Once you understand the stages of self-responsibility, you empower yourself to move towards more peace and joy.
I keenly admire Frederick Law Olmstead. You may know him as the creator of Central Park, which he conceived as “the lungs of New York City.” He designed many other parks, though, and we are lucky to have several of them here in Rochester.
Each year, when spring finally comes after another one of our long, gray, snowy winters, my partner and I take a walk in one of them: Highland Park. I take pictures (like the one above) and marvel that Olmstead single-handedly created the dynamic art form of landscape architecture. He used trees, hills, and paths as his compositional elements, and he “painted” with the ever-changing textures and colors of leaves and blossoms.
This metaphor of blooming and unfolding is on my mind as I ponder the topic of self-responsibility. The blooming trees at Highland Park move from bud to blossom to leaf in the same sequence each year. Likewise, self-responsibility unfolds in three major stages.
As I describe these, I have two suggestions for you:
- Notice which stage resonates with you. Your answer may be multi-layered, because you may be in different stages in different areas of your life.
- Notice if you are shaming yourself about the stage you are in. We often do that. If you are, perhaps you can allow these beautiful cherry and hawthorne trees to 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 and value 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, your parents modeled for you how to handle your strong emotions and how to soothe yourself. They provided a safe haven to which you could return after stretching yourself to take risks in the world. In this case, you likely developed an internalized sense of sturdiness and resourcefulness.
But what if your parents or caregivers did not have the skills or resources themselves, to be attuned and responsive to you? What if they were not able to hold you safe and support you while you learned how to be responsible for yourself?
In that case, you may still be searching for that feeling of safety and security that you missed as a child. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel safe and secure. On the contrary. The problem here is that the “younger you” believes he or she can only get that from other people. You yearn to find another person who will be responsible for you.
This is completely understandable. Unfortunately, it is also completely ineffective. No wonder Stage 1 is the most challenging of the three stages of self-responsibility for highly sensitive people (HSPs.) In Stage 1, life is frustrating. Other people fail to cooperate. You feel disempowered, not realizing that you are unwittingly giving your power away.
Stage 1 is particularly difficult for HSPs because of the well-researched phenomenon of differential susceptibility. In plain English, sensitive kids suffer more in challenging family situations than non-HSP kids. So our urgency to fix this feeling of something missing is correspondingly greater.
This can lead to serious inner and outer relationship challenges, which are often the catalyst for us to seek help. In doing so, we move into Stage 2.
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. In short, your self-responsibility is conditional.
You may find it tricky to spot this conditional quality in your own behavior. If that’s the case, this thought-experiment should help. Imagine you have a real-life little girl. She wakes up one morning with a mysterious rash all over her body. You would take her to the doctor, wouldn’t you?
If that doctor couldn’t help, you’d try another one. You would never dream of saying, “Well, honey, I’ve taken you to three doctors. None of them knows what this is, so you’ll just have to deal with it.” No. You’d keep trying until you got 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 know what foods make you feel your best, but you only eat that way sporadically. You invest in learning powerful inner relationship modalities like Focusing or Inner Bonding, but you only practice them when you feel truly miserable.
As a result, you cycle repeatedly between pain and relief. This is the hallmark of Stage 2. There is good news here, though. You repeatedly experience the stark contrast between how you feel when you are taking responsibility for yourself, and when you aren’t.
This painful contrast is inherently motivating. You can only step into the same pothole so many times before you wake up and say, “Enough! I’m ready to take responsibility for preventing this.” Now you are on your way to Stage 3.
Stage 3: Embracing self-responsibility in a proactive way
In Stage 3 you decide to embrace full responsibility for yourself, without conditions. Only by making this commitment can you experience a true and lasting sense of safety, peace, and joy. Each stage presents its own challenges, and the central challenge of Step 3 is spiritual.
To fully embrace self-responsibility, you need more than just personal willpower. You need a spiritual commitment. By “spiritual,” I don’t mean “religious”, although the two can overlap.
Even if you aren’t religious or don’t resonate with the idea of “spirituality,” 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. The areas in which you struggle most to show up for yourself are the areas in which your ability to be present to yourself is compromised. It may even be missing altogether.
Remember the source of the whole problem: an absence of modeling and support. The problem started in relationship, and we must solve it in relationship. We need others to learn how to show up for ourselves. Yet we don’t know how to be around others without expecting them to be responsible for us. How can we get past this paradox?
Einstein answered this question elegantly. He said that we cannot solve our significant problems in the same consciousness in which they were created. We must shift our consciousness in order to be willing to learn how to take responsibility for ourselves. This requires a spiritual commitment.
Here are five practices and resources that can help you make this fundamental shift:
Intent is a powerful force. To feel it, think of something you need to do today. Say, “I wish I could get that proposal finished today.” Then say it with intent: “I will get that proposal finished today.” Feel the difference? That is the energy you need to unconditionally embrace self-responsibility.
Meditation is an essential practice to help you set a strong intent. That’s why I’m such an advocate of meditation for sensitive people. To get this effect, though, you must meditate with the conscious intent of connecting to your spiritual intuition. Then, from a place of stillness in yourself, you can open to receive the insights, actions, and resources you need to move towards greater self-responsibility.
Learning to take responsibility for yourself is challenging. To move beyond Stage 1, you must face the grief, powerlessness, and loneliness of your childhood experience. It is very difficult to hold all this by yourself: you had to do that when you were small, and the thought of trying to do it again can be overwhelming.
This is why many sensitive people need skilled company to 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.
As I said earlier, close relationships offer a path for HSPs to earn an inner sense of security, as long as our intent is clear. Without this clarity of intent, you will fall back into old patterns of making others responsible for you and for your feelings.
However, if you see your relationships as safe places to take the risk of shifting your consciousness, they can become your most powerful resource of change. There’s nothing like bumping up against other people to help you see your patterns…and they will give you feedback as you go.
HSPs can support each other in making this shift of consciousness within the safe container of a structured Focusing partnership. Your Focusing partner lends you their uncluttered presence around your toughest issues, helping you develop that presence with yourself, and you do the same for them.
I’ve spent many hours developing a deeper sense of self-responsibility in the safe container of Focusing partnership, and I believe it is a godsend to sensitive people. (In my dreams, I’d find a way for every HSP to learn focusing partnership.) I did my training through Focusing Resources. I highly recommend their partnership training.
Where are you in your blossoming?
Whatever stage you are in, it will help to understand it better. Then you’ll know what steps to take to move towards more peace and joy within yourself and in your relationships with others.
Image: 2023 Emily Agnew
Note: This is a substantially edited and expanded version of the article that first appeared here on Mar 5, 2019.