One of the aspects of existential psychotherapy that I most value is the idea of personal responsibility. On one hand, we humans are free to live our lives the way we choose (within reason), while on the other, we are responsible for the choices we make. Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand, whether we like it or not.
Often, clients who enter psychotherapy have complaints about their lives, including their marriages, children, work environments, and many other interpersonal situations. Just as often, the clients are steadily looking outward at other people they deem responsible for the trouble. It is the spouse who is selfish, the children who just won’t listen, the unreasonable boss and the inconsiderate friends who drove the person to seek therapy. It is less often that a client comes in with a strong sense of personal responsibility and willingness to change in the beginning stages of therapy.
That is one of the challenges therapists face: how to help the client assume responsibility for his or her life without shaming or blaming. Without the clients taking on personal responsibility, no change can ever really happen because, as we all know, we can change and improve only ourselves. When faced with this challenge, I like to ask my client, “In all of the bad relationships, failed communications, and frustrating encounters in your life, what is the one common denominator?” That question allows the client to begin focusing on his or her role in whatever situation he or she is facing. Even if his or her role is as little as 1% of the issue, that 1% is where we start working. That 1% is where the change begins, and generally, the acceptance of responsibility of that small amount is what leads the client to being able to recognize other ways of being that may cause problems in his or her life.
The ability to take responsibility for one’s life is one of the greatest gifts we can offer ourselves and our clients. Although the weight of responsibility may seem heavy at times, it carries within in the seeds of freedom. When a person assumes responsibility for himself or herself, the person becomes empowered to be the person he or she chooses to be. Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl reminded us that the “last of the great human freedoms is to choose how to behave in any given circumstance.” Indeed, we have complete authorship over our attitudes, interactions, and responses.
Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre states that to be responsible is to be the “uncontested author of an event or thing” and means that each individual, alone, is responsible for the creation of his or her life, including “self, destiny, life predicaments, feelings, and if such be the case, one’s own suffering” (Yalom, 1980). Becoming the author of one’s own life may start with something as simple as taking ownership for the 1% that is you, but will likely lead to a much deeper sense of ownership and freedom in one’s entire life. Therapy, done well, will assist participants in grasping a greater sense of self by way of freedom and responsibility.
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