responsibility | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Creativity and Boundary-Setting, Part 2: The Limits of Responsibility

In the last post in this series, we talked about how developing the ability to say “no,” and protect our time, is important for making the kind of progress we want in our creative work.

In this post, I’ll discuss how it can help our creativity to set another kind of boundary — to stop blaming ourselves for how others experience the world.

As I’m sure you’ve learned firsthand, when we let people see our creative work, we risk getting criticized.  But criticism by itself, I think, isn’t a problem. It only becomes problematic when we take responsibility for the critic’s suffering and anger.

My Criticism Fantasy

I’ll give you an example from my own life.  While I was writing my book, I had a nagging tendency to imagine ways people might attack it.  A very specific “worst-case scenario” kept coming to mind.

The scenario involved me speaking at a bookstore.  During the question and answer period, a man stands up and launches into a tirade.  “This book doesn’t solve any real problems,” he shouts.  “I’ve got two kids, a wife and a mortgage, and no job — how does this book help me with that?”

I thought for a while about why I kept imagining this situation, and why it seemed troubling to me.  Eventually, I realized the problem was that I was taking responsibility for my fictitious critic’s suffering.

In other words, this man was basically blaming me for his situation and his emotional distress, and I was buying into his story.  But in “reality,” I didn’t create his financial problems, abuse him as a child, or do anything except tell him about my book.  When I recognized that, my body suddenly relaxed — tension I hadn’t noticed before melted away — and the fantasy no longer seemed so worrisome.

Releasing Your Responsibility

I’ve found that this kind of fantasizing is common among people who are having trouble putting their creative work “out there.”  Often, these are compassionate, empathic people.  They want to heal others’ suffering — not bring more into the world.

Unfortunately, people with this mentality (myself included, sometimes) also tend to have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for how others feel.  If someone else is hurt, they assume, I must have hurt them, and it’s my job to make it better.

The paradox is that this attitude actually prevents people from playing the healing role they desire.  Their fear of hurting others causes them to shrink away from giving their gifts to the world.  If they wrote that book or started that business, they think, somebody might get mad, and then the world would be worse off.

The key, I think, is to recognize that it’s possible to care about people without “merging” with them – without taking all of their hurt, suffering and fear upon ourselves.  Breathing deeply, and sensing the pressure of our feet against the ground, I think, is a helpful way to remember our separateness from others, and our solidity in the face of their upset and distress.

I know this was a liberating realization for me, and I hope it also helps you find the sense of ease and flow you may be seeking in your work.

Would You “Betray” Others By Making A Change?

Not surprisingly, when I was thinking of leaving my old job as a lawyer, a number of different fears about the consequences of my decision arose.  I was surprised, however, by one of the fears I experienced—the fear that, by leaving, I would “betray” my colleagues.  I felt as though I would break some commitment I’d made to others at my law firm by departing.

At first glance, I couldn’t understand why this concern was coming up.  I’d never told anyone in my old job I would be there forever—and I suspect that almost nobody does that, regardless of how much they enjoy their career.  It wasn’t as if I was breaking any promise I’d made to my coworkers.  Why, then, did I feel like I’d betray them by leaving?

After pondering this question for a while, I realized my fear was based on the belief that I’d made “implied” promises to the people in my workplace.  I took pride in my work, I was respected by my colleagues, I was often in the office very late, and I did other things that suggested I cared about the firm’s and my own success.  By taking these actions, I thought, I effectively promised my colleagues I’d stay indefinitely.  The feeling that I was about to break this “commitment” seemed to be the source of my anxiety.

Many of us feel trapped or restricted in various areas of our lives by the implied commitments we think we’ve made to others.  Some people believe that, because they’ve been there for their friends in times of need, they’d betray their friends if they ever weren’t around to listen to their friends’ problems.  Some people think that, because they’ve done conventional professional jobs in the past, they’d betray their friends and loved ones by pursuing something more artistic.  Some parents feel that, since they’ve been caring and responsible with their children in the past, they’d betray their kids if they ever made a mistake or did something less than perfectly.  And so on.

The belief that drives these feelings seems to be that, by doing some activity for a long time, you commit yourself to keep doing it in the future—even if you never promised anyone you would.  If you stop doing the activity, the belief goes, you’re breaking your implied commitment and betraying others, and you should feel guilty and ashamed.  If we buy into this belief, we may never achieve the fulfillment available to us in life, because the belief effectively requires us never to change.

I think there are deeper reasons why we tend to harbor this belief, and I grasped what they were when I closely observed the sensations in my body when I contemplated leaving my old career.  When I thought of leaving, chills and tension seized my back and shoulders.  I’d felt this sensation before, when I’ve been driving and have narrowly avoided having an accident.  The feeling arose when I was entering a dangerous situation and my body was preparing to fight or flee.  It was, in short, as if I were risking death by changing my career.

I then recognized that the belief that we must keep doing something we’ve done for a long time stems, at the deepest level, from a fear of death or annihilation.  We strongly identify with the ways others perceive us, and the image we project to them with our actions.  We sometimes identify with that image as closely as we identify with parts of our bodies.  If parts of our bodies are removed, we feel, we’re losing parts of ourselves, and thus drawing closer to destruction.  So too, if we change the image we project to the world, it’s as though we give up a part of ourselves in the process.  This was why the fear of death gripped me when I considered leaving my firm—leaving my old career behind, to me, was like leaving a vital part of my body behind.

The key to ensuring that this fear doesn’t stop us from accomplishing our goals is to recognize that, in an important sense, who we are doesn’t depend on the image we project to others.  Nor does it depend on the activities we do, the careers we enter, or the relationships we have, out in the world.  If you’re wondering how to develop this understanding, consider the fact that, at the moment you were born, you were already yourself.  You hadn’t done anything in the world, or projected any image to other people.  No one had praised, blamed, or come to expect anything from you.  And yet, you were already the same person you are today as an adult.  Nothing you did in the past, or will do in the future, can change that.

But if this is so, it must also be true that no change in your career, relationships, hobbies or anything else can make you less than yourself.  The changes you make to your life in the outside world simply alter the things you do, not the person you are.  Nor will doing something out of line with others’ expectations make you a different person.  You’ve been “yourself” all your life, and you’ll continue to be yourself no matter what people think of you.

If you want to understand this point on a physical, visceral level, simply close your eyes, put your attention on your breathing, and inhale and exhale five times.  Breathing is one of the few things you did while you were in your mother’s womb and immediately after you were born.  And you continue to breathe today, just as you did then.  Seeing these commonalities between what you are now and what you were then may help illustrate that, throughout your life, you’ve been—at the deepest, most essential level—the same person, the same being, and you’ll continue to be that person for all the days to come.

When I had this realization myself, I found my anxiety about “betraying” others by changing careers fading away.  My feeling that I was obligated to others to keep doing what I was doing, I saw, was simply the disguised fear of annihilation I’d associated with changing my life.  If you’re suffering from a similar fear, I invite you to review the observations I made above, and see if they help you achieve the peace you need to go for what you want.