It is one of the best-intentioned and most well-meaning words. It is particularly popular among mature serious adults. But it can be deadly.

I hear it all the time, most often from people known for their kindness and compassion, or from people who are trying to get others to be more kind and compassionate.

The problem is that it is used in at least three different ways. The first way “responsible” is used carries a quite distinct and almost opposite implication from the second and third.

The word “responsibility” can be received as:

1. Duty

In its dark version “be responsible” is a blunt instrument used to bludgeon myself or some unsuspecting victim into conformity to an external authority. It majors in shoulds, oughts and musts.  It has a detailed list of right and wrong and wants to tick off more on the “right” side than the “wrong.” It is a heavy demanding, manipulative word that bears the burden of obligation and judgment.

Responsibility is frequently used in this way by people who are trying to get themselves, or someone else, to do something they do not really feel like doing. “I have to do this; it is my responsibility.” It is a stick to motivate me to be “better,” to fulfill my duty.

Used in this way responsibility always inflicts violence. It is a misuse of power and packs a whack-load of shame and guilt. It is a toxic brew that frequently leads to burn-out, bitterness, resentment, and a pinched judgmental legalism that is destructive of human flourishing.

2. Listening

The second way “responsible” is used is to signify a deep inner prompting that flows from a place of self-awareness, integrity and authenticity. To be responsible is to listen deeply, enabling me to live in response to a genuine apprehension of truth within.

It could perhaps be more accurately expressed as being response-able. When I am responsible, I am able to respond to the inner prompting of truth.

In this second use “responsibility” arises from honesty and authenticity. It leads to sincerity and integrity. It spawns freedom, creativity and spontaneity. It is flexible and adaptable. Being response-able, I have the capacity to respond in the way that is appropriate to the realities of whatever situation is at hand.

3. Accountability

The third use of “responsible” points to a willingness to show up and acknowledge my own accountability for my life as it is. To a considerable degree, I get the life I choose. To be responsible is to acknowledge the impact of my own choices.

It is irresponsible to say, “You make me feel….” It is irresponsible to blame you or some external circumstance for my internal state.

When I take responsibility for my own life, I recognize that, even if my ability to choose is profoundly limited, I always have some power to choose how I respond. To take responsibility for my own life is to refuse to be a victim. I am responsible when I fully inhabit my life as an active agent of my inner state.

The important thing in relation to responsibility is to know which way I am hearing the word.

When I experience responsibility as pressure, demand and judgment, I am operating on the duty side. If it comes as a burden, it is always responsibility as obligation.

Jesus said,

my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:30)

When responsibility comes with a gentle inner prompting, I am hearing the word in its response-able sense.

When I receive the concept of responsibility as a challenge to take ownership for my own inner state, it is liberating, opening and deeply hopeful.