Responsibility Reframed

Responsibility in life is central. I once heard a musician (Richie Havens) talk at his concert about responsibility being the “ability to respond.” There is some important truth to this simple understanding of the word. Importantly, people have different natural abilities, and hence different abilities to respond, and hence different kinds of responsibilities. In other words responsibility for one person might be quite different from another person. I find the different kinds of “response-abilities” to relate to different kinds of personality structures. Furthermore, responsibility is related to both opportunity and obligation.

An important distinction of personality traits is drawn from Carl Jung’s understanding of what he called “psychological types.” This understanding of differences in personality has been popularized over the past 40 or so years and has morphed into “personality types”. Among the differences in personality/psychological types is what Jung called “intuitive vs. sensing” types. This refers to how people actually see the world, not so much how they evaluate the world. Readers who are familiar with this psychological genre will know the popularized version of personality typing that uses various letters to identify people’s personalities. I wish to concentrate on two of the so-called intuitive/sensing dimension of perception and another dimension, but I will use my preferred nomenclature to do so. And then I want to propose a way of looking at responsibility from this lens.

The first dimension, namely of perception, I prefer to an “objective vs subjective” way of looking at the world. Objective people tend to see things as they are, and hence Jung’s use of the term “sensing,” by which he meant that such individuals used their five senses to see the world. The other side of this objective vs subjective way of looking at the world is very hard to actually put into words. I disagree with how Jung came to use the term “intuitive” although that term has some value. Rather, I suggest that so-called sensing people are “objective” in that they see what is real, physical, obvious, and concrete. So-called intuitive people, those I call “subjective” have a more self-oriented and to some degree self-generated perception of the world. Sometimes I think these “subjective” people have a kind of reflective mirror inside of themselves and look at the mirror rather than at the things their five senses perceive. See how complicated and obtuse this is? Bear with me here.

The second dimension that I think is important to note is not exactly Jungian in form but Jungian in origin. This is variously called a style or a preference for going about life, but I think of it as a boundary dimension. Specifically, people are “high boundary” or “low boundary” in orientation. Boundaries have to do with limits and rules. High boundary people value boundaries because they provide security and a certain sense of stability as well as a frame of reference. High boundary people plan for the future and execute these plans. Low boundary people are quite different. They see boundaries as all artificial. They also value freedom and spontaneity. They tend to feel unduly limited and constrained by too many boundaries. Importantly, the world is largely run by high boundary people; these would be people in charge of banks and other businesses, most teachers and certainly principles, and many supervisors and bosses. Low boundary people either put up with doing what they have to do with their high boundary teachers and bosses or do their own thing.

Now there are various combinations of these two dimensions as well as a myriad of combinations of the other Jungian dimensions, to say nothing of other ways of looking at people, for instance with what is called temperament analysis. But I want to focus on two combinations, namely:
— Objective and high boundary people and…
—  Subjective and low boundary people
 …whom I believe have very different “response-abilities”

Objective high boundary people are doers:
o They like to do things
o They produce things
o They rarely get bored
o They are often busy

Subjective low boundary people are dreamers:
o They like to dream about how things could be done
o They create ideas, and sometimes things
o They often get bored
o They are often lost in their dreams

Now in our society “doers” seem to be the way we all should be, and the term “dreamer” has the connotation of someone who doesn’t do anything. Our society is run primarily by doers. Dreamers, on the other hand are the people who, as the name would suggest, come up with things to do, new ways of doing things, and creating. Other societies, like much of Europe, value creating and dreaming more than doing and producing. So in America, and to some degree Canada, doing is seen as much more “responsible” than dreaming. If we think about it, however, it is the dreamers of the world who have come up with the really important ideas…although it was often the doers who produced these ideas. Simply stated, it is easier to be a doer in America than a dreamer. I speak as a doer, and in many ways I fit in quite well with this doing way of life.

In later life both doers and dreamers tend to become unhappy. This unhappiness has to do with what Carl Jung called the “shadow” of one’s personality, although I am stretching this term shadow beyond Jung’s original conception. We might think of it as the parts of our personality that are not developed. For dreamers, doing is not well developed, while for doers dreaming is not developed.

Now let’s get back to the idea of responsibility and I will put a period of this blog. I will put it succinctly:
— To be responsible dreamers need to do something, to produce something
—  To be responsible doers need to dream something, to create something
 …and these are very different kinds of responsibility.

I see mostly dreamers in my practice, which makes sense because the doers of the world are busy working and otherwise doing. They always want the 5 o’clock or 6 o’clock appointments because they are busy all the rest of the day, and often into the night. Dreamers seem to be able to come to my office at any time of the day because, well, they are not busy. At least they are not busy doing; they may be busy dreaming. I have been seeing a young (26 year old) man for some time who is certainly a dreamer. He is, as noted above subjective in how he evaluates the world and he is certainly low boundary. Unfortunately for John (let’s call him John) he spent the first 20 odd years of his life doing, like doing what was expected of him, and he made a pretty good life. But then about 9/10s through college he discovered that he didn’t care about doing anymore and fell into dreaming. Had he been truer to his dreamer nature, life now would have been easier for him, but it is certainly not easy. He sees all these things that he should do, like get a job, finish his college, find friends, and do something other than play video games 50 hours a week. But he can’t seem to bring himself to do any of these things although he is plagued by what he calls guilt (it is really shame) for not doing…much. I am attempting to help him become responsible.

Responsibility for John would be to do something. He doesn’t know it, or believe it, but doing anything would be better than dreaming and playing video games, but nothing that he could do seems interesting, much less creative. So John is caught in his dreaming life, and I expect it will be some time until he finds a way to become responsible. By the way, being responsible is being responsible to oneself, not to anyone else. He needs to find a way to be responsible to his life ahead. But right now it is way too difficult.

Doers, by the way, also need to become responsible, but for them it is a daunting task because most of them become increasingly fatigued in life for all the doing they have done, and often burdened by concrete responsibilities like going to work, caring for the house, the dog, and the family. So doers’ idea of responsibility is to do more, but as they age, they lose interest in doing because they have done it all before. It is a daunting task for a doer to find and accept the responsibility of dreaming and creating. Few manage the transition. It certainly has been hard for me.

There are many other ways of looking at what responsibility would mean depending on one’s personality. Extraverts need to become responsible in talking less and listening more, while introverted need to speak more. Women need to ask fewer questions of men, and men need to be more forthcoming with their feelings. Freedom-loving parents need to be more limiting with their children, while limit-setting parents need to loosen up.

In encouraged you to find your own responsibility because, however it is composed, responsibility to yourself will lead to being responsible in the world. It is our opportunity to improve the world, and it is our obligation.