To say that we are each personally responsible for our lives and how we lead them is an attractive notion which makes sense and can enable people to take charge of their lives and make changes that make a difference. The term personal responsibility was and is a useful term in personal and professional development since it encourages a sense of ownership. It is a way out of dysfunctionality. Yet today the word has crept into the worlds of politics and business, which for some is a puzzle when they experience their leaders as very far from being personally responsible. Some such leaders are often described as narcissistic, self-obsessed and failing to lead for the common good. One might experience the narcissist in one’s personal life, as for example inauthentic and false, maybe a pathological liar and potentially dominating one’s world in a harmful way. It might be useful therefore to ask what is the link between these two traits, responsibility and narcissism?

To fight the pandemic, we are now being enjoined to “take responsibility”. It is said, for example, that it is down to everyone to be aware and act responsibly as restrictions are lifted. The use of the term “personal responsibility” in social policy is not new, one example being that people need to take responsibility to manage their affairs to avoid falling into or being stuck in unemployment or poverty. Yet originally the term was used in quite a different situation, that of personal growth.

Personal responsibility as a tool of “third force” psychology

The “third force” psychology, that emerged in the 1960’s as a challenge to psychoanalytic and behavioural theory, such as humanistic, existential and transpersonal psychology, used as a key tool the idea that we are each responsible for our lives and needed to consciously use this responsibility to become aware of what was going on in our lives and choose to make changes. It has had a profound impact and is widely used today, particularly in the English-speaking world.

As pandemic restrictions are being lifted today however, the emphasis on personal responsibility as a tool of public policy to fight the pandemic is an interesting one. To Johnson’s libertarian tendency, and responding to pressure from his own right wing, it is a matter of saying that each person is responsible for their behaviour in how they manage their conduct. The difficulty with this approach, now widely used amongst certain politicians and leaders, is that it ignores the behaviour of others who might be less enlightened and more selfish, and the mediating role of government.

It ignores the idea that in a society, the existence of which was denied by Mrs Thatcher, an earlier Prime Minister in the 1980s much admired on the Right, there is also another person at almost every step, the “you”, and there is also the group or a “we”. The approach denies the possibility that we are all connected at some level, much though many seek to deny it. People are impacted by others and impact others. This can be observed on a daily basis in how people interact, such as the infectious power of laughter.

To hand over responsibility for managing the pandemic, an ideological decision, leaving it as “everyone for him/herself”, may work, and it may cause a lot of suffering amongst those least able to help themselves. Experts in behavioural psychology for example have been questioning this approach, arguing that people also have a responsibility to others as well as ourselves. This is natural. There is a function in humans, for example, of care and compassion. Thus we often feel motivated to help others, or come to their assistance when they are in difficulty. Fritz Perls, the founder of the humanistic-existential therapy Gestalt, spoke of “response-ability” to emphasise the term. It’s like we respond to our inner candle flame and the prompts within that urge us to rise above the “sweaty little ego” and reach for our altruistic self. We are therefore both responsible to ourselves as in individual responsibility but there is also social responsibility. “No man”, wrote John Donne in the 17th Century, “is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”.

Unless of course you are a self-obsessed narcissist

Narcissism and boomeritis

Many observers suggest that in social terms narcissism is widespread, the “me, me, me”, self-absorption. But what is a narcissist?

In psychology it is often described as an excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance. Words to describe a narcissist include self-centred, selfishness, self-importance, having a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy or compassion, a need for admiration, vanity, conceit, egotism. Psychologists can use the term as a disorder, where in personal growth terms the self has been unable to develop beyond being psychologically like a small child and acquire an awareness of others and care and concern for them.

Such characteristics have become quite widespread in the era since the 1960s, and some suggest it is to be particularly found in the “boomer” generation that emerged in the protest movement of that era. A US philosopher Ken Wilber uses the term “boomeritis” to describe the powerful individualism of these people, the “I do my thing, you do yours”, or “nobody tells me what to do”. Such people have a strong rebellious and reformist tendency, the “fight the system” outlook, them against the world, a resistance to rules and roles. Wilber says that there is a powerful streak of narcissism here, often concealed from awareness and, while often espousing high ideals of one form or another, really belongs in development terms to an earlier stage of growth which supports an egocentric stance and denies anything universal or the responsibilities inherent in personal growth. Such people can retain an intense subjectivism which for them is a stuck phase, almost impossible to let go of.

What’s the link with personal responsibility?

So what is the link between narcissism and personal responsibility? Essentially it is something being urged on another, the “it is your problem”, but not taken for oneself since one does not accept rules and boundaries for oneself. Real personal responsibility is where someone takes ownership of an issue and basically says, “yes this is my stuff and I accept that I need to deal with it and will do so or am doing so”. A dysfunctional use of the term is where someone urges another to “take responsibility” as a deflection from ownership of an issue themselves. Contained in this is an inauthenticity. In relationship issues, one partner will blame the other, “it’s your problem”, and fail or refuse to accept that the issue is co-created. Indeed they may deflect the issue or project it on to the other. In organisations, it’s where someone is blamed where in fact it is a group matter. It can mean an abdication of responsibility.

The narcissist is an excessive inflation of the self where there is a refusal to take real ownership. To accept that they have an issue would threaten the false self that they exert great energy to try to preserve. That is why when the narcissist finally has a reckoning, if they ever do, it can be a huge crisis and they may feel everything is falling apart. Thus instead one may observe chaos around them.

Today’s world is in part an outgrowth of this tendency and arguably one should see that the attribution of personal responsibility can at times be a false attribution that does not serve people.