the Inner Bonding Buddy Course and Focusing 1 for Sensitive People (if you are interested in Focusing 1, let me know and I’ll put you on the waiting list for a course starting soon.) In my dreams, I’d get this kind of peer listening partnership to every sensitive person on the planet.
A practical tool for self-responsibility
Dr. Margaret Paul has just published a new book called The Inner Bonding Workbook: 6 Steps to Healing Yourself and Connecting to Your Divine Guidance. The book takes you through the six steps of Inner Bonding, offering specific suggestions for carrying out each step. It’s a condensed, practical way to absorb the basics of Inner Bonding if you are new to it, or to bolster your daily practice if you’ve been applying the principles only sporadically. You can order it on Amazon.