Ted was sexually abused multiple times over about a three year period when he was a kid. His abuser used money and gifts both as a reward and a punishment in order to get what he wanted out of Ted. Slowly over the decades since that dark time, Ted has had to discover the ways in which he has brought pain to the lives of himself and others as a direct result of the damage done to him when he was young.
Coming to terms with his love/hate relationship with money over the years was a huge epiphany. Trust, especially in intimate relationships, was obviously another. Discovering and accepting the fact that his distorted outlook in those areas of life had brought a lot of pain to others, was a big deal.
That discovery is awareness; an important part of the process of overcoming all kinds of junk and obstacles to a better life. The next part of the process for Ted involved his acceptance that he doesn’t get a pass for causing pain in the lives of others just because someone caused him a great deal of pain. And neither do the rest of us.
We continue this series on making it (intellectually) easier to take responsibility by devoting the next few articles to discussing the benefits of habitually accepting responsibility for pain, in all of its forms, which we have caused.
Perhaps one of the least identified benefits of taking responsibility can be culled from research done in the area of human motivation. Countless studies have been commissioned to gain insight into what motivates humans to be driven to move toward a satisfying end result.
Years ago when psychologist Edward Deci was a graduate student of psychology, he conducted an experiment that has been widely written about ever since. He had two groups of college students play with a Soma; a seven piece puzzle that was hugely popular in the late sixties.
One group of students was paid for each puzzle they solved and the other wasn’t. Both groups were given a certain amount of time to configure the puzzle in as many different ways as they could. And both groups were informed, before the allotted time they had been given had actually expired, that they no longer needed to continue.
That is when the real experiment began. The students were observed to see what they would do after they were told that the project was finished. What he saw fascinated Deci, though his hypothesis predicted the divergent behavior the two groups would exhibit: the group that was paid to solve puzzles stopped working on the Soma as soon as the experiment – and the payment – ended. However, the group that wasn’t paid kept solving the puzzles even after the experiment was over.
Why did that group keep going even though the experiment was supposedly over? Researchers say it was because they had found the puzzles intrinsically interesting.
For the “paid group”, being paid was their reason – their purpose – for working on the puzzles. But in the case of the “unpaid group”, the existence of the unfinished puzzles was their reason – a good enough reason – for continuing to work on the puzzles.
Based upon this experiment and others like it, the researchers concluded that what really motivates us has more to do with the intrinsic – things like finding satisfaction and meaning in what we’re doing – than extrinsic things like money and status.
According to author Ken Bain who wrote about the experiment in his book, What the Best College Teachers Do*, the group that had been paid to solve puzzles might have found the puzzles intrinsically interesting as well, but the monetary reward had virtually eliminated their intrinsic interest when the purpose of the project was distinctly described as being extrinsic.
What does this have to do with the benefits I can derive from being someone who gets good at taking personal responsibility? What does solving a puzzle just for the intrinsic satisfaction have to do with owning up to all my past failures?
Simple. I don’t like unfinished business. Neither do you. It gets in our craw. Despite the ways we distract ourselves and lie to ourselves, we do not like knowing we’ve caused pain. We don’t like the guilt and the shame and the sadness represented by frayed ends and things left undone. It is an unnecessary burden to carry forward in life.
When I choose not to accept my role in things gone wrong, I cannot just say to myself, ‘There. It’s done. That’s that. I am free.’ It doesn’t work that way. The human conscience was created in such a way as to not allow passing the buck without creating a cost. The person who does it is not free, notwithstanding the creative, sometimes angry attempts to deny, deflect and distract.
Even the most prideful person secretly longs for life’s loose ends to be resolved. Taking responsibility tends to do that… or at least is part of the path that leads to a satisfying resolution to unfinished business.
Benefit #1 of taking responsibility: it helps bring about a sense of internal peace.
*Source: Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, Harvard University Press, 2004, pages 32-33.