Internal Versus External Responsibility

Posted on June 13, 2013


I have often asserted that character traits and ways of looking at the world and relationships are multifaceted.  For individuals, any particular trait is somewhere on a continuum between two extremes.  We are not binary in our natures (being entirely at this extreme or that all of the time).  Another of these continua is between assigning responsibility for outcomes in one’s life internally to one’s self or externally to others and circumstances.  This is the question of when something goes right where do we assign the credit and when something goes wrong where do we assign the blame.

Let’s look at some examples.  If you are late for an appointment, is it because of traffic (external) or because you didn’t leave early enough (internal)?  If you get promoted at work, is it because you earned it (internal) or were you just in the right place at the right time (external)?  In either example, the reality may be somewhere in the middle.  If the traffic was within the normal range of traffic for that time of day, you might reasonably have planned for it.  If something extraordinary happened that caused the delay, it is less reasonable to own all of the responsibility yourself.  Similarly, the promotion probably required both that you had earned it and that you were in the right place at the right time.  However, the reality of the situation is only part of the point here.  The issue under discussion is what is your normal bent when assigning credit or blame?  Do you look at yourself as being responsible or do you look outside of yourself for the reasons things happen to you?  Are you in charge of your own destiny or are you a victim of circumstance?  As with so many other things, health is somewhere between the extremes.

A former coworker of mine used to quote her father as having said, “This life is not a dress rehearsal.”  His basic assertion was that one needs to buck up, take responsibility, and make good choices because the things we do (or leave undone) can have lifelong implications.  This is the position of making internal attributions.  In the extreme, it puts each of us as the master of our own destiny and the sole blame for the things that go wrong in our lives.  On the plus side, this can lead us to action and to make positive changes in our lives.  On the minus side, it can lead to self-recrimination and judgmentalism.  If I am master of my own fate, then I must ascribe any discrepancy between the life I have and the life I might want to my own shortcomings (self-recrimination).  If I extend this same thinking to the lives of others, I would similarly ascribe any problems in their lives to their own flaws (judgmentalism).  The place this road ultimately leads is to perfectionism, and perfectionism is a cruel master.

The flip side of this position is to always assign responsibility outside of one’s self.  Sometimes this is a reaction to another version of perfectionism.  The point being that it is too painful to be less than perfect so I must assign responsibility outside of myself to be able to quiet the negative condemning voices.  The extreme in this position has multiple downsides.  First, it can cause one to abdicate responsibility for one’s own life.  If I am only a victim of circumstance, then there is no reason to look at my role in bringing about effective change.  Second, it creates a form of learned helplessness.  If I am only a puppet in my own life, all is pointless, and the door is opened for depression.  Third, it is really hard on relationships.  To be effective in relationships, it is important to own one’s part in the relationship.  If any problems are attributed outside of one’s self (i.e. to your partner), this both limits being able to create closer connection and further damages the relationship as you note and communicate that your partner is the source of the relationship distress.

Where is reality?  Where is health?  If I didn’t believe people could take positive steps to change their lives for the better, I would be in the wrong line of work.  My working assumption in therapy is that individuals are capable of responding effectively to the challenges of life.  Problems look big when we are too close to them.  When we can get some perspective, we may find that the solution is already within our skill set.  Further, I find that couples are capable of rallying together to defeat the negative cycles that beset their relationships.  The bottom line is that you do have some control over your life.  At the same time, you do not have total control over your life.  In your relationship, you can only own your half of the relationship.  If you try to control your partner, you will only make yourself and your partner crazy by doing so.  Additionally, you can work from where you are, but where you are has been influenced by your life experience.  Early childhood experiences and prior relationship experiences have caused you to attach to and react to your partner in particular ways.  Additionally, your life circumstances and all of the resultant life stressors affect the choices available to you.  So where is health?  I would suggest it is toward the internal attribution side of center.  You are an active player in your own life and you can impact the outcome.  The danger is in the extremes because you can’t (and shouldn’t try to) control everything.