Chaplain's Corner + Overcoming the Avoidance of Responsibilities
Basically, people prefer not to face discomfort. The consequence of their feeling anxious about possible impending discomfort is that they avoid "life's difficulties and self responsibilities." (Ellis, 1962)1. The comfortable route is to do what is easy, natural or intrinsically enjoyable. Avoiding responsibilities, and their ensuing untoward consequences, can be exacerbated by the imagery we create of scenarios, that is to say, the imagined sequence of possible efforts in actually doing these tasks. Often we create an image of how awful we would feel doing the most difficult part of the task. A cognitive therapeutic alternative is to transform the image into an affirmative one. Imagine yourself performing the simplest part of the task and then re-evaluating how uncomfortable it would be to do that. Then imagine yourself starting at that simple point.
Adherence to a spiritual tradition may help us to avoid overcoming avoidance of responsibilities, by motivating us to act responsibly. A contemporary commentary on Buddhism states "Buddhism is in essence a practice, a method of mental training by which we cultivate morality, concentration and wisdom. It is meant to be lived, not just discussed or believed in." It then goes on to say: "The idea of personal responsibility is central to the Buddhist teachings. The course of an individual's life, including the degree of happiness and peace he experiences, is ultimately determined by his own present and past actions..."2 In the Judaic tradition we read from the prophet Jeremiah (31:29-30): "In those days they shall say no more: The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the teeth of the children are set on edge. But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that shall eat the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge." The common meaning of this passage is that we are to be responsible for our own deeds and not be accountable for the deeds of others.
Using cognition (thinking) in acting responsibly was not lost on a contemporary spiritual father of the Eastern Church, St. Paisios of the Holy Mountain (1924-1993). He noted: "The excuse of irresponsibility applies only to those who do not think." (p. 74)3. The spiritual elder counseled breaking tasks down into doable parts. Although originally given as advice to parents, his guidance can be applied to all. He said that "parents must also help their children from a young age to assume responsibility for themselves. They should be given opportunities in the family to do small chores suitable for their age ..." (p. 121)4 In treating patients with procrastination-avoiding responsibility issues, I frequently would advise that they start with the first and simplest part of the task, which frequently would be to get an item or tool necessary to begin a chore. For example, to set out a pencil and pad to start a school assignment, or to set out a hammer and nail to hang a picture. After perceiving that the level of discomfort felt was minimal, it is now easier for the patient to move on to the next step and repeat the process. Also acquired is a sense of self-mastery or what Bandura (1997)5 terms self-efficacy. That is to say, acquire an attitude. or belief in competence that can motivate confidence and completion of tasks. Our life's journey toward emotional, psychological and spiritual accomplishment is thus enhanced.
1 Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Secaucus NJ: Lyle Stuart.
3 Elder Paisios of Mount Athos (2008). Spiritual counsels (V. II Spiritual Awakening), Thessaloniki, Greece: Holy Monastery Evangelist John the Theologian.
4 Elder Paisios of Mount Athos (2012). Spiritual counsels (V. IV Family Life), Thessaloniki, Greece: Holy Monastery Evangelist John the Theologian.
5 Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: the exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.