When I received my new insurance cards for our family’s vehicles, I was struck that on the back it reads, “Do not admit fault,” in bold print. In a previous employment setting, we were told to never admit a mistake due to the possibility it could create a vulnerability to being sued. Many therapy students, by time they graduate, are so afraid of making a mistake that could cost them their licenses that they end up being highly constrained therapists, often leading to ineffectiveness.
I was recently part of an intense disagreement that occurred within a group setting. In trying to understand and work through this conflict, I consistently attempted to recognize my contributions to the conflict and acknowledge them with an apology. Several people who were aware part of the process as well as others I consulted with encouraged me to stop admitting mistakes. Their reasons were primarily twofold. First, they noted that often I seemed to be looking for my mistakes and acknowledging things that were not really my fault. Second, they worried that this would be used against me.
Although my friends and colleagues were right, I insisted on acknowledging my contributions to the problems even when minor or unintentional. I felt my integrity would not allow for me to do anything else. Additionally, I hoped that my taking ownership of part of the problem would make it easier for others to do the same. In the end, taking responsibility was ineffective, but I still feel good about my choices to take responsibility where I contributed to the problem.
It seems American culture has become terrified of responsibility. Taking responsibility is often hard enough without the cultivation of this fear. Yet, we seem to be taking this to extremes, as so often happens in the United States, and it is contributing to some rather serious problems.
Authenticity, Zhi Mian, and Self-Acceptance
The denial of responsibility is almost inevitably an inauthentic and self-deceptive endeavor. The principle of zhi mian calls us to face ourselves, others, and the world directly and honestly. When we do this, we are flooded with the recognition that we are imperfect and responsible for many mistakes. This is part of being human.
An authentic call to responsibility pushes us toward a deeper self-acceptance (See Hoffman, Lopez, & Moats, 2013). Self-acceptance too often is intertwined with attempts to rationalize ourselves as being right or justified in our mistakes instead of embracing our humanity as imperfect creatures. Authentic self-acceptance requires that we are honest with ourselves about responsibility. Instead of seeking to justify our mistakes, we embrace them. This is not easy. If it seems to be, then one should question the authenticity and depth at which this is embraced. Yet, when we can establish a foundation of self-acceptance that is honest while deeply acknowledging our own imperfections and humanity, then we can use this self-acceptance as a foundation for responsibility.
Mutual and Collective Responsibility
The idea that ‘it takes two to have a conflict’ is a common cliché, but rarely is the deep meaning of this simple phrase lived and embraced. This cliché again points to our humanity; we are all imperfect and that even when our intentions are good, we will still make mistakes.
In my marriage, I have learned over and over that it is ineffective to try to identify and point out the mistakes that my wife is making. It is not because my wife is resistant to acknowledging her faults or mistakes; in fact, the reason has nothing to do with her. Instead, this is ineffective because of the impact it has upon me regardless of her response. When I look for my wife’s mistakes, I feel like a victim and become angry, typically about something over which I have very little control. When I focus on looking for my own mistakes, even when they are unintentional, I have a very different attitude. I am able to approach conflicts softer with greater openness.
In leadership roles in organizations, I increasingly find myself advocating for mutual responsibility. Conflicts within groups and organizations easily become polarized, with individuals or groups being blamed for the problems. This, too, is deception. Organizations and groups are almost inevitably destined to repeat cycles of scapegoating, blaming, and conflict if they cannot learn to take mutual responsibility for problems. This rather simple idea too often seems to become lofty idealism when brought into practical application.
Of course, there are always exceptions. I am not suggesting that shared responsibility is a universal. Child abuse, rape, and other tragedies have innocent victims. Yet, if we are honest, conflicts and problems where there is a single responsible part are quite rare in comparison to the pervasive examples of collective responsibility.
Most pieces I write for the New Existentialists I write with the hope that it may have at least some positive impact, even though most likely small. Yet, I write this piece with a sad heart, confident that it will have little to no impact. There is too much cultural pressure to the avoidance of responsibility and I don’t foresee a change or even much hope. We see this in politics, in business, in friendships, and in families. I have witnessed and experienced too many friendships and relationships end over this deep resistance to responsibility. I do not see myself as above this either. When confronted with my mistakes, my typical first reaction is defensiveness and often anger. Frequently, I act from this place instead of mindfully watching my first reaction and waiting to respond until I have more honestly analyzed the situation.
So why do I write this piece? In part, it is a confession. In part, it is to hold myself accountable to striving toward more authentic responsibility and self-acceptance. But most of all, I felt compelled to write.
Hoffman, L., Lopez, A., & Moats, M. (2013). Humanistic psychology and self-acceptance. In M. Bernard (Ed.), The strength of self-acceptance: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 3-17). New York: NY: Springer.
— Louis Hoffman