Taking Full Responsibility For Your Life

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When I was originally introduced to Buddhism, one of the things I found most attractive about it was the concept that we’re all fully responsible for the entirety of our lives, a notion rooted in the principle of the simultaneity of cause and effect.  In essence, this principle states that everything we experience in our lives today appears as an effect of causes we ourselves have made in the past, and that everything we’ll see in the future will occur as a result of causes we ourselves are making in the present.

Another way of saying this is that every cause we make (in thought, word, and deed) could be considered to undergo continual conversion into a kind of potential energy that upon the meeting of certain conditions in our environment converts back into a concrete effect (thus linking in a causal way, for example, the lie I told yesterday to the broken leg I suffer today).  It’s akin—at least metaphorically—to the way matter can be converted into energy and then back again. Intriguing as I’ve always found this idea, I must confess that the scientist in me still can’t envision a way to test its veracity—and continues to demand such observable proof be found in order to believe it.  On the other hand, the mystic in me anticipates that the attaining of enlightenment must involve just that—a wholly subjective experience that sheds the definitive light of truth on it.  So, though I can’t today imagine what that experience might be, I continue to hope to have it.

Having said all that, in this post I’d like to argue that even if unverifiable, the notion that we’re completely responsible for everything in our lives still has value.  At the very least, it points us toward a more complete recognition of the immense power we do have to affect the most important outcome of any life event—how happy or unhappy it makes us.  I remain less interested in the way the law of cause and effect could be used to manipulate people into certain action (i.e., make a good cause and get a good effect, make a bad cause and suffer a bad effect, a punishment meted out not by a supreme being but by a supreme law) than in how it could empower people to accomplish more than they believe they can.

Certainly believing that you have more control over your life than you actually do will lead nowhere good.  Believing we only need to act kindly and morally, for example, to make everything turn out all right will surely cause us only disappointment and bitterness.  We must, of course, acknowledge we often have no direct control over what happens to us (i.e., we can’t simply decide we’re not going to get cancer and expect that decision to protect us from actually getting cancer).  I would argue, however, that the degree of control we have over how we respond to what happens to us is far greater than we often realize and that it remains the key to our happiness.

As human beings, we’re endowed with an extraordinary degree of self-awareness, self-awareness we’re constantly engaging to form value judgments about the events of our lives.  Typically, these value judgments sort into two camps:  “good” and “bad” (“neutral,” of course too, but far less often).  The problem is that our minds are so powerfully predisposed to make judgments in general that they make most of them too quickly, based on too little data.  What’s more, these judgments almost always leave out a key ingredient—our own ability to affect a particular outcome.  So when we hear we have cancer, we immediately judge it “bad”—and as most would agree having cancer is bad, we often leave it at that.  Except that the ultimate value of our receiving such a diagnosis is elusively difficult to forecast.  What if we’re able to find a clinical trial that increases the likelihood of our being cured to over ninety percent? Or, to speculate even more wildly, we were to start a foundation to raise money for our particular cancer that becomes so fabulously successful it ends up playing a significant role in our particular cancer’s eventual cure?  Even if we die from it ourselves, might we at least be given pause to consider whether or not, on balance, this was a good deal?  We do, after all, have to die of something eventually.  I say this not to sound callous but to point out that we have more power to create value out of adversity than most of us believe, especially than we believe at the moment adversity first confronts us.

What’s more, as Viktor Frankl famously said, “When we can’t change the outcome, we are challenged to change ourselves.”  This is more than just a consolation prize for being unable to get what we really want (e.g., our cancer cured).  It points to the important fact that how we internalize adversity, whether or not we feel empowered to challenge it or feel completely overwhelmed by it, has more to do with our inner life state (and therefore the beliefs operating in our lives which determine it) than with external events themselves.  I’m certainly not arguing that getting cancer isn’t awful.  I am arguing that the suffering it causes in almost everyone of my patients who’s had it is due to the fact that almost no one (with a few notable exceptions) views cancer as a value-creating proposition at the outset (those who come out cured at the other end sometimes do, but mostly not those who ultimately die from it).  To do so of course requires a life state of enormous size, one undaunted, enormously self-possessed, and brimming with courage and vitality.  Which is exactly what I’m arguing we should all be seeking to acquire.

So what does it really mean to take full responsibility for your life?  It means, in my view, to take full responsibility for your happiness.  It means recognizing that how things look at the outset doesn’t determine how things will end, and that although we can’t control everything (or perhaps anything) we want, we all have often enormous ability to influence how much happiness or suffering the events of our lives bring us.  Our focus, I’m arguing, should be on strengthening our inner fortitude, on developing a spirit that refuses to be defeated.  For that spirit brings with it an enormous amount of power, power that can help us live up to the idea that we are responsible for our lives and everything in them.  And if we can live up to that idea, refusing to become immured in blaming anyone or anything else for our misfortune, we’ll find ourselves in the best possible position to win over it.  And even if we don’t—even if we do ultimately go down—at least we’ll be able to do so swinging, with a full sense of ownership of our fate.  A sense of ownership that even in the face of defeat may yet provide us satisfaction.

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  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by P. Mimi Poinsett MD and Suzana Makowski, Alex Lickerman. Alex Lickerman said: The power of accepting #responsibility: https://bit.ly/gPromJ […]

  • Hi, Alex! Another thought-provoking post. This reminds me of a book I read by Chris Prentiss, Zen and the Art of Happiness. The premise is that everything that happens to you is the best thing that can possibly happen to you. The event being “good” or “bad” is just a judgment. We have to trust God puts trouble and suffering in our life to make us stronger. Well done, Alex.

  • This was exactly what my daughter was doing, being responsible for her life, even though she did not make it after fighting her leukemia (she passed away). She did manage to inspire many of her friends with her cheerfulness, positive attitude, by sharing and helping others even in her last few days of her life. You can read her experience here: https://chantforabetterlife.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/a-brave-girl-a-role-model-part-two/

    thquah: Thank you so much for posting this link.


  • Thank you, Alex; this post and your writing points an attitude and a way of life of Hope. It gives one courage and power to win over ourselves. I have been following most of your posts and I must I enjoyed and benefited a lot from them.

    Thank you again.

  • Hey…I read The Buddha in your Mirror recently. All that you wrote has just re-etched the message in my heart. Yes, the moment we start taking full responsibility for our situation we stop blaming external circumstances/people, and we strive to do our own human revolution.

  • Difficult, difficult, difficult to respond positively to events that have no discernible positive ramifications. I’m happy to believe that this is a limiting state of mind, but…that doesn’t always mean we can change it “just like that.” A continuing theme….

    Catrien: So true that it’s difficult. And yet it seems to me that this state of life is what we should all aim to cultivate…


  • Thanks, Alex.

    I needed to be reminded of that “on balance” as I deal with my grief.

    I do see your point re: “sense of ownership over fate.” What a pat on the back, if it works.

  • Learning how to forgive ourselves, and forgiving ourselves readily for creating or allowing what causes our unhappiness as well as cultivating a depth of gratitude; both hold immense power for creating more happiness in our lives.

  • I seldom disagree, Alex, but this time . . . I think your example, a CA diagnosis (or any other fatal illness), must allow for phases and stages. In the first phase, one must grieve, I believe. Acceptance will come as a later stage of illness/development.

    Further, if you work towards acceptance, or make it your goal, you may miss the humility opportunity that accompanies the grief stage. You must accept all the phases and stages, letting yourself be buffeted by them, hoping you will regain your equilibrium and your peace. IMHO.

    I am reading Moloka’i right now, the story of the leper colony of the late 1800s and early- to mid-1900s. (The illness reminds me more of AIDS than of CA.) There are many stories in this historical fiction that illustrate the adjustment, grief and acceptance stages in an incurable illness. The main character swerves on and off course in her equanimity. She takes control (Alex’s main point) more than you would imagine that she could, given her very limited options. I recommend this read by Alan Brennert.

    Chris: Important to recognize there exist stages of processing when we confront bad news—agreed. I don’t think you can reach the place toward which I’m arguing we should strive—when we can turn our minds toward creating value out of tragedy—until we’ve processed the loss such tragedy always represents. Each of us grieves in our own particular way and order, sometimes skipping some of Kubler-Ross’s stages altogether. But if at the outset of a trauma/obstacle/tragedy we could gently remind ourselves as we process our loss emotionally that value can always be created, we might find ourselves traversing our grief just a little bit faster. Still, hard to do, and your point is very well taken.


  • Thanks for the challenge, Alex. As I live day-to-day with chronic illness, I need to be reminded that I’m responsible for my reaction to it and for my own happiness. I had never heard the line you quoted, “When we can’t change the outcome, we are challenged to change ourselves.” As you know, I took a step in that direction by writing a book about my experiences with chronic illness with the goal of helping others. But taking responsibility for my own happiness is still a challenge on some days. On other days I am finally (after 10 years) able to feel that this illness is a blessing because, without it, I’d never have written the book.

    I think it’s also important to recognize that others are responsible for their lives and for their happiness. Accepting this helps me let go of my tendency to want everything in life to be easy and go well for my children and other loved ones. But they must live their own lives with its ups and downs. They must, as you say, take responsibility for their own happiness. Seeing this lifts a tremendous burden off my shoulders. Thank you.

    Toni: I can only imagine how much anyone with a chronic debilitating illness would simply want their illness to go away! I think taking responsibility for one’s happiness involves also hoping for things to advance so that one day the technology exists to return one to a better level of health (it’s a challenging balance to hope for this without becoming disappointed when it doesn’t happen in the time frame one would want). We all have things happen to us we’d rather didn’t, some more devastating than others (like yours). I don’t think the battle to maintain a high life-condition in the face of chronic illness or disappointment or recurrent failure ever goes away or gets easier. Just part of the human condition, as, of course, the Buddha taught.


  • Hi Alex,

    Thank you for this post and the reminder. I still look back on a couple of bad/toxic relationships (one w/my mother, one 10-yr one w/a man that reflected and repeated many of the toxic issues I had w/my mother) and feel anger and blame. Yet, I also know that each one helped make me who I am today and helped me be where I am—and that’s a nice home, with my soul mate, making a living doing what I enjoy.

    As I sometimes tell people, we have been lied to about the true nature of reality. For example, when I started my business 10+ years ago, I relied on the guidance and support I found in Deepak Chopra’s book, The 7 Spiritual Laws of Success—and using those principles built a successful consulting business and the lifestyle I aspired to—while helping many other people achieve their goals and dreams. I’m starting another business now, and part of getting “into the flow” of the Universal energy stream means giving things away to make room for something new and different. I want to create a different life/style and I believe that I can. So yes, I can and do take responsibility for the long term. It’s the day-to-day that’s harder. I have to remember this better.

    I want to tell a quick story here that might better fit into a post on your “karma” post—I hope you don’t mind. It’s really rather miraculous.

    Several months ago I was at my local market in the middle of the day to pick up a few items. While there I noticed an elderly gentleman in neat but worn clothes pushing his cart around the market. I kept coming across him as I went down the various aisles, and I soon noticed that although he was shopping, he frequently picked up an item and then replaced it on the shelf. The idea that he didn’t have much money took hold in me. I have plenty of money these days…but I couldn’t figure out how to give him any.

    If I dropped a $20 on the aisle floor I could ask him if it was his—but I didn’t think he’d take it. He looked rather gentile, if also rather broke at this point in his life. I determined to put a $20 INTO his jacket pocket. I folded one up into a short “stick” and went to look at the soup cans alongside him. As I leaned over I was able to flick the bill into his slightly gaping golf style jacket. (Yay!)

    Then I completed my shopping and left. (I assume that at some point he reached into his pocket and found that he had $$ that he didn’t recall.) I didn’t tell my husband this story; I didn’t think he’d approve—although he’d say it’s my money and I can do as I please.

    The very next day we went to a small shopping plaza about 10 miles away. We parked a few rows away from the restaurant, walked over and ate. When we left the restaurant and walked back to our car, we passed through an empty space—and there, on the ground ,right in front of me—was $20 bill! Proving very clearly—in case I needed a reminder—or anyone else does (I tell this story regularly) that “as one gives, so shall one receive.” I told my husband the story then, and he too was amazed at this incredible “coincidence.” (No, I don’t really believe in coincidences either.)

    I have kept that $20 as a reminder. Someday I will give it away “again.”

    Best wishes to all in creating the life you want. You can do it!

  • The problem for accepting responsibility for everything in your life is the fact that so many times we don’t know that we’re doing something wrong (such as, say, inhabiting a building with asbestos, then later contracting lung cancer). So, to me, the phrase “take full responsibility for your life” is not valid. (However, your secondary point, that whatever happens is also yours to deal with and NOT the fault of anyone else is spot on). I do believe in random circumstance, luck, fate, whatever you want to call it (a mindset that seems to infuriate a lot of Americans, so I keep it mostly to myself). I also believe in making the best of everything that happens while trying to remember that you really have NO idea what it means or how it may turn out, or that you’ll probably never know either point, at least not fully. Actually, the concept of chaos is refreshingly comforting, at least to me. Isn’t that why we’re here on earth for awhile, to confront that and to tame it for ourselves?

  • Great post!—and comments.

    I grew up being taught pretty much the opposite of “how we internalize adversity, whether or not we feel empowered to challenge it or feel completely overwhelmed by it, has more to do with our inner life state (and therefore the beliefs operating in our lives which determine it) than with external events themselves.”

    Although it took many years for me to understand this perspective, it answered what I’d long been puzzled about: the people who, despite the most incredibly difficult lives, were able to do way more than just survive—through enormous hardship they thrived, found and brought joy, inspired people, sometimes even changed the course of history. One can think of Nelson Mandela, or Mother Jones, but there are also so many “ordinary” (!) people who have suffered, grown, and lived engaged, rich lives despite seemingly overwhelming obstacles, struggles, suffering.

    It seems to me that your points apply as well to people working collectively—abolitionists, union organizers, civil rights and gay rights activists, and so many others….and now, in the events of the last few weeks in Egypt, Tunisia, etc.: “For that spirit brings with it an enormous amount of power… even if we do ultimately go down—at least we’ll be able to do so swinging, with a full sense of ownership of our fate…”

    That said, I can echo Catrien: “Difficult, difficult, difficult to respond positively to events that have no discernible positive ramifications”—for the last nineteen years I have been living with unrelenting, intractable pain, and it is daunting to find reason to go on when one’s every (waking) minute is filled with pain. Unable to do almost anything, my thoughts about the pain are, I suspect, as much a problem as the pain itself (I have just gotten Toni Bernhard’s book). I must often remind myself which wolf I want to feed, as the Cherokee grandfather says…

    And now I will remind myself to read this post, when necessary…

    Thanks, Alex.

    Liana: So sorry to hear about your struggle with chronic pain. I have several patients in my medical practice facing the same thing, and I often wring my hands struggling to figure out how to help them. I, like you, have long noticed that those who find a way to assume full ownership over their pain, who refuse to blame others or fate or God or whatever, are able to endure it far better than those full of anger and bitterness over having been dealt so unkind a disease. If I had the power to wish away misfortune, I surely would. Lacking that, I find the perspective I wrote about really does seem to empower people to not only endure hardship but often (though in all honesty, not always) thrive in it.


  • I like the idea of taking responsibility for everything that shows up in one’s life. To me this also means owning my part in contributing to the common good—whether it’s picking up sidewalk litter, talking kindly to someone stressed out standing next to me at the post office, or keeping an eye on the harried parent’s child so he doesn’t run into the street. Moreover, if I believe I’m receiving someone’s direct attack—this responsibility means looking at my own thinking that’s interpreting “I’ve been attacked.” Is that true? Or am I on the receiving end of someone’s “tragic expression of an unmet need?” (In the words of NVC visionary Marshall Rosenberg.) Fortunately there’s a lot available to help us lead lives of courage and spaciousness. Thanks for your columns. Two recent encounters on my own path: Brene Brown on YouTube and “Falling into Grace” by Adyashanti.

  • Great topic, Alex. I come from a background where my parents, like Victor Frankl, went through the worst of the Holocaust; and then the worst of Stalin’s regime in Eastern Europe.

    My parents were unable to model for me a life where they had control over circumstances; and they were too emotionally wrecked to be able to regenerate themselves. I internalized their helplessness-induced passive aggressive behaviors. It is only most recently (20 years after passing of my father, 7 years after passing of my mother) that I have been able to gain an appreciation for the importance of taking control of my life; and must say, while it is still a bit strange, it is becoming a “learned habit” and am beginning to believe that I might be able to build a sustainable frame of mind that can withstand the vicissitudes of the inevitable challenges that life throws at you.

    Your postings and the comments of your thoughtful audience are so helpful in my own search for meaning.

  • Another chronic pain sufferer here, and it is exactly so—objectively, I know that I am enduring just another type of suffering. But subjectively, as both my pleasure in ordinary events and my joy in my own capacity to affect those events are both made unreasonably difficult to achieve by my illness…

    It’s hard.