I have discovered group members often struggle with taking ownership of their problems and issues, a necessary first step if we want to experience growth. Maybe you have a group member who always seems to blame his wife for their marital problems. From your interactions with him, you get the feeling he is partly responsible for their difficulties, but it’s tough for him to take any ownership of what is happening in their marriage.
Or maybe you have a group member who always seems to blame outside circumstances for the difficulties she is having in her life. Her boss is always giving her a hard time. She has health problems outside of her control. She had a rough upbringing. You sense that if she could take more ownership of her struggles, she might realize she has the power to make positive changes in her life. But she doesn’t seem to be able to do it.
Struggling to take ownership of our problems is a common human struggle rooted in the Fall. When Adam and Eve were confronted with their sin in the Garden of Eden, Adam blamed Eve (Gen. 3:12), and Eve blamed the serpent (Gen. 3:13). We have repeated this pattern throughout history. When faced with our issues and problems, it’s tough to take ownership and responsibility. Our natural reaction is to hide and blame others.
Struggling to take ownership of our problems is also supported by research. We have a natural tendency to self-enhance, which means we tend to have an overly positive view of ourselves (1). For example, the majority of individuals rate themselves as above-average on a wide array of positive personality traits and skills—a statistical impossibility (2).
Specifically related to the issue of owning one’s problems, hundreds of research studies have found that human beings tend to engage in something called the self-serving attribution bias (3). Attribution refers to explanations we make for why things occur. In general, people tend to attribute positive events to ourselves and negative events to other causes. For positive events, we tend to make attributions that are internal, stable, and global. In other words, we often link positive outcomes to some quality inside of us that is unlikely to change, and that will likely influence various aspects of our lives in an equally positive manner. For negative events, on the other hand, we tend to make attributions that are external, unstable, and specific—outside factors, likely to change, and only influencing one particular area of our lives.
The Problem with Not Taking Ownership
The problem with group members not taking ownership of their problems is that it leaves them with little power to make positive changes in their lives. People who have an internal locus of control—that is, they believe they have power to change their lives—tend to handle life’s challenges better than people who have an external locus of control, believing external forces are to blame for their problems (4). In group, I often say, “You can’t change what you can’t own.” If group members are not taking ownership of their issues, they will likely struggle to experience any meaningful healing and growth.
Helping Group Members Take Ownership
Here are nine strategies group leaders can use to assist group members in taking ownership of their own problems and struggles.
1. Set the foundation of grace and safety first.
Some group leaders make the mistake of offering group members the “truth” about their problem or situation without first developing a strong foundation of grace and safety. When this happens, the truth may be an accurate assessment, but it is unlikely to be received by group members. Instead, at the inception of your group, focus on developing a culture of grace, where group members experience the feeling they are accepted no matter what. Definitive boundaries—confidentiality, no judgments or criticism, the expectation of consistent attendance—will help group members feel safe. Once you have developed a strong foundation of grace and safety in your group, group members will begin to share vulnerably and are more likely to take ownership of their struggles.