Avoiding Responsibility: How It Harms Mental Health

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Road Less Traveled" by M. Scott Peck. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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When you avoid responsibility, what impact does it have on your wellbeing? How can you develop a stronger sense of responsibility?

Avoiding responsibility is a bad idea, according to psychiatrist M. Scott Peck. It signals a lack of discipline, which is crucial for growth. He explains the problems that you can face when you avoid responsibility, and he offers advice on how you can learn to accept responsibility.

Keep reading to learn about the impact of avoiding responsibility—and how you can work to turn it around.

The Problems With Avoiding Responsibility

An aspect of discipline is accepting responsibility. There are three important realities you must accept in order to accept responsibility.

  • Problems can be solved only after you’ve taken responsibility for solving them. 
  • We often avoid responsibility—making problems the responsibility of someone else—in an effort to avoid the suffering of problems. But, if you say something is not your problem, you will not solve the problem.
  • Taking responsibility for a problem is a practice of discipline.

Why Do People Avoid Responsibility?

Taking full responsibility for your choices gives you access to total freedom. Most people avoid responsibility because they are afraid of the consequences of their free will. For example, psychiatrists say that most patients who are struggling with a sense of powerlessness don’t actually want to be responsible for their lives, so they give their power away to things outside of themselves and then wonder why they feel powerless. 

Additionally, the process of truly accepting responsibility requires the discipline to conduct rigorous, regular self-reflection. This type of self-examination is often painful and difficult. 

The Result of an Imbalanced Sense of Responsibility

Figuring out what you are responsible for in life is one of the most difficult problems you will ever encounter. For this reason, to some extent, we all end up expressing one of two types of mental illness: neuroticism or character disorder. Neurotic and character disordered people respond to problems in contrasting ways.

  • Neurotic people make themselves responsible for too much, and see everything as their fault. Consequently, they have a fear of commitment, suffer from generalized anxiety, engage in codependent relationships, and experience a lower quality of life.
  • Character disordered people make themselves responsible for too little, and believe everyone else is at fault. Consequently, they lack the discipline to work through their problems and have a low quality of life. If you engage with life in this way, you become stagnant, like dead weight, because if you don’t solve your problems, nothing in your life will move. 

Learning to Accept Responsibility

Through experience and self-reflection, usually over a long period of time, we are able to get a realistic sense of what we owe to the world versus what we owe to ourselves. Parents can assist children in the process of accepting responsibility by recognizing opportunities to address a lack of responsibility, as well as opportunities to discourage a sense of responsibility that is unrealistically high. This requires time, attention, and effort—and is usually uncomfortable for all parties.

  • Neurotics, being willing to be responsible for so much, can make incredible parents, as long as they don’t get overwhelmed by an unrealistic sense of responsibility, taking action on things that ultimately aren’t necessary.
  • Character disordered parents are generally terrible because their behavior is often destructive for their children without them being aware of it. Because character disordered people want to blame others for their problems, this will extend to the raising of their children. They avoid responsibility, and that is what they demonstrate to their children. Taken further, they will also blame the children rather than take responsibility themselves. If their children internalize that responsibility, they will develop neurotic behavior and thought patterns. If they resist, they will become character disordered themselves.
  • If you can accept responsibility, and accept the nature of life being a series of choices with consequences, you will experience freedom.

Avoiding responsibility might feel good in the moment. But, in the end, you cause harm to yourself and others.

Avoiding Responsibility: How It Harms Mental Health

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  • The four key elements in the path to enlightenment
  • The importance of spiritual competence in relation to mental health
  • How you can face challenges and grow through hardship

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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