12. Taking Individual Responsibility - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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12. Taking Individual Responsibility

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > DownRelRabbitHole- Assessment

Down the Relationship Rabbit Hole, Assessment and Strategy for Therapy
(to counter defensiveness in stage 5)
by Ronald Mah

Taking responsibility for hurtful or neglectful behavior towards the other person is essential for healthy relationships.  It does not matter how much an individual feels he or she is just reciprocating negative behavior for negative behavior.  An individual may deny responsibility, claiming his or her behavior is retaliatory and thus justified.  The therapist must get each person to acknowledge that he or she had choice in responding.  The therapist should listen for language that asserts an individual had no choice in his or her response.  The individual will make a case that the other person's behavior was incredibly egregious and thus, completely compelling of his or her response.  This often reflects a deeper and broader denial of having choices in his or her life.  The therapist should listen and then prompt, "And, then you chose to do what?"  When the individual says more or less, "I had to _______," the therapist can respond, "So that's what you chose to do."    After Gabi expounded on a litany of complaints about her partner, the therapist responded, "And you're the genius that picked him!  And kept him… and kept him… and kept him… for how many years!?  What was THAT about?" or "So, why'd you give him permission to do all that?"  Gabi responded she didn't give him permission… she told him all the time she didn't like it.  To that the therapist responded, "You stayed!  You could have blown this up years ago, but you stayed which gave him permission.  That was your choice."  Gabi then gave a bunch of reasons or excuses about being stuck or having no choice.  The therapist responded, "So, between taking his crap and those reasons, you made your choice.  See you did have a choice!  Was it worth it?  Did you know it was going to cost this much?  How did you choose to make him 'pay' for all he did?  Would you make the same choices again?  So, what are your choices now?"

The therapist's position presents the possibility of alternate choices, however difficult.  The therapist can present alternative choices, including clearly outrageous and impractical suggestions.  If the individual claims, "I can't do that!" the therapist can ask "Why not?"  This can be a difficult therapeutic process since ownership of responsibility is often confused with taking blame.  If one or both partners or various individuals have family-of-origin or cultural experiences one is faulted, shamed, or blamed and then, punished harshly, taking or owning responsibility is to be avoided.  On the other hand, family-of-origin or cultural experiences of helplessness or powerlessness will also make taking or owning responsibility unfamiliar and uncomfortable.  Asserting victimhood would be more familiar.  Introducing the concept of passive-aggressive behavior and exploring and identifying it in the relationship dynamics are often provocative.  Partners in a couple, family members, or colleagues who may not be openly aggressive or hurtful but are nevertheless defensive often engage in frequent passive-aggressive retaliations.  The therapist can point out nonverbal aggressions in the therapy room: sighing, rolling ones eyes, various body language communications, and micro-facial expressions.  

Rather than being stymied by an individual who refuses to take responsibility for hurtful communication or behavior but blames another or the other person, the therapist can try shifting the individual from focusing on the others.  The therapist can honor the aggression as declarations of the individual's sense of worth.  "It's important that you don't just take the crap.  You shouldn't just let yourself get hurt.  Fighting back says 'It ain't right' and 'I deserve better.' I'm glad you're telling him or her it is not OK."  Discussing how being hurt causes one to fight back validates deeper needs.  The therapist can further "praise" the individual that he or she can fight back "so well… but so nasty!"  This therapeutic approach uses validating the individual's right and need to assert him or herself to challenge the quality of the behavior.  The individual's responsibility- "ability to respond" to assault is honored.  Honoring the response need per se allows for his or her "ability to respond" functionally or dysfunctionally to be confronted.  The therapist becomes more likely able to hold the individual responsible to appropriately communicating his or her sense of hurt.  This can lead to the therapist prompting the individual to assert him or herself more appropriately with basic communication training.  

The therapist should check whether the individuals, partners, or the family adhere to American culture ethics that holds individual responsibility as a virtue.  In many cultures, communal well-being is emphasized over individual needs.  Communal responsibility defines individual responsibility.  The therapist should consider if a communal benefit approach as opposed to individual responsibility for change might be more effective with such couples.  Communal responsibility may have become individually oppressive over an extended time.  Referencing communal responsibility may have been the rationale to for one partner to deny the other's needs or for parents to deny children's needs or girls or females to deny personal needs, and so forth for family harmony or other demands… and to deny individual responsibility for behavior and problems.  Presentation for therapy would in of itself be indicative of a breakdown in the communal process for one or more individuals such that the communal relationship is threatened.  A balance between individual needs and responsibility and the needs of the social unit and communal responsibility may need to be developed for such relationships.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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