Life Coach Magazine

What Is Responsibility?

By Gjosefsberg @gjosefsberg


In my ongoing quest to define my ideal person, I’ve run into yet another sticking point.  Namely, I’ve been trying to figure out what the heck is responsibility.

The first place I went is my trusty dictionary and this is what I found:

  1. The state or position of being responsible
  2. A person or thing for which one is responsible
  3. The ability or authority to act or decide on one’s own, without supervision

First definition is pretty pointless.  The second definition tells me that someone or something can be my responsibility but that’s not really helpful either.  I already knew I could be responsible, what I wanted to find out is what it means to be responsible for something or someone.  So I kept looking.I asked my friends and coworkers what responsibility meant to them and they answered my question with things like  ”this area belongs to me” or “my children are my responsibility”.  Some of them talked about elderly family members who they were now responsible while others talked about their homes, their employees and their pets.  This was frustrating to me.  Everyone seemed to be describing the things they were responsible for but they weren’t explaining what responsibility actually meant.  I mean, it’s great that they feel responsible for their elderly mom, kids or dog, but what impact did that have on their behavior or thoughts?  What’s the difference between being responsible for something or not?

So I went to a different font of wisdom, my father, and I asked him “what does it mean to be responsible?  Are you still responsible for me?”  The conversation was in Hebrew so I can’t really give you any quotes but it was very enlightening.  My dad’s opinion was that, when I became an adult, he no longer had responsibility for me.  Note that he wasn’t saying this as a way of avoiding anything, quite the contrary, my dad very much wants to be a part of my life and has been by my side in many ways through the years.  However, he pointed out that, as an adult, I was capable of making my own decisions and therefore I was responsible for my own actions.  And that’s where the light bulb went off in my head.

A Lesson In Responsibility From A Science Fiction Writer

I’ve been trying to figure out which author wrote this and to the best of my recollection it was David Gerrold in one of his Chtorr series.  However, the quote that popped up in my head after that conversion with my dad was “responsibility is the ability and willingness to make a decision”.  That made sense to me and it put everyone else’s comments into perspective.

Let’s think about this definition for second:

Responsibility Is The Ability And Willingness To Make A Decision

First, let me focus on the ability part.  My dad can no longer make decisions on my behalf.  I am an adult and a very capable one at that.  I make my decisions and not him.  Therefore, there is no way he can be responsible for me at this point in my life.  He was in fact responsible for my childhood but that ended the moment I started to make my own decisions.  If I make the choice to drink and drive and that action results in an accident, that accident is not my father’s responsibility.  He had no way of making my decision nor of influencing it.

I am responsible for my dog.  I make all the decisions for her.  What she eats, when she goes for a walk, who she meets and so on.  If she bites someone, that is my responsibility.  I made the choice to properly (or improperly socialize her) and I made the choice to put her into a situation where she can bite someone.

My friend is responsible for his elderly mother.  She is physically incapable of taking care of herself and so he makes decisions for her.  He decides when she eats, when she goes to the bathroom, when she takes a shower and when she goes to the doctor.  Can she voice her opinions?  Of course, and since my friend loves his mother very much, he listens to her and to her needs.  However, he’s the one with the power to make the decision and therefore her health is his responsibility.


Being able to take an action doesn’t mean you are responsible.  You need to be able AND willing.  For example, if your friend is obviously drunk and is trying to drive, are you going to stop him?  Clearly you are able to influence his behavior, by force if necessary, but are you willing to?  If you are unwilling, then you are unwilling to accept responsibility for your friend.  Please note that I am not saying this is a good thing.  In fact, I think you’re a pretty crappy friend if you’re unwilling to accept responsibility for your friend’s life.  But the fact remains, you are choosing to refuse responsibility for your friend.

Also, let’s not confuse this notion with any legal issues.  Yes, the law may define your responsibility differently, but I am more concerned with how I define it for myself.

I Am Responsible For…

So what am I willing and able to make decisions for?

My dog is an obvious one.

What about my family?  I am not capable of making decisions for my parents.  They are grown adults who make their own decisions.  I am not capable of accepting responsibility for my brother.  He too is an adult.  If he asks for help I will give it but he is not my responsibility.  My grandmother, before she passed away, was unable to make her own decisions.  I could have chosen to take responsibility for her but I chose not to because she was in Israel and I was in the US.  In other words, I had the ability but not the willingness.

My house is my responsibility.  I am willing and able to make decisions about how it looks.

My wife is my responsibility.  I am willing and able to make decisions about our life together and decisions that will impact her life.  Note that this is mutual.  I am her responsibility just as much as she is mine.  In the case of some medical emergency, it will be my responsibility to make decisions that will impact her life.

My kids will be my responsibility until the point at which they start making their own decisions.  That may or may not be exactly on their 18th birthday.

My readers are not my responsibility.  I cannot control your decisions nor do I want to.

My blog and the quality of articles in it is my responsibility.  I am willing and able to make the decision of what to write and post.

What’s The Point?

The point is to understand both when you are responsible and what you should do.

First, if you see something happening and you choose not to do anything about it, don’t just tell yourself “well, that’s not your responsibility.”  While you are technically correct, you are making the CHOICE to not be responsible.  You are choosing to let that crime go on, you are choosing to let that accident happen, you are choosing to let that person suffer or die.  Sure, you can tell yourself that you are not responsible for the actions of others, but if you could have influenced an outcome through an action of your own then you are CHOOSING not to be responsible, and if you’re the kind of person who constantly avoids responsibility then you’re not the kind of person I want to associate with.

Second, if you are not responsible for something then stop beating yourself up for it.  You can beat yourself up for avoiding responsibility but that’s a whole other matter.

Finally, be ready to make some tough decisions before you accept responsibility for something.  You cannot just let your dog roam free, you are responsible for it.  You cannot be uninvolved in your children’s life, they are your responsibility.  You need to be involved in the care of that elderly relative you assumed responsibility for.  You need to be willing to make tough choice when it comes to your spouse if they are sick and unable to make that choice themselves.

Ask yourself, “am I willing and able to make a decision about X and be held accountable for the outcome of that decision?”  If the answer no, are you sure you’re ready for X?

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