I recently read about a teenage boy who, when his father lost his job, found himself living out of a van. He quit school at 15 to work as a janitor to support his family. Wouldn’t you understand if that teenager never quite left those circumstances, considering the hand he was dealt? That teenager was, in fact, Jim Carrey. He didn’t allow his circumstances to determine his future. He knew how to take responsibility for his life.
Do you know anyone facing a far less difficult situation, that spends their time blaming everything and everyone else? Their spouse acts differently than when they were dating, their friends are never available for them, their boss doesn’t appreciate their talent, their genetics are to blame for their bad health.
Why We Must Take Responsibility
Whatever our circumstances, there are a few inescapable truths we must accept:
- Our circumstances, the things that happen to us, don’t determine our happiness or future. Bethany Hamilton was a rising star in the surfing community when she lost her arm in a shark attack at just 13 years old. She was back on her surfboard one month later, and just two years later, won first place in her division at the NSSA National Championships. Why try surfing again after such a traumatic experience? Bethany explained, “If I don’t get back on my board, I’ll be in a bad mood forever.” If we allow our circumstances to dictate our happiness, we may easily find ourselves “in a bad mood forever”.
- The words and actions of others, and the way they treat us, don’t determine our happiness or future. At age 9, Oprah Winfrey began suffering what would be years of physical and sexual abuse by male relatives. She turned to drugs and alcohol to cope and eventually ran away from home. But at age 16, she decided that those relatives would not determine her future. She focused on school, earned a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, and well…you know the rest! No one else has a personal stake in your well-being or success like you do. Leaving your well-being up to others will never end as well as taking hold of it yourself.
- How we react determines our happiness and future. If our circumstances and other people don’t determine our future, that leaves us. We all know this, but man, it is hard to find the strength and discipline to take responsibility for our own lives. It’s much easier to blame other people and circumstances.
How to Take Responsibility
The time we spend blaming others would be much better put to use working our way out of those circumstances. But how do we start the challenging journey of taking responsibility for our lives?
We can tell ourselves we’re going to take responsibility until we’re blue in the face. But if we don’t plan any specific actions, it’s probably going to end like my telling myself I’m not going to eat any more breakfast tacos. It’s just not gonna happen. So what are some specific actions that we can take?
- First, take control of your surroundings as much as you can. Is there a place you visit often that usually encourages a bad habit? Stay away from that place if you’re able. Is there someone in your life that’s abusive toward you? Or maybe a bad influence? Cut them out of your life if it’s possible and makes sense. Can’t cut them out? Try to minimize your interactions with them. You can’t control all of your surroundings, but control as many as you can. When you take responsibility for your surroundings, the possibility of negative circumstances should go down at least a little, and maybe a lot!
- Second, when bad things happen, learn from it. Consider what you might have done differently to result in a better outcome, or what you’ll do if/when it happens again. What lesson can you take from that experience? When I filed taxes one year to find that I owed the IRS over $2000, I felt physically sick to my stomach. I had been naive, and hadn’t considered how my taxable income would change as I combined incomes with my new spouse, or how I would need to adjust. I learned a lot that year about tax brackets and W-4 withholdings, and I changed my actions to avoid that situation in the future. If you can’t avoid the bad, you might as well learn from it, and use that newfound wisdom to your advantage.
- Third, recognize your limitations and determine your priorities. Are you facing divorce, a dysfunctional family, chronic illness, an unhealthy lifestyle, and anxiety, all at the same time? Most people aren’t capable of tackling so many challenges all at once. I’ve personally found that when I spread myself too thin over too many goals, I don’t do well at any of them. Recognize your limitations and then decide what’s most important to you. If several goals are tied for “most important”, consider which will give you the most bang for your buck. I was battling postpartum depression and unwanted weight at the same time a few years ago. I decided that the actions I would take by focusing on weight loss, namely exercise and eating healthier, would also benefit my depression. So I focused on weight loss and experienced benefits in several different areas of my life.
- Fourth, instead of complaining about and staying in your current situation, set goals. When I was facing life after divorce, I realized that after the initial shock and stages of grief, continuing to cry about my situation every day wasn’t accomplishing anything. In fact, it was ensuring that I stayed in my current situation. By focusing on the future, and on my goals, I was able to move forward and into a better place.
- Finally, don’t just think about your goals. Actively work toward them. I set amazing goals all the time – plan more date nights, spend more time in prayer and reading the Bible, work out more often. But just like my breakfast tacos goal, unless I plan specific actions to ensure I reach those goals, chances are good I’ll never get there. Write your goals down and put them somewhere that you’ll see them often. Break them into smaller actions that you can tackle one day, one week, or one month at a time.
Wrap It Up
I’ve seen some people in the worst situations imaginable so full of life and joy that I’m left dumbfounded. I’ve also seen people blessed beyond measure that are absolutely miserable, and convinced that their lives are jinxed.
It really is your reaction to your circumstances and people around you that determines your happiness and future. So take control of your surroundings, learn from the bad times, recognize your limitations, and determine your priorities. Set goals and actually work toward them.
Dr. Robert Anthony said something that really struck me. “When you blame others, you give up your power to change”. Don’t give up your power, and your absolute right, to determine how your story ends. Make it a good one.
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