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Responsible 'For' or Responsible 'To'?

Updated: Oct 29, 2023

Taking responsibility can come early in life, but usually it happens the first time you have to take care of a pet or a younger brother or sister. Or handle a household chore. Then comes homework, a first job and then the "big" stuff like buying a house and getting married.

That's a lot. Sometimes overwhelming when you add in all the other, daily, life responsibilities like bills and maintenance and emergencies. Exhaustion is often in our forecast.

So how do we prevent burn-out?

I think part of it comes down to a question and two tiny words: Are you "responsible for" someone or "responsible to" someone? The distinction is the difference between flourishing and fizzling.

Many times we think we are responsible for others. You work hard at taking care of their needs, working to ensure they are okay at every turn, giving and doing everything you can so they won't fail or be without. In the end, however, you micromanage and suffocate people, stretching yourself to sustain the impossible.

I suppose you could make the argument that parents are supposed to be responsible for their newborns. After all, babies are helpless and are Needy with a capital "Now!" They have no problem reminding you of that with every breath and wail.

But try to imagine a new mindset, as a young parent or a leader at work or whatever your lot in life happens to be. Imagine being responsible to someone rather than being responsible for them.

Understanding that you are a steward instead of an owner can help with this, and it brings freedom - for you and for those around you. Your life is a gift, so you really don't own it, any more than you own anyone else. The adage, "You can't take it with you" is more than just about money and possessions. Truth be told, we are accountable for ourselves but responsible to others.

I cannot make anyone behave or respond like I might wish, but I can do my part to serve and respect them. If I think I'm responsible for them, I'll tire easily and use up all the fuel in my tank worrying about and badgering them until they meet my expectations. But if I'm responsible to them, it takes the pressure off of me and allows them to thrive.

Being responsible for others looks like telling them what to do, what to say and what to think. It means taking on their emotions as your own until you're drained. It means living vicariously through them and them through you, leading to unhealthy relationships. And it involves unnecessary monitoring.

Being responsible to others looks like being attentive to their needs while knowing your limits and boundaries. It means giving others space and not just answers. It means not thinking that their progress - or failures - are because of you. And it involves being their teammate more than their coach.

Let's take some thoughtful time to consider what being responsible TO others rather than FOR others means. I welcome your comments!

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