By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast/article about mental health and wellbeing by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin that is about much more than just talk; each episode is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This week I’m talking about accountability – the importance of taking accountability of your words and actions for the sake of your mental health and wellbeing, and how accountability and self-improvement go hand-in-hand. Listen now in the Spotify player below or read the transcript below. Let’s talk!
Have you ever found yourself watching the news and started rolling your eyes when a politician came on and blamed a whole bunch of issues on the party that was in power before them, rather than talking about what they’re going to do to rectify the situation in the present? Or is there someone you know who has a habit of blaming everyone around them for their problems, rather than being honest about their part in the issue? Accountability is a fundamental part of good mental health and wellbeing, because it’s about taking ownership of your self-development by understanding and working through the things that you have direct control over, and making the conscious decision to do better every day. Today I’m going to be talking about what personal accountability is, why it matters if you’re serious about your mental health, and different things that you can do every day – no matter how small – to help you to build a stronger sense of personal responsibility for the things that happen in your life.
What is accountability and why does it matter?
Let me ask you a question, and I want you to be completely honest with yourself. When things go wrong in your life, do you blame everyone around you automatically or do you look for what your part in the situation was? There is a big difference between blame and personal accountability, and it’s a delicate subject because sometimes in life horrible things happen to us that we have no control over – however all too often there are things that happen that we can control, whether directly or indirectly, and instead we look to assign blame rather than taking accountability for our part in whatever happened. That’s what we’re going to be talking about today – how a mindset of accountability can help you to take greater ownership of your overall mental health and wellbeing.
I love travel and one of the accounts I follow on Instagram is The Points Guy, along with its UK offshoot The Points Guy UK, because I love their YouTube videos. A few weeks ago they [the UK account] reposted a customer service conversation between a passenger and British Airways (BA) that had gone viral on Twitter (see it here). To cut a long story short, a passenger had complained on Twitter because the airline had refused to let her on her flight as her new passport wasn’t signed – which is a legal requirement – and she put the weight of the problem on BA, because now she had been forced to sign her passport quickly with a rushed signature that doesn’t look like her real signature.
Now, I’m sharing this story because the airline’s response was pretty blunt: Angela from British Airways responded on social media and said, “I’m sorry you felt embarrassed at how my colleague dealt with you. However, there are times when we have to accept responsibility for our own actions. If you’d signed your passport when you received it, this wouldn’t have become an issue.” Now for many of you raised on the whole ‘the customer is always right’ mentality, you might be feeling horrified, but bear in mind that the Brits (along with we Australians) do tend to be fairly blunt and direct about things, and quite frankly Angela was 100% spot-on. The customer was clearly embarrassed about what had happened and decided to externalise the blame, but nobody else was responsible for what happened but herself. We all make mistakes from time to time, but when our actions or inactions cause issues we have two choices – blame others and turn it into something bigger than it is, or take accountability and rectify it so we can get on with our lives. There’s a social media post that was floating around a while ago saying, “Did you have a bad day or was it just a bad five minutes that you turned into an entire bad day?” and I think that really reinforces just how much we can turn small issues into bigger issues if we don’t take accountability and work through them.
Before we go any further, let me be very clear about one thing here: as I said, sometimes things happen to us that are completely out of our control, like having physical or emotional harm inflicted on us by other people, and by no means am I blaming victims of those sorts of serious issues – I have been on the receiving end of physical and emotional abuse as a child, and I know all too well that there are times that we are powerless to stop things being done to us. In those circumstances, I strongly believe professional help is necessary to work through the trauma, and it’s not a case of just sticking on a podcast and being done with it, so that’s not what I’m discussing this week.
What I am talking about is where we might blame others for things that we did or said, or perhaps we might minimise what we did or said, or even ignore our actions and their consequences entirely. Accountability is about taking ownership for the things that you say and do, and the effects that they have on others. It’s about developing a level of emotional maturity where you understand that taking ownership of the role you play in events will lead you to freedom, and will help you to stop being controlled by the circumstances that might be around you.
If you ever find yourself in a messy situation, chances are it’s a series of decisions and actions that led you to that place. Each choice you make, each word you utter, each action you take all sends you down a path to one of countless possible futures. For example, if you choose to avoid doing work that needs to be done then what follows will be a different set of outcomes than if you had completed whatever needed to be done.
You have direct control over what you do, say and feel – that last bit (‘feel’) is the most difficult to control, and it takes a lot of time and effort to not let our emotions control us (and when you work out how to do it 100% of the time, let me know) – but often we blame the words and actions of others for what we do, say and feel. In the most recent Mental Health Talk newsletter that I just sent out last Friday (Issue 15), I shared a link to a TedX Talk by Dr. Alan Watkins who noted that we often say things like, “You made me angry,” when in fact nobody can actually make you feel anger; rather, it is you who chooses to be angry. Now whether you do that consciously or subconsciously often depends on the situation and even the person – we might find it more challenging to manage those emotional responses when it’s someone we’re very close with, like a partner, a parent or a child – but still, nobody can make you feel something without your permission, and your reaction is entirely your choice. You are responsible for your words and actions, and what you do or say (or don’t do, don’t say) will directly determine what happens next.
This can be one of the more challenging aspects to fully wrap your head around, because we’re hard-wired to think highly of ourselves and so being confronted with the reality that the things you have done, have said and have felt are directly responsible for shaping your world is a bit of a slap in the face – but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Just because you don’t like the message, that doesn’t make it wrong.
One of the reasons why we can have a tough time with accountability is because we tend to differentiate between our intentions and our behaviours. How many times have you found yourself thinking or even saying to someone else, “ I didn’t mean anything by it!” – and how infuriating is it when someone has hurt your feelings but dismisses it by saying, “I didn’t mean to hurt you!”? Well, OK great, you didn’t mean to – but the result is still the same, and it won’t change what has happened. What does change things is taking accountability. Think of it this way: if someone said or did something hurtful and you brought it to their attention, what would feel better by way of response: “I didn’t do it on purpose!” or “I’m sorry I made you feel that way”?
We naturally get defensive, especially when we didn’t intend to say or do something hurtful, but the outcome is still the outcome, so rather than making it worse by denying any accountability, instead why not take ownership and resolve to learn from it? That is maturity and that is a positive mindset, both of which contribute to good mental health. Could you imagine what our world would be like if politicians stopped making excuses or defending themselves when they did something wrong, and instead were accountable and willing to learn from their mistakes?
We had a really big example of this recently with the bushfires here in Australia, when they were at their worst over the New Year’s period. Our prime minister was away overseas on holidays with his family, as was the head of Emergency Services in NSW (which is the state I live in and which has been the worst affected in terms of land size). They were both criticised in the media and by the public for going away in what was already a dangerous time – we’ve been in crisis mode since October with severe heatwaves, which is a couple of months early for bushfire season for us and definitely not an ordinary event – and for not coming back immediately when the fires spread out of control, and then after a public outcry both eventually cut their holidays short and returned to deal with the crisis. Now, while our Prime Minister decided to fight back against public opinion and made every excuse under the sun for why he hadn’t done anything wrong (which made the public and the media come for him that much harder), the other guy simply said, “I made a mistake. I should have come back earlier but I didn’t, and I’m sorry.” Either way, neither of them can change what they did, but they can take accountability and they can learn from it, rather than making it all about why everyone else is in the wrong because they didn’t intend to do anything that caused harm. Whether you intend the consequences of your actions or not is irrelevant – it’s the impact they have that you are responsible for.
How does accountability affect mental health?
Let’s talk for a minute about how accountability affects your mental health and wellbeing. Accountability and personal responsibility go hand-in-hand with self-development and personal growth, because it’s about taking ownership of those things that we have direct control over – our actions, our words and our feelings. Taking responsibility for things, without excuse or qualification, presents an opportunity to grow because it means you are less controlled by what happens outside of you and more by what goes on inside. In psychology this is called ‘locus of control’ – having an external locus of control means that you believe that your life is controlled by external forces, as opposed to an internal locus of control which is where you believe that you have control over what happens in your life. They are two very different mindsets, and an external locus of control can sometimes be accompanied by blaming others for problems or feeling like a victim of circumstance.
You are never a victim unless you choose to be, even if terrible things happen to you that are completely out of your control, because you always, always have a choice in terms of how you respond. The notion of choice is one I talk about a lot and it’s a topic I’ll be doing a whole episode on later this year, because it’s such a fundamental part of good mental health and wellbeing. One of the biggest things that has influenced my thinking on this – and which helped me to reframe things while I was working through my own depression and anxiety – is the work of Dr. Viktor Frankl. Dr. Frankl was a psychiatrist and neurologist from Austria who was Jewish, and who was interred in a concentration camp during World War II. Dr. Frankl chose to use his experiences during the Holocaust to write Man’s Search for Meaning, released in 1946 and considered to be one of the greatest books of the 20th century, having sold well over 100 million copies. In it, he focuses a lot on choice – the idea that the power to choose is the most fundamental aspect of our humanity. Let me share a quote that demonstrates what I mean:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”Dr. Viktor Frankl
Now, let’s be clear that this doesn’t mean that people in the concentration camps could just choose to be happy and everything would be great – far from it, and we know that many millions died in the Holocaust – but there is a fundamental, inalienable truth to Dr. Frankl’s words: we always have the power to choose our attitude in any set of circumstances, and we can always choose our own way, even in the face of death. Even if that way is to simply accept our circumstances, that choice is still ours; nobody can force it, no matter what they do to us, because the power is internal – the power is always ours.
You are not your circumstances. You are not what has or hasn’t happened to you. You are your choices. You are your words and your deeds, and you’re never going to be perfect 100% of the time because nobody is perfect, even if they might think they are, but the closest we can come to perfection is being willing to learn, willing to grow, willing to be the very best version of ourselves that we can be – and we do that by being fully accountable, by taking personal responsibility for the things we have direct control over; our words, our actions, and our feelings.
How to increase your level of personal accountability (bit by bit)
So, how do you do that? How do you increase your personal accountability? Let’s get into the good stuff: the “how to”. Let’s talk through some specific points to help you increase your personal accountability a little each day, because like anything it takes time and practice, and the more you do it the easier it will become.
First of all – self-assessment. How accountable are you now, really? How often do you blame external factors for things that you do? I get annoyed with my partner when something happens that isn’t the way I want it to happen, and I find that I have to remind myself that I’m choosing to get annoyed about something that’s out of my direct control. What other people do or say is up to them – just as it’s up to each of us what we choose to do with other people’s words or actions. If you find that you are often controlled by what other people do or don’t do, then this is the moment for you to decide that enough is enough and take back your control, because when you start to focus on what is within your own control then you are taking steps towards good and lasting mental health and wellbeing as you will, over time, become less affected by what other people do or don’t do, or say or don’t say. That takes time and effort, and I’ll walk you through some more steps to guide you on that path…
Next is understanding. Once you have a clear idea of where you are today in terms of accountability, now you need to ask yourself: why are things that way? What has happened – or hasn’t happened – in your past that has shaped the way you are? You’ll hear me say in pretty much every episode that it’s really important to dig deep and understand the core of why things are the way they are. Why do I say that? Because you need to understand what the root cause of something is in order to effectively address it. If you’re carrying around baggage from your past, this is the time to process it fully – you must make your peace with the things that have happened and the things that are out of your control before you can hope you to move forward without constantly looking back over your shoulder at the stuff that’s happened in the past. I talked about baggage and how to work through it in Episode 7, and I highly recommend you listen to or read that episode – click here, or head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au and find it under the ‘Episodes’ tab. Understanding is key because it helps you to work out where you need to focus your attention.
Next, let go of what you need to let go of. Again, this is something I talked about a lot in Episode 7: Baggage, as well as Episode 4: Over-thinking and Episode 9: Self-Talk. What has happened has happened. All you can do is acknowledge it, take responsibility for it, rectify it, then (most importantly) learn from it and ensure it doesn’t happen again – even if it’s just something you did to yourself. If you’re carrying stuff around from the past, work through it and then let it go, because it’s not going to do you any good now or in the future. Don’t look backwards, because you’re not going that way – eyes forward.
Now, consider: What changes need to happen in your life now? What do you need to do more of? What do you need to do less of? What choices do you need to make and re-make every single day? For example, blaming others. If you’re prone to pointing the finger then you need to seriously think about what that says about you as a person. One of my old bosses would always say to us, “When you point the finger at someone else, remember there are three fingers pointing back at you,” which serves to remind each of us that often we point the finger because consciously or subconsciously it says something about some element of ourselves that we may not like or it makes us realise that in any situation we have ownership for what we take on board or don’t take on board. A commitment to making personal accountability a fundamental aspect of your life requires us to confront ourselves and to identify what needs to change in our lives so that we can be healthier in mind, body and spirit.
Let me give you an example which might seem a bit extreme: substance abuse. The simple way to think about dealing with substance abuse is “just say no”, but that didn’t work back in the 80’s and it’s not going to work now. If people abuse substances of any kind – alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, etc. – they’re doing so because of both choice and biological drivers. It’s not possible to just pop a pill and stop any kind of addiction – and frankly, I don’t think it ever will be, because getting through that sort of thing requires you to want to change. I quit smoking for good in 2013, but it certainly wasn’t the first time – I think I had tried about four or five times before, but I was never fully committed to it before that. Once I took accountability and made the choice to change, I began to change. Now, I’m not saying that just choosing to stop any sort of behaviour will do the trick, because it won’t; it takes a lot of work, it takes time and, especially in the case of substance abuse, it takes professional support. But it all starts with taking personal responsibility and making the decision to change.
Blame, negative thinking, attachment to stuff that’s bad for us (or people and relationships that are bad for us…): these are all choices, whether conscious or subconscious. If you stick around in a friendship or relationship that is one-sided or not supportive, you are choosing an action that is bad for your mental health. There might be a thousand different excuses why, but they’re all just excuses – because deep down, somewhere in your core, you have to know that whatever it is is not in your best interests. Does that make sense? Every situation is different, and I’m generalising here, but every situation you’re in is a choice, and accepting that fact is a mindset which can serve to make you look at your choices and your entire life in a totally different light.
That doesn’t mean you’re directly responsible for everything that happens to you – for example, if you get sick, have an accident or someone does something terrible to you physically or emotionally, these things are often completely out of our control… but what you are accountable for is what you do next. Do you let the situation reduce you, control you, take over your life; or, do you take control? If you’re experiencing mental illness, do you let it own you? Do you stay at home and refuse to seek any kind of help, then complain about why nothing changes? Or do you take the first step and go and see a doctor, or phone a helpline and talk to someone, or decide to consult with a therapist either in person or online?
You are accountable for the mindset you choose, and the mindset you choose will directly affect the world around you. End of sentence. If you choose to be positive, you will slowly start to see more and more positive, and you will be better equipped to deal with the inevitable crappy stuff that happens and which is out of your control. Take steps every single day to choose thoughts, feelings and actions that are positive.
What it all boils down to is this: personal accountability is a fundamental aspect of good mental health and wellbeing, because it reminds us that the things we do, the things we say, and the things we feel, are all in our direct control – and they are all that we have direct control over, which might sound depressing but it’s actually liberating, because once you fully accept that it is you who shapes your world and all it takes is to be mindful of your feelings, words and actions, then the really good stuff can begin; that’s where self-limiting beliefs start to fall away, and you realise that the only thing that has ever been holding you back from doing the things you want to do and being the person you want to be is you – and that is real power.
Summary and three main points to consider
To summarise: accountability is a choice we each make to accept that our life is our responsibility. You are accountable for the things that you do and say, and how they affect other people as well as how they affect yourself. If you choose to put negativity out, then that is what you will be surrounded by; however, if you choose to put out positivity, and to reflect positivity in your words, actions and feelings, you will see more and more good in your life, because you – and only you – are accountable for your life.
To wrap up, here are my three main points for you to consider:
- Accountability is all about accepting and embracing the concept that all you have direct control over is your words, your actions and your feelings
- How you interact with the world around you will directly shape your own world
- Let go of things that are out of your control, and instead choose every day to make decisions that are in the best interests of your mental health and wellbeing, because you – and only you – are accountable for the outcome of the decisions you make
As always, I’m going to close out with a quote I’d like to encourage you to reflect on and consider what it means for you. This week’s quote is another anonymous one, and it is:
“None of us is responsible for all the things that happen to us, but we are responsible for the way we react to them.“Anonymous
So, that’s it for this week! For more content, go to:
- Website: Head over to www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for more information about Let’s Talk About Mental Health and to sign up so that new posts/newsletters will land in your inbox, and you can also find all past episodes on the website (click here to jump to the Episodes page)
- Podcast: You can listen to the Let’s Talk About Mental Health podcast via your preferred platform (Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and others) as well as an audio-only version on the LTAMH YouTube channel
- Social Media: Connect with me on social media – you can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamhofficial (I post extra content daily)
Next episode I’ll be talking about hope – I’ll be talking about what hope is, why it’s so important for good mental health and wellbeing, and what to do if you’re struggling to maintain or even find hope. I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning Australian time. On Friday I’ll be sending out the next issue of the Mental Health Talk newsletter, which is a weekly round-up of articles and resources focused on good mental health and wellbeing – sign up at the website to have the newsletter land in your inbox each Friday.
Until next time, look after yourself and make a conscious choice to put some positive energy out into the world – you get back what you give out! Take care and talk to you next time.
PS: If you enjoyed this week’s episode/post, please share it with someone you know. Thanks!
Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.