I spent 7 years delivering training to maximum security inmates in the prison system. The training was mostly on anger management and conflict resolution.  I loved it.

I also learnt a lot.  The most important lessons did not come from textbooks or formal courses, but from listening to people’s language and from the stories they told.

The stories taught me important lessons about why people change.  In another article I explained that people change when they are motivated enough to do whatever it takes. In this article I examine a second reason: they take responsibility for their lives.

Many people are aware of problems in their world, but they blame others for their existence. Here are some common ways they express this:

  • It’s not my fault
  • They’re picking on me
  • He got me into this. I never wanted to do it
  • They lead me astray
  • I couldn’t help it
  • I trusted them

People have a propensity to position themselves so as to look blameless.  They highlight the problem, but they make it look as though they have no responsibility for it.

Doing this may make them feel better about themselves, or look better to others, but it doesn’t help them to change.  We can’t change things we don’t take any responsibility for.

The problem with denying responsibility is that we make other people powerful and ourselves weak.  If we don’t think we have contributed to our problems, then they have been caused by other people.  Now it may well be true that other people have contributed to our problems, but there are two issues with attributing all the blame on others.  First, it makes us a victim of other people’s schemes. Victims have little power.  Second, it does not acknowledge that by our action or inaction we allowed things to happen.

Blaming others for our problems gives us no reason to change. We may see plenty of reasons forothers to change, but not for us. We’re the ones who are the victims here; they’re the ones who need to change.

Of course we don’t have to take responsibility for everything and get depressed about it. Many people shape our lives and our circumstances, but we do need to acknowledge that if we’re partly responsible for causing our problems, we’re also partly responsible for fixing them. Taking responsibility gives us power to change.

Now I don’t just want to focus on problems. Taking responsibility applies equally to grasping opportunities. If we take personal responsibility for grasping opportunities we are more likely to succeed at change. And if we take personal responsibility for changes that are imposed upon us we are more empowered to find some good in them: to find a way to make positive use of them in our lives.

A reason people change is because they take personal responsibility for their lives and what they do. That helps them succeed at change.  In the next article I will examine a third reason why people change.

Dr Steve Barlow