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Owning It

January 16, 2013

You see a lot of talk on poly sites and forums “owning your shit.” In other words, taking responsibility for your feelings, your actions, and any emotional baggage you’re carrying around, and recognizing that no one else is responsible for your happiness or for making sure your needs are met.

This is good advice, as far as it goes. But it has a flip side. I see this same instruction sometimes turned around to justify serious lapses in consideration or compassion: if you’re responsible for your own feelings, and no one can “make” you feel something, then I can do whatever I want and am not responsible for the effect it has on other people.

There is also the danger of turning “own your own shit” into “own everyone else’s shit, too”: accepting responsibility that isn’t yours in order to keep the peace. Women are particularly susceptible to this, I believe, be we’re often socialized to believe that if there’s conflict, it must somehow be our fault. It can be very tempting to say, “I’m sorry, this was all my fault,” just to patch things up and move on, instead of staying in that uncomfortable place of conflict—especially when someone else doesn’t want to take responsibility. On the other hand, if your conflict partner happens to be someone with the same habits and socialization, it’s easy to allow them to shoulder the responsibility in order to avoid having to face it yourself.

There’s a fine line between “wow, I was really triggered by that, but also you weren’t behaving very well (broke an agreement, were dishonest, threw a temper tantrum, etc.), so let’s both own our own shit: I’ll figure out how I can be less reactive, while you figure out how you can behave better in the future,” and “wow, I was really triggered by that, and since I was triggered, obviously I was responding irrationally and things must not really be that bad, I’ll take responsibility for feeling bad and you don’t have to change anything.”

I think in my life I’ve fallen down on both sides of this issue. I have been the one trying to take on responsibility for everyone in a situation, whether to get out of the discomfort of conflict or to ease the pain of someone I care about, or simply out of internalized guilt and shame associated with not adhering to social norms. I’ve also, regrettably, allowed other people (usually women) to do the same: own my share of responsibility for conflict, thus freeing me from the pain of owning it myself.

The trouble is, it can be really hard sometimes to know what’s mine and what’s yours. And to resist the desire to be a peacemaker, even if it means sacrificing your own needs.

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