Even though Movember is over, our commitment to our readers health, mental and otherwise, is far from over. I would like to share Dr. Matt Conner’s final Movember contribution with you. If you haven’t seen his previous articles, I would highly recommend reading his take on avoidance, baggage, and boundaries. Today we learn about responsibility.
I was telling Matt that I’ve learned some of these lessons myself over the years, though I haven’t been able to articulate them as eloquently or succinctly as he has. Other insights he shared were revelations to me. Which is weird, because they are all so simple and make so much since, but unless you’re actively thinking or aware of them it is often difficult to see these simple solutions in emotionally-charged situations.
There are certainly relationships and problems I have had in the past, that it would have been wonderful to have Dr. Matt’s advice in my toolkit. But, as we learn today, I shouldn’t lament the mistakes of the past. I can only learn lessons, move forward, and apply them in situations to come.
If you found these articles helpful, please join me in thanking Dr. Conner in the comments on this and his other articles. He doesn’t know this yet, but I plan to ask him to continue contributing these on a monthly or any other temporal basis he desires; because these have been truly wonderful. I am grateful for his friendship and taking the time to share with us all here.Jared A. Godar
In the first three weeks of Movember, we covered avoidance, baggage, and boundaries. My plan was to cover responsibility for the fourth week, I swear. But I didn’t, and Jared offered to post my last article a week late. And I’m going to explain that as an example of responsibility, but in the meantime, check out this amazing track by Ron Pope—the themes have a lot in common. You’ll see.
Remember last time I talked about the language of boundaries: I am not responsible for my thoughts, feelings, or beliefs; and I have no control over any other person’s. But I am accountable for my decisions. I can’t help it if you remind me of my third-grade teacher who was so mean. You didn’t know her, you didn’t get that haircut on purpose; but hey, I see the connections I see. What I can help is whether I choose to let my attention stay on those thoughts or make an effort to redirect to you, right now, in this space, whatever your haircut looks like. What I can help is whether I shift into closed-off body language or fake like I’m fine or say, “I’m so sorry, you remind me of someone I used to know, this is weird. Anyway, what were we talking about?” See? I can’t take responsibility for your choices, nor can I give up responsibility for mine.
I couldn’t say if I loved herRon Pope—”Lies and Cigarettes”
or if we were not there yet
we were young
and living on lies and cigarettes
Something I see in a lot of the people who come to my clinic is regret. Men talk about having cheated on their spouses, having gotten away with small crimes, having picked a college for a dumb reason and then had to live with that decision. We touched this in the piece about baggage, holding on to memories of the one that got away. But what happens when you’re holding on to bad behavior? When you were “young and living on lies and cigarettes?”
Well, if it’s affecting you in 2018, then 2018 is a great year to take some responsibility for it. If it’s a bad decision you’re still making, you are responsible for recognizing it and seeking the help you need to stop. One of the most frustrating challenges for a therapist is when someone wants to simultaneously maintain the affair he’s in as well as a healthy, happy, relationship with the spouse he’s lying to. It’s common practice in these situations to halt therapy until the client can make up his mind about which side he wants help with—ending the affair and fixing the problems in the marriage that made him vulnerable to it, or keeping the affair and honestly admitting to his partner that he is finding love and sex outside their agreement and that they either need to change their expectations about monogamy or break up. I know, “it’s not that simple.” But it’s not that much more complicated, Casanova.
Let’s say you’ve already done that. You made a decision, it stopped, but you’re haunted by having made it. You kept dating that person a couple months after you realized you didn’t love her. You fudged a number on your 2014 taxes. You “wasted” time on a grad degree you’re not using now. You flip through old Facebook posts and see a comment that looks so racist now. What do you do?
So I dial most of her number
and then I change my mind
our friends say she’s doing better now
so I let her live her life
Ron Pope—”Lies and Cigarettes”
You start out by looking at responsibility. Yeah, you made that mistake. You have zero obligation to change the past. Couldn’t do it even if you were supposed to. And that sounds simple, but I see so many men who don’t realize that’s what they’re asking for: a time machine. Your responsibility is here and now. Your responsibility is to acknowledge what happened, to name it as a mistake. You didn’t have all the info, or you made a bad choice based on the info you had; but regardless, it happened, and you don’t approve. Good. That’s really good. This part takes a long time to do (see the article on avoidance if you want to read more about why).
Don’t use passive voice in this part. If something was an accident, okay, but let’s look at your role in it. You didn’t mean to hit that other car, and they shouldn’t have been driving in your blind spot, but you were distracted. The affair didn’t “just happen, I don’t know, chemistry can’t be denied.” You made choices. I’m not saying you should call yourself a bad person. That won’t help. That’s actually counter-productive and just makes you feel shitty. Good people make good and bad choices. Your job here is to see your role in the decision that won’t stop chewing at your subconscious.
Next, and this is the most crucial part, you fucking learn from this. You say, “I made this choice, for whatever reason, and it was bad, and I do not want to do it again.” You say, “I wanted to have sex with her, and I had sex with her, and I regret that, and I learned I am capable of cheating, and the next time I want to, I am going to tell my wife about it, even though I am ashamed, and we will talk, and we will figure out what to do together, and I will be proud of my actions because I am a good person and I deserve to feel good about myself, and I deserve to talk about mistakes I might make before I make them so I can get help to not make the mistakes.”
You say, “I shoplifted and I cannot return the merchandise but I feel bad about this and I learned that when I’m stressed, I steal, and I will talk to my therapist about better ways to handle my stress and, if I still feel guilty about what I can’t undo, I will donate a reasonable amount to an appropriate charity, and I will not steal again, and I will treat myself like someone who has served his time rather than someone in jail.”
You say, “I am appalled by the language I used back then. I won’t deny saying it, but I was wrong to say it, and I have since learned that these words can hurt people who are already marginalized by greater society and need my support, not my slurs. I now review my comments before I hit ‘send’ to make sure I’m representing myself like I want to.”
You say, “I ended that relationship badly, and I hurt him, and I can’t take my words back, but I can make one heartfelt apology and then I can stay away from him and let him do what he needs to do to heal on his own, and I won’t hurt the next guy the same way.” Like Ron Pope says, you have to “let her live her life.”
So how does this relate to turning an article in a week late? I can say, “Gosh, Jared, with Thanksgiving and all, time got away from me.” But that’s pathetic. That’s passive voice. That’s taking my responsibility and giving it to the calendar. Instead, I can say, “Jared, I’m sorry. I prioritized other things, and I didn’t get them done in time to work on this article. If you still want it, I can work on it and turn it in; if not, I understand and hope you forgive me.” Am I pulling melodrama out of a late assignment? Yep. But if we don’t practice responsibility in small things, it makes it a lot harder to practice it in big things. So the next time you say you’re sorry, really dig into it. What specifically are you sorry for? What were you responsible for that you didn’t do the way you wish you had? What will you do differently now that you know this and own your present-day actions? Because when we were “young,” it was okay to live “on lies and cigarettes.” But we’ve grown up. And we get to act like it.
Thanks to Jared for this opportunity to talk to you about mental health this month (technically last month, I admit). I hope this has given you something to think about, and I hope you’ll take that to friends, family, and/or a therapist of your own. Because man, I don’t know you, but I know you’re awesome, and I know you deserve the healthiest life you can get.