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Fault versus Responsibility: A Personal Perspective

My understanding of fault versus responsibility has fundamentally shifted my understanding of things. While I understand the intent behind these words in the vernacular, they come loaded with complicated variations of cultural interpretation and lifelong learning. I think I saw both as foul words, and I refused to embrace either notion well. Therein lies the foundations of my destabilized mental health status. For some reason, the dynamics in my childhood home seemed to have informed me that everything was my fault and that I was responsible for it. I lived that way for many years while crushing myself with the weight of every experience.


I have struggled with this idea for a long time. I think I confused the challenges of identifying the fault and blaming as equal to fixing things. What’s even more confusing to me than anything else is that I don’t have the pathway of my memories to put everything into perspective, so everyone and everything can appear to be at fault. From my perspective today, every adult in my childhood was surely at fault. I spent years vacillating between blaming myself and my family. One of my memories that sticks like velcro to my brain is Tucson in the late 90s. I was sitting in my living room in the first home I purchased. My phone rang, and on the line was my father’s voice. This was the first time my father had called me in my adult life.

I was so overwhelmed, and I remember fumbling to find my words. He told me that he was in town for the Mariachi Festival. I then asked if he would like to see my house or have dinner while he was in town. Then he said, “No. I am at the gas station on the corner of Grant and the freeway. We are heading home. I have been here all week, but I promised your Aunt Mable that I would call you. We spent a total of two hours together over the following twenty years. I realized that it was his fault. Sadly, knowing that didn’t matter anymore because I also realized he could not be what I needed. He never would, and he proved me right. As I write this, the song Hero by Mariah Carey comes on. Listen to that song right now. I’ll wait. Interesting.


While I learned a great lesson on the phone with my father that day, I only got half the message. I spent the next years struggling to identify the responsibility part because, based on my worldview at the time, I was not responsible for being responsible. Sadly, because I didn’t understand, I took everyone with me on a ride, and they unknowingly shouldered the “responsibility” of fixing me. While I believe that love changes everything, I also believe that changing and fixing are not the same. It took years and so much destruction for me to finally understand that I was the only one with the power to fix any of it. All the forgiveness, apologies, or amends would not make a difference. In the end, I had to fix myself. I was responsible. That must have been a hard day when I learned that.

I had the opportunity to work in Alaska beginning in 2012. I started to work with a team of online course developers, and we accepted a huge challenge. I worked in Alaska for several years and learned much about the human spirit. I was lucky to meet so many people, and one of the encounters was strangely special, and we spoke about several things over the years when we met. One of our conversations was about historical trauma and the insidious nature of trauma. I asked her how she lived without any anger because I was always angry. She said to me these simple words, “None of this is my fault. It is none of our fault. But we have to save ourselves, so it is my responsibility. It gives me my power back!” I think of that woman almost every day since. I have changed my work to reflect this notion. It has been a life-changing understanding, and I have adjusted my cultural context to hear the words differently. Today I embrace responsibility because it guides my destiny in a way that chance was simply missing.

I pose the question of discerning responsibility and fault consistently with the coaching groups I facilitate. Most recently, we were speaking of bringing our unconscious to consciousness. As I walk with people toward discernment, this notion has become fundamental in my professional development work. I know that it is our collective and individual responsibility to take responsibility. Seven small words to clarify a large idea. The worst part of this for my coaching participants is that once the unconscious becomes conscious, I offer them this idea, “…and now that you are aware of this, it is your full and total responsibility.” The collective moan is audible, but by the end of the 12-week experience, the moan is silent, and laughter emerges as they often revel in their responsibility.

In my mind, absorbing and integrating responsibility is the same as identifying and embracing power. They are the same, and it truly is that simple in theory. Have you ever tried to force responsibility on a person? Have you ever tried to convince a child that there is justice in losing their snack because they stole Oreos from the cookie jar? Have you seen angry White people on social media today resisting, pushing, and screaming that they are not responsible? Try convincing them that they are responsible for the consequences of slavery, oppression, patriarchy, racism, homophobia, oppressive capitalism, and the ongoing resistance of White America to step up. Only when we take this notion seriously will we begin to change what it means to be American.

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