When I’m teaching anything–when I was a college professor, when teaching an e-course, when public speaking, when leading a workshop or retreat, there are usually two basic archetypes of people within any group:
There are the people who wholeheartedly believe that I can help them. It’s common to hear them express that I’ve “made” their experience positive. If I make mistakes, they continue to validate me as good. For instance, English students in this category would share that they hated essay writing before my class and that I changed this for them, or perhaps e-program participantswill share that I, or my content, changed their lives when nothing else worked.
There are also the people who are hopeful about the experience but who quickly feel disappointed for a whole myriad of reasons, some known and others not. It’s common to hear this group express that I’m responsible for their negative experience, and to jump on any mistake I make as proof of my incompetence. English students in this category would tell me that they “used to like” writing but that I’ve ruined it for them, or that they didn’t learn anything. E-course participants will say that they would have enjoyed the course, but since a certain aspect of the course wasn’t to their liking, they just quit.
But here’s the thing: we are not 100% responsible for the experiences of others.
The Predictable Trap
In my earliest days as a college professor, I fell into the predictable trap of trying to take responsibility for the experiences of others.
When students told me that I was doing a great job, I took this as validation. If they said I was good, I was. Comparatively, when people told me that I was doing a terrible job, my self-esteem plummeted. They said I was bad; thus, I was bad.
I learned my lesson when, as semesters progressed, students who had loved my class came to me later, unsuccessful in someone else’s class.
“She didn’t teach like you, I need your teaching style,” they might say. Uh-oh.
I realized right then what was happening. It was absolutely essential that I stopped taking all of the egotistical credit for someone else’s experience in my class, because unless I did stop, students would take away the idea that I personally had been responsible for their success–not their own hard work, drive, and determination, not to mention their willingness to cooperate with me.
The reality is that I cannot (and thus won’t choose to) be responsible for another person’s experience. All I can do is show up with my heart as open as possible, and do my best, and hope that I will be seen for my intentions as well as accepted for my humanity.
Sure, all of us have an effect on one another. I’m not discounting the effect. My particular teaching style helps people–I’ve had enough positive feedback to recognize the power of what I deliver.
However, I’m not doing anyone any favors if they give me all of their power–“YOU were the reason I was able to do it!”
Nor is it serving anyone to write me or my content off when there are opportunities to find shared ground (“I could have succeeded, if it weren’t for you!”).
Certainly, I had students who let me know in no uncertain terms that they disliked me, and my heart ached in all the places where I wanted to reach them, to connect, while I simultaneously needed to let go and allow them to have the experience they were choosing to have. Making me into the problem, standing in their way? Their choice. Not communicating with me, doing one’s own part to try to make an experience better? Their choice.
The people who loved the experience also made a choice–to step into a perspective I was offering, see if it was a match, and get what they could out of it.
We Do Our Best
Like anyone else, I offer the best I can, but ultimately it’s your choice–your experience. Putting either favor or blame entirely on someone else’s shoulders is nothing more than drama–and distraction from creating something positive.
I am responsible for myself. My integrity.
For me, that means that when someone does tell me that I am “the problem,” I make a choice to listen, to hear their feedback. I make a choice to make an amends or apology where necessary.
When people want you to be responsible for them, you have a choice to do whatever is a match for both your personal integrity and their satisfaction, to make the situation better. And–also–to be responsible for your own experience, by not making someone else “the problem” because they found you to be a problem! (See how this works?).
We’re responsible for ourselves, for our intentions and our attention, and for cleaning up the places where a hasty, unconscious response means creating disconnection.
What would it be like to walk fully in the shoes of responsibility for your life, your choices? If it were not someone or something else’s fault that some experience, or something in your life looks the way it looks, what would your life be?
These are the interesting questions when we start owning our own lives–our choices, what we put out into the world, where we show up. This is it–your life–and whether or not it’s a “good” one will remain, always, wholeheartedly up to you.