Finding Relief in Responsibility

I’m working on a theory and I’d like to hear your thoughts.

My theory: The stickiest, ickiest memories linger because we haven’t resolved our own responsibility (or perceived responsibility) in the situation.

Let me illustrate with one sticky, icky memory with which I’ve experimented.

Just over a year ago, Theresa and I ran into a woman with whom I used to be friendly. She was lukewarm when she greeted me and that made sense to me; just the week before, I had done a big clean-out of Facebook friends and she was one of dozens of people no longer in my actual life who I unfriended. Maybe she had noticed.

To Theresa, though, she was absolutely freezing. “Hello, Theresa,” in a cold, deep voice.

One of the few times you’ll find me speechless is in moments like that in which I’m baffled into silence. I think that mental glitch of a reaction has actually saved me from turning uncomfortable situations into nasty situations a number of times and yet that doesn’t stop me from agonizing over them later on.

And that’s exactly what I’ve done here and there over the last year: I’ve agonized over not speaking up in that moment. I’ve imagined saying all sorts of snarky and cutting things. I’ve fumed over her rudeness and my theories about its origins. And yet none of it changes what actually happened in that moment: I simply put my arm around Theresa and walked us away, sharing my bafflement once we were removed from the person.

During a recent moment of mulling, I realized that while it’s awfully easy to let myself off the hook by focusing on this woman’s hurtful behavior, what I’m really upset about was that I didn’t stand up for Theresa.

Last week, when Theresa and I had a bit of windshield time on the way to a gathering, I brought it up to her and asked if she had been hurt by my inaction. She said it hadn’t even crossed her mind; she had put the whole thing in the category of fallout from a social circle we had both brushed up against years before. Come to think of it, the only thing either of us took away from that social circle was one another.

While I was relieved to know she hadn’t been harboring hurt, I still felt that nagging discomfort about the whole thing and so we brainstormed ways I could have responded that might have let the whole thing sit a little more easily in my psyche.

“Wow, that wasn’t kind,” was what I came up with. For my own sake, for Theresa’s sake, and with no expectation that this woman would change or even that it was relevant if she changed or not, I would like to have simply said, “Wow, that wasn’t kind,” before walking away.

And you know what? Having the conversation with Theresa and considering other options has settled the memory for me. I still don’t like that it happened and I still hope that was our last run-in with that person, but it’s not pulling at me like it had been.

I’ve run this experiment of self-responsibility on a number of other memories, things much more consequential and hurtful than this one, things where I arguably was being victimized. And I have yet to find a situation in which I can’t identify something in me that wishes I had behaved differently – usually drawn a boundary or spoken up more forcefully (or at all). And each time I’ve shifted the focus from blaming the other person to noticing what I would have liked to have done differently, I feel a little better.

I think our gremlins convince us that placing responsibility elsewhere is an easy route to relieving our discomfort. What it really does is plant us in a mire of powerlessness because we can never change another person’s behavior. We can only change our own, and we can only do that if we take our true responsibility.

Note: True responsibility. The addendum to this theory is that moving from taking responsibility to full-on self-punishment, or to taking on responsibility for someone else’s actions, is a move from one kind of a blame to another instead of a resolution based on curiosity and a desire to grow.

So, what do you think? Am I onto something or am I special kind of neurotic for whom this kind of thing works in particular? I look forward to your feedback!

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