Taking responsibility for irresponsibility

November 28, 1993|By Cosmopolitan

Missing deadlines, being habitually late and breaking appointments can ruin friendships, destroy marriages and cost irresponsible people their jobs.

Spotting these people is not always easy at the start of a personal or professional relationship, says New York psychoanalyst Dr. Jay Lefer.

"They don't march right up to you and say, 'You can't count on me.' Often they'll act as if they intend to come through for you and then, somehow, it just doesn't happen." Some irresponsible people are charming -- often daddy's girls raised to believe ditziness is feminine and adorable. Others use irresponsibility as a weapon, a way to express anger without being held accountable.

"In this mind-set, every request is taken as a command," Dr. Lefer says. "They assert their individuality by saying no, by not doing what's expected of them."

Linda Barbanel, a New York psychotherapist, says expecting someone to alter a long-held pattern of hostile irresponsibility is a mistake.

"These are classic cases of people who don't get grief, they give it," she says. "You really have to examine whether such a friend has anything positive to offer that can outweigh all the aggravation. Sometimes you're better off cutting your losses.

"If she's someone you have to put up with -- a boss or your mother -- you should recognize what she's doing and take steps jTC to protect yourself."

Some irresponsible people don't recognize their own behavior, she says, adding:

"The essence of being responsible is that you understand the connection between your actions and desires. Irresponsible people, by definition, are masters of evasion.

"Adding up the cost of your own behavior is the first step toward change."

Here are some warning signs that flakiness may be ruining your life -- check more than two and you may have a serious problem:

* Do people often complain about your lateness? This is crucial, since irresponsible people deny they are ever really late.

* Do you miss a lot of deadlines? Do you lie about why the deadline was missed?

* Do you allow your personal life to interfere with work obligations, then expect co-workers and superiors to understand?

* Do you assume people won't complain when you break dates because of work?

* Do you forget to return phone calls, answer letters, acknowledge invitations?

* Do you fail to pay back money you've borrowed?

* Do live-in lovers or roommates complain that you're not keeping up with your share of the housekeeping?

* Do you expend a lot of mental energy concocting excuses so people won't be angry when you disappoint them?

* When you renege on a commitment, do you rationalize by saying you're very busy?

To begin your transformation from ditzy to dutiful, Ms. Barbanel advises starting with whatever area of your life seems to be in greatest disarray -- messy finances, sloppy work habits, friends who are sick of being stood up. She says cleaning up your reputation takes time, adding:

"But there's a personal payoff right away -- it feels good not to be slinking around making excuses. Responsibility isn't some dull virtue. It separates winners from losers, happy people from unhappy."

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