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Responsibility: How to (Not) Be Enslaved by Your Own Choices

Responsibility is pretty much the backbone of coaching. Coaching doesn't give people a magic wand to change others or the world around them, but it can help one change oneself. That, in turn, can help one make different choices and influence the world in ways that were inaccessible before.

Now, onto the claim that might raise a few eyebrows: everything in our lives stems from our choices. This feels unsettling at first glance. However, when we start unpacking it, we see its truth. Our careers, relationships, and where we live all trace back to the decisions we've made. Sometimes, these decisions don't feel like choices because they're influenced by external factors, like family expectations or societal pressures. But at the end of the day, we are the ones who choose to surrender to these influences — consciously or not. For example, some may feel that their parents convinced them to select a specific career. But, of course, they chose to be convinced and not go through the trouble of pushing back. Others may feel that they did not know their willingly chosen career would be so dull. But every day they come to work, they continue to choose it. These choices are often unconscious. Coaching helps make them conscious.

Choosing our values and meaning is perhaps one of our most significant choices. As we discussed before, while reality does exist out there, meaning does not. We create it based on what we decide to prioritize and value. If our chosen values lead to dissatisfaction, it's on us. For instance, if you choose to value money and prestige but at the same time desperately want to work as a teacher, then your own choices are incompatible with happiness. If you chose to believe that women must be thin to be worthy, but you (a woman) cannot maintain your desired weight, you doomed yourself to unhappiness. This is where the concept of responsibility really kicks in.

The good news is that responsibility has its limits. We are not responsible for the actions of others. What we do have power over is how we respond to the situations life throws at us. If you got hit by a drunk driver, the accident is not your responsibility, but how you choose to move forward is. You may decide that your life is not worth living with the very real limitations that you now have. Alternatively, you may decide that your life goes on and define a new meaning. Reality gives us limits and boundaries (if your legs are broken, they are broken), but you can still decide what to make of it. The limitation on responsibility works the other way around, too: we are not responsible for other people's reactions to us.

People mistakingly conflate responsibility and guilt, and it is important to separate the two. Guilt is a moral concept. It implies that something you did was bad and wrong. In contrast, responsibility is a matter of fact; it is a law of cause and effect. There is no moral judgment in it. Accepting responsibility means simply recognizing your role in what is happening (your role in causing it, not changing it, or going along with it).

Embracing responsibility can be downright terrifying. As Yalom (1980) points out, responsibility is the child of existential freedom, and this freedom is overwhelming and scary. We're free to choose our actions, our values, and, ultimately, the direction of our lives. And because we are free, we are doomed to responsibility. We have to choose. There is no other option. This freedom and the burden of responsibility confront us with the realization that we are fundamentally alone in our own pursuit of happiness.

Avoiding responsibility can seem like an easier path. We might let others make decisions for us—parents, friends, partners, you name it. But this is a mere illusion of relinquishing control. In reality, by allowing others to dictate our lives, we're still making a choice. We're choosing to give away our power. Thus, we are still responsible.

However, the flip side of this daunting reality is empowerment. Recognizing that you have the power to shape your life, to stick with or change the things you're not happy with, is liberating. Acknowledging that you chose your path for reasons that made sense to you at the time can bring a sense of peace. For example, when you are mindful of having chosen the job that you now hate in favor of financial security, it is easier to live with it. It still does not make you like the job, but you know that you chose your best option — in your own system of values. You are free to change it, too — with that system of values.

Coaching helps make these unconscious choices conscious. Clarity and mindfulness, in turn, help make better choices.


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