What is the one and only thing you have control over in your life? Your job? Nope. Your friends? Nope. Your kids? Uh, definitely nope.
The only thing you have control over is you. You control your actions and your decisions. You have the ability to “influence” other things and other people. But just as you make your choices, they make theirs. And trying to control anything else is a bad idea anyhow .
Likewise there are things that influence you and your decisions. Some things have greater influences than others. But ultimately you choose which influences you will allow to impact you, and you make the choices that lead to your decisions.
In part 1 I went over the Responsibility Process. It talked about consciously choosing to be responsible, and the mental process that happens as we move through various states from denial to consciously choosing responsibility. Choosing responsibility is only part of accountability however.
Accountability is about owning your life, your decisions and your actions. The only person who controls those is you.
For some people this idea is liberating, while for others it’s terrifying. It’s not always easy to make a decision, because what if you make the wrong choice? When you make a choice, you are responsible for the outcomes or consequences of that choice. That’s fine when things go well, but what about when they don’t? Having to “own” bad choices can be a very scary thing to face.
Because of this it’s easier to try and deflect the decision making on to someone else. Denial, Blame and Justification are all examples of deflecting decision making away from yourself. Another approach is to simply not make a decision. However NOT making a decision IS a decision. It is essentially the same as denial. The following quote sums this up beautifully:
It’s important to understand that no one acts from a position of accountability all the time. All of us have moments that we try to deny, blame, justify, or act due to shame or a sense of obligation.
Periodically that is fine, but some people rarely hold themselves accountable. Instead their default mode of operating is denial, blame, justification, shame and obligation.
It seems obvious that these are negative modes of operation, so would anyone want to operate from these modes? I don’t believe anyone really “wants” to operate from any of these modes. Rather, these modes are primal responses to issues, and it is easy for your mind to accept them as acceptable responses.
Have you ever heard of Learned Helplessness? There’s a lot of valuable literature on it, but in summary Learned Helplessness is when someone has lost the belief that they are able to change their situation. They actually CAN impact their situation, but due to a belief that they can’t, they don’t even try. This creates a self fulfilling prophecy, where the lack of belief leads to an inability to attempt change (or in some cases a half hearted attempt). But this inability to attempt change is the actual driver behind the lack of change.
Learned Helplessness often goes hand in hand with Victim Mentality. This is a learned trait where someone tends to:
- Blame others for a situation that they have either created or contributed to. They don’t take responsibility for their own role in the situation
- Assume the worst, incorrectly attributing negative intentions to other people
- Compare themselves to others, believing that other people are happier than they are
Impacts on Mental Health?
Learned Helplessness and Victims Mentality can have serious consequences. People who exhibit these characteristics generally don’t hold themselves accountable for their actions and decisions. They also tend to have low levels of happiness. More alarming, there is a strong correlation between these and things like clinical depression and mental illness.
Thankfully, because these are learned mindsets they can be corrected. For many psychologists and counselors significant effort is spent trying to correct these negative mindsets and replace them with healthier ones.
Unfortunately studies show that these mindsets and the issues related to them are on the rise. I’ve seen numbers showing anywhere from a tenfold to a thirty-five fold increase in the last two generations.
Here is an interesting quote I found about this (in this case specifically on depression):
There is 10 times more major depression in people born after 1945 than in those born before. This clearly shows that the root cause of most depression is not a chemical imbalance. Human genes do not change that fast.
Let’s re-examine a few of these points:
- There are significant increases in major/clinical depression and other mental illnesses or disorders. The speed of the increases suggests some sort of cultural or social cause
- These conditions show a high correlation to characteristics like Learned Helplessness and Victims Mentality. Both of these are learned behaviors, characterized by low levels of happiness and personal accountability
Looking at this makes me wonder about the relationship between personal accountability and issues such as depression. Is it possible that not learning personal accountability predisposes you to future issues? If so, what are some of the societal changes that have led to this shift?
One possible contributor is that we seem to have become a culture of blame and entitlement. We see this in the legal world, where frivolous lawsuits have become the norm. But we also see it in other aspects of life.
What’s that, little Suzie didn’t do well in school? Well it must be because she has a poor teacher. You aren’t getting the playing time for your sports team? It’s because the coach doesn’t like you. You don’t have a good job? It’s because of the economy. Your relationship fell apart? Well that’s because you and the other person just weren’t compatible.
Where is the sense of ownership? Where is the sense of pride in immersing yourself in something and knowing that your success or failure is largely under your own control?
One possible contributor to this shift is an unreasonable focus on results, or success. There is considerable pressure to “be the best”. One slogan I remember going around (at the Olympics no less) was:
Second place is just the first loser.
I’m all for improving yourself and trying to be the best that you can be, but there is just so much that is wrong with that slogan. It’s always good to have other people to measure yourself against, but what’s more important is how you are improving and growing personally.
One problem with this focus on success and being the best is that is has created a fear of failure. Failure may be disappointing, but it’s a good thing. Failure is the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently. It is our reaction to failure that matters. Failure is how we learn.
Is everything going to go your way in life? You think you’re on the Earth and everything you want to happen to you is going to happen to you positively? The measure of who we are is how we react to something that doesn’t go our way. – Greg Popovich
One additional item that I believe contributes to a lack of accountability is us, and how we parent. The world has changed. Kids no longer get out and play the way they once did. I think back on some of the things I did as a child, and based on today’s approach it’s amazing I’m still alive (and I’m not THAT old). I played, I fell, and I got hurt. A lot. But my cuts and bruises healed, and I got up to play another day.
With two working parents, busy schedules and a perception of a more dangerous world, you don’t see kids out in parks and playgrounds the way they once were. Today many kids are largely in scheduled events. When they are there at the playground at all usually parents are a few feet away, watching to ensure that no one kidnaps them and that their every bump and bruise is attended to. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. Why do we do this? We do it out of love, and concern for our children.
But in the process we are crippling them. We are removing choice, and removing the ability to fail. They need to fail, they need to learn. With the best of intentions we are stunting their growth.
As hard as it is to do, sometimes if you love someone the best thing to do is sit back and let them make their own mistakes. Let them fail. Pick your moments though (something like learning to swim is perhaps not the best time).
Ask yourself this, when we try to do everything for your children what are we really teaching them?
One of the most influential people in my life was my Grandmother. One thing that sticks with me from her was a story she would tell. She admired her father greatly, and would often seek his opinion on things. When she asked him about something he would respond “I know what I think, but what do you think?” This has always resonated with me. If someone asks your opinion and you give advice on what you would do, you are taking ownership of their issue. Maybe a better approach is to coach them, and help guide them to find their own solutions.
Catch yourself when you are in denial, blaming, justifying or acting out of shame or obligation. Take ownership of your own life. Accept that no matter what your situation and influences are, the only person who can control you is you. The right choice is not always the easy choice. But as a buddy of mine always says:
It’s never too late to make the right decision