Accountability vs. Self Blame- Letting Go of The Past to Succeed in The Present

Accountability, they say, is a pillar of being a successful and healthy person. It’s the mature, respectable, and productive course of action when we make a mistake. We’ve all had missteps in life, be they game changing miscalculations or a minor faux pas at a social gathering. In my 21 years on this planet, I’ve taken my fair share of missteps. In retrospect, they were only minor mistakes. However, those minor mistakes have a knack for appearing far more consequential when the sun sets and your mind has time to ponder them. The mistakes I have made (as well as how they could have been avoided) would pester me at night. Hindsight relishes the opportunity to snobbishly correct your missteps at 3 A.M. I would cringe with residual embarrassment in my sheets at night, replaying the moment I made a joke that failed to land or the time I addressed someone by the wrong name in an email (which happened last week, by the way). It wasn’t pleasant, but through this I was holding myself accountable. Right?

No. I had allowed myself to fall into a pit of self blame, not accountability. The two are incredibly different and we have to be careful not to confuse them. In recent years, I’ve changed my outlook on accountability and in hindsight realize that beating myself senselessly with my mistakes wasn’t mature, respectable, or productive. In order to change my outlook I had to employ a few shifts. In this post, I want to discuss the difference between accountability and self blame, working within our sphere of influence, and a tangible process that has helped me trade self blame for accountability. I’m not a professional on these topics, just a guy with a keyboard writing from his own experience. Hopefully my experiences can be of help to y’all.

Accountability vs. Self Blame

In order to choose accountability over self blame, we have to define them both. Accountability is recognizing a mistake, taking responsibility, and then taking steps to ensure we don’t repeat that mistake in the future. Accountability is not void of negative emotion. After making an error, embarrassment and other negative feelings will make a home, that’s perfectly healthy. If we didn’t have those emotions, we’d continue to make mistakes all the time- entirely oblivious to our missteps until, suddenly, we’re at the bottom of an insurmountably deep hole. Touch a hot stove once, you’ll never do it again (and thank God for that). We need those emotions to let us know when we’ve screwed up. Accountability is the act of turning those emotions into a change, a positive step forward in our development as people and then leaving those emotions in the past. The problem arises when we hold onto these emotions.

Enter self blame. Self blame is accountability’s ugly twin. They share a common origin- some mistake we’ve perpetrated in the past, but they differ from that point on. Self blame grabs those negative emotions, the ones intended to be indicators that we need to change our behavior, and fixates on them. The result? Sleepless nights, low self esteem, and a rut that keeps us from moving forward. It is important to recognize that it is impossible to learn from our mistakes if we succumb to self blame. In fact, fixating on the mistakes we’ve made in the past only imbues us with anxiety about the future, which increases the likelihood that we’ll screw up again. The first step in moving toward accountability and away from self blame involves recognizing our sphere of influence.

The Sphere of Influence

Every individual has a mystical place known as their sphere of influence. Within this sphere, everything is under their direct control. They control what clothes they put on that day. They control the layout of their bedroom. They control what they have for breakfast. There is one drawback to our spheres of influence, they don’t extend very far. It’s human nature to try and impose some sort of control over the world around us but, realistically, that’s an impossible task. We have control over where we go, but not who we run into. We have control over what we wear, but not the weather. We have control of ourselves, but not the outside world. In truth, we don’t even have entire control of ourselves. We have partial control of ourselves in the present. I say ‘partial’ control of the present because the present is influenced by both the past and the future. Our decisions are informed by past experience and by future predictions. That isn’t a bad thing in the slightest. We can learn from past mistakes, allowing us to conduct our present selves in a different manner. Our vision of the future helps inform our daily choices. This taps into one of the most valuable objects in our sphere of influence, our reaction in the present. We can’t mitigate the chaos of the world around us but we can roll with the punches, learn from our mistakes, and react in an informed, positive manner. In this way, the past and future have very tangible influences on the present, but they still reside outside of our sphere of influence. That doesn’t stop people from trying to control them, though.

Attempting to impose our will upon the past or the future is a failed endeavor from the start. Additionally, it’s a costly one. When we try stepping outside of the present and into the past, it’s easy to spiral down a rabbit hole of regret. Self blame lives in that hole and it’ll eat you alive. Since we cannot change the past, we are stuck staring at it and feeling upset, that takes energy away from the present. The same can happen when we anchor ourselves in the future, only it manifests as anxiety. Instead, we should focus our energy on controlling what is within our sphere of influence. That doesn’t mean forgetting about the past, because that isn’t productive either. Let the past inform the now. Break down what happened, understand it so that you don’t repeat it, and then look to the present. That is productive accountability.

It Isn’t Easy

It isn’t easy. Nothing worth doing is. Dropping self blame in order to free yourself in the present can feel something akin to performing heart surgery with a toothpick and a stick of bubblegum. Emotions are weird and it takes practice to identify and navigate through them, but they aren’t entirely outside our sphere of influence. When I find myself up at night, dwelling on an embarrassing moment of the day prior, I do this:

  1. What was the mistake? (Detail it out, it can be good to journal these things).
  2. How does that make me feel? (This one is difficult and you might catch yourself flinching. That’s okay, it’s necessary).
  3. Why did you make the mistake? (The first step involved in moving forward is detailing what lead to the problem in the first place).
  4. Write down ways to avoid making that same mistake. (This one can vary in length. If it was a simple social faux pas, you may only have to write ‘read the room’ or ‘don’t do that again’. If it’s a more complex misstep then this section may have a little more meat to it. Sometimes this step involves direct action as well, for example, an apology to a friend you fought with, etc.).
  5. Forgive yourself, but don’t forget. (This step says what it means and means what is says).

Writing it down will instantly help with the process of emotions. Processing them and detailing a way forward is an incredibly important step toward moving on. The very act of writing it all down and detailing a change for the future is an act of accountability. Learning is key. Accountability is growth. Self blame is a chain. The choice is within our sphere of influence.

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