The Difference Between Fault and Responsibility

I’ve been reading, as some of you who follow on Instagram may know, the very popular book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and the other day I got through a section where the author, Mark Manson, spent some time talking about fault and responsibility.

My mind has been ruminating on this topic since then because as I read what Mark had to say, I realized that many child abuse survivors seem to get stuck on these words. We were children when the abuse happened, we were neither at fault for it, nor were we responsible for the situations that may have made it more likely. In fact, you could easily say that as children these two words might as well have been the same thing.

But as adults I think we need to make a very serious effort to define the two. Because as survivors, we are not at fault for the abuse, but we do have some responsibilities in relation to it. Let me challenge you using one of Mark’s examples from the book. He talks about being the victim of a robbery. Getting robbed was not your fault. Fault always lies with the person acting badly, in this case the actual robber. But, we are responsible for the choices we make in response. Do we report it to the police? Do we get a gun to protect ourselves in the future? Do we take self defense classes? Do we alter our plans to avoid that neighborhood, etc.? Those are all choices, and each of those choices bring about a differing set of responsibilities. Those are ours, even if they are being made in response to an event that wasn’t our fault.

With childhood abuse, it can be easy to blur the lines though, and even as I read the section, this thought kept bothering me. “The abuser is at fault, but I was responsible for telling someone and I didn’t.”

This is, to me, one the hardest things I had to struggle with in my healing. I could find no simple answer to this.

  • Yes, I was abused, and my response was to keep silent and thus the abuse continued.
  • I was also a scared little boy, who didn’t really have anyone I could trust to tell.

Now, try to reconcile those two thoughts in your head and come away feeling like things maybe weren’t a little bit my fault.

It’s hard. In the end, I had to constantly remind myself that both of those things were true. It wasn’t my fault that I was abused. It also wasn’t my fault that I didn’t grow up in an environment where I had anyone to turn to. I also had to remind myself that even if I am responsible for the choices I made as a little boy in some way, there’s a reason we don’t allow 9 year old kids to make legal decisions and take on legal responsibilities. They’re not ready for it.

I couldn’t be expected to be ready to make those choices, so it’s OK to forgive myself for them. I was too young to really be held responsible for the choices I made in the immediate aftermath of my abuse. It’s also in the past. I can’t do anything about that now, no matter how much, or little, responsibility I may have had then.

Now, however, I’m not a child any more. I am responsible for my choices. That’s not to say that every survivor should follow my actions. Another big thing Mark talks about in this book is that we all make choices, and those choices create different problems, and those are our problems to deal with. That’s life.

So, as an adult, I am responsible for how I respond to the abuse that happened to me. I can choose to ignore it. I can choose to try and heal. I can choose to tell my story, I can choose to keep it a secret. No matter what I choose, it will create challenges. Some better than others. For me, I can’t imagine not telling my story, even though it might make some people close to me uncomfortable. I have to live with that. I’m responsible for it. If you choose to bottle it up and ignore it, you’ll have to deal with whatever consequences that brings your own mental well-being. Neither choice is necessarily wrong, by the way. They just bring different problems along for the ride when you make them. Every survivor gets to choose which problems they want to deal with.

The important thing is recognizing that we have some responsibility for taking our own paths, but we are not at fault for the abuse. The fault will always, always, lie with our abuser.

We’ll have enough fault of our own in our lifetimes, no need to drag that along with us too.

Now, you may want to, at this point, question me on how something that wasn’t our fault could create so much responsibility in us. It hardly seems fair that we have to be held responsible for healing. Isn’t that just blaming the victim when they struggle with healing?

Nope, not at all. I’m not blaming anyone for being abused. The same way I wouldn’t blame someone for being born poor, or blind, or contracting cancer. Those were all things that were simply dealt to us, through no fault of our own.

On the other hand, everyone who gets handed those kinds of difficulties, has a responsibility to figure out how to live with them. No, that isn’t fair. It is, however, life.


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