Every day, in so very many ways, people from all walks of life avoid taking responsibility for their actions, using denial and obstructive tactics. Even something as simple as accepting responsibility for parking their car outside the designated zone is unacceptable to them.

While there are many reasons given for this activity, in this article I'd like to focus on a critical one that might not be so obvious at first glance.

Let's start by talking a little bit about what is meant by the term" avoiding responsibility". A good example of this is what Gay Hendricks, a relationship specialist, tells in his books of the time he spent working in the American prison system. Almost every single person that had been incarcerated stated to Hendricks that the responsibility for being in prison was not theirs. They would blame the justice system, the other people involved in the crimes for which they were convicted, and even their own kids for turning them in.

There are probably a number of examples of this activity that you have seen around this past week - someone breaks something and fails to acknowledge it, let alone fix it; someone else betrays the confidence or trust of another and carries on as if nothing had happened; and the list goes on and on. When confronted about their actions, the list of excuses used to avoid being held responsible has grown to astronomical proportions.

And then, there is perhaps the most classic excuse of all: "The devil made me do it.", which was immortalized by the late Flip Wilson, comedian and television actor, who starred in The Flip Wilson Show in the 1970s.

Why run away from Responsibility?

So, the 64 dollar question is - why do people run away from taking responsibility for what they have done? Apart from all the other possible reasons, there is one that is crucial - fear of shame. Shame is a very life diminishing emotion for many people. In fact, some studies have determined that shame can be a key factor in suicide attempts.

It is not uncommon to hear of Japanese students committing suicide after failing to gain entrance to a prestigious university and not being able to endure the shame they perceive. There are also well known cases of American students turning to extreme violence and/or suicide after they have been shamed and bullied by others.

But, how do we get to feeling shame from avoiding responsibility? The link is the human desire to avoid pain and a common misconception about guilt and shame. If we take as an example what happens when someone does something that they know is not right. Whatever the path that led them to that situation, they know that their act was not acceptable by the standards of their society or culture. According to Shelly Pinnell, a Licensed Social Worker with many years of experience in dealing with this phenomena, just the knowledge that they did something wrong is enough for many people to
activate their pain avoidance mechanisms.

It is pretty easy to see that humans avoid pain much of the time. And, there is an innate sense that shame is painful, often very painful. "What makes this more complicated, Pinnell says, is that people often confuse guilt with shame and lump them together in the 'that which we avoid' group."

"Guilt about a wrong-doing is normal and can serve as a motivation to right a wrong or make amends. The problem arises when people confuse the guilt they feel with the shame they don't want to feel and enter into a state of strong denial about the whole matter."

Although the terms Shame and Guilt are used rather interchangeably by many people, they are not one and the same. You can differentiate between the two by remembering that according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary

Guilt is a feeling of culpability for offenses, deriving from having committed a breach of conduct especially violating a law or standard of conduct.

Shame is a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety or a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute.

As we can see, the terms are related, but shame incorporates pain, humiliation, disgrace - all much more intense in nature and which build upon the feeling of guilt.

It is perfectly possible to feel guilt over having eaten the last cookie in the jar, but not experience any shame about it. Also, in the definitions, Guilt is a feeling (to be conscious of an inward impression, state of mind, or physical condition) while shame is a painful emotion (a psychic and physical reaction (as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling and physiologically involving changes that prepare the body for immediate vigorous action).

And yes, people are constantly mixing up Emotions and Feelings, which are also at different positions on a scale of intensity and content. The indiscriminate interchange of use of emotions and feelings has its own ramifications, but that would be grist for another mill.

From Bad to Worse

Given the strong avoidance tendencies that most people have around painful feelings of shame and the confusion of guilt with shame, it is not surprising that so many people avoid taking responsibility for anything that might trigger those undesirable emotions.

And, as people have more and more interactions with others, the number of opportunities to engage in actions which may not be the most suitable, let alone acceptable, grows constantly. As a result, in many societies there is less and less acceptance of responsibility and the trend is in the direction of this getting only worse. Some societies have entered the era of no personal responsibility - we blame our DNA, our parents, our poverty, our riches, whatever we can point at, so long as we do not point at ourselves.

This is reflected in television shows and movies, the stories we read in the paper and the news.

It is time for this tide to turn, and for people to start distinguishing between a twinge of conscience and blast of shame and to start taking more and more responsibility for their actions.

Evertt Edstrom, a mid-western philosopher, sees the problem as having roots in a culture of shame and guilt. "We are shamed when we are children, with the use of many methods, including proverbs in certain circles, into doing whatever the parents or relatives deem appropriate. Others around the child may also use shame to "put them in their place", especially when the child has something different about them, including good looks or talent. Since this practice is often socially acceptable, care-givers usually do not put a stop to it and may join in themselves."

Disobedient children also experience repeated guilt which escalates into shame: first there is the initial guilt they feel, then the parent imposes guilt for the offence and then shame is inculcated when the incident is repeatedly brought up in the future as an example of how one should not act.

As a result, children develop an aversion to making mistakes and learn to avoid responsibly or go into denial which usually includes lying. Very seldom do children meet a 'responsible' adult who teaches them that it is okay to make an error and that it is natural for us to do so.

Edstrom suggests "Children should be taught that while it is not acceptable to leave mistakes uncorrected, a corrected mistake is no longer a mistake. If it is no longer correctable, then one should make amends, learn from the incident and then let it go."

But when children have guilt-laden care-givers that are hung up on their own uncorrected mistakes ( for which the care-givers have taken no responsibility) they become locked into the culture of shame and guilt from which there appears to be no respite other than not accepting responsibility.

One can ask, "Under these conditions what child would want to accept responsibility?

If we do not model to our children and ourselves a high degree of acceptance of responsibility, in the context of suitable forgiveness, we will sink lower and lower, away from a mature and life-enhancing way of life. All it takes is a few moments to model this for others, much like that which was demonstrated with generosity in the movie "Pay it Forward". Let us do this for our children and others. Let us initiate a culture of courage and responsibility for future generations.

Copyright Robert S. Vibert February 2006, all rights reserved. First published on www.real-personal-growth.com

Author's Bio: 

Robert S. Vibert teaches Total Holistic Awareness.