Guilt Isn’t Required to Take Responsibility

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Photo by Rahul Jain on Unsplash

Guilt and responsibility are two of a kind. These two words are sometimes used interchangeably. But do they mean the same thing?

I think not.

Understanding the difference between guilt and responsibility can go a long way towards greater accountability. Is it possible to take responsibility without feeling guilt? Is guilt required to assume responsibility?

Before we can answer these questions, we need to understand what guilt and responsibility mean independent of each other.

Let’s get into it.

The Meaning of Guilt

We’ve all experienced guilt at some point. But what does it mean?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines guilt as the following:

The fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty

In every day life terms (not legal terms), we experience guilt when we acknowledge wrongdoing. I feel guilty because I lost your money. You feel guilty because you ate all the french fries without sharing.

It’s easy to identify guilt. With guilt comes emotions such as shame, embarrassment, and sadness.

The Meaning of Responsibility

Alright, so what’s the deal with the responsibility?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines responsibility as the following:

The quality or state of being responsible: such as moral, legal, or mental accountability

Let’s hone in on the last word, “accountability.” To be accountable means you take responsibility. If you’re a CEO, you’re accountable to your shareholders. If you’re a parent, you’re accountable to your children.

Accountability says nothing about whether or not the fault is yours or somebody else’s. You assume responsibility and do what needs to be done.

Responsibility And Guilt

It’s totally conceivable to experience guilt, to then be followed by a sense of responsibility.

I’m guilty of losing your money; therefore, I feel a responsibility to pay you back. You’re guilty of eating all the french fries; therefore, you feel responsible for ordering more food for the table.

When there is wrongdoing, guilt ensues. It’s in our moments of guilt we take responsibility for our wrongdoings and respond appropriately. The negative emotions that accompany guilt, such as shame, embarrassment, sadness, are the same emotions that motivate responsibility. I screwed up and feel bad; therefore, I take responsibility for fixing the problem.

It’s easy to take responsibility when the fault falls on you. Your guilt is in full effect. But what happens to responsibility when guilt isn’t a factor?

Responsibility Without The Guilt

It’s much harder to take responsibility when there aren’t the negative emotions that accompany guilt. Some people won’t even take action unless guilt is present.

But here’s the catch: you don’t need to feel guilty to take responsibility.

Mark Manson, the author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, spends time discussing what he coins the Responsibility/Fault Fallacy. His main idea is people wrongfully take responsibility only when it’s their own fault.

What would happen if all people operated this way? Quite simply, not much would get done.

Remember — guilt isn’t required to take responsibility. You can take responsibility for the solution without being at fault.

I’m not guilty of previous generations’ missteps, but I take responsibility to make amends for future generations. I’m not guilty that my siblings trashed the kitchen, but I take responsibility for cleaning up the mess. I’m not guilty of how others act, but I take responsibility for how I respond.

Responsibility is a choice. It’s easier to take responsibility for yourself, but what about when it comes to dealing with other people?

Responsibility > Guilt

To create prolonged action in others, one must inspire responsibility.

To inspire action, invoke responsibility, not guilt.

Mark Manson says guilt is past tense while responsibility is future tense. The question isn’t who’s at fault. The past is the past. At a certain point, there’s no need to bicker about who takes guilt when we need to start taking responsibility.

When we push guilt onto others is where we experience problems, especially when guilt is non-existent. If your goal is to enforce guilt to achieve responsibility, that strategy can backfire on you. Pushing guilt onto others can cause people to take less responsibility. 

To create change for the better, we must inspire responsibility from those that aren’t being held responsible.

Take responsibility for what you are not held responsible.

We’re taught to take responsibility for our actions. It takes a higher level of mastery to take responsibility without the emotion of guilt. 


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