A few weeks ago I hired a photographer to take photos of my family. When the photoshoot was over I paid the photographer and she told me to expect a flash drive within a week and I could choose the photos I wanted edited or printed.
Two weeks passed without receiving any photos and my emails went unanswered. I reached out to my friend who had referred the photographer to me. It was then I learned that the day after my photoshoot, the photographer was told that her cancer had returned and she immediately went into a month-long regimen of intense chemotherapy.
Needless to say, I no longer expected my photos anytime soon and I totally understood. A little over a month after the photoshoot, I got a call from the photographer. In a very weak voice she apologized profusely for the delay. I tried to assure her that it wasn’t a problem but she couldn’t seem to hear me. She felt very badly about not following through and went overboard trying to make it up to me.
A young leader I am coaching told me that she “felt bad for days” about an offhand comment she made to a coworker that the coworker took personally and was offended by. Another leader told me, “I still beat myself up,” for a strategy decision made two years ago that turned out to be wrong.
Aren’t these examples of people taking responsibility for their actions? And isn’t this a good thing? Let’s look a little closer.
When you begin to have insights into the brilliant design of the human mind and the fact that all feelings and experiences are being created from the inside via the gift of thought, you become what I would call “response-abled”. In other words, you are awake to what is happening inside your mind. You see the thought-created nature of your experience. This moment of awareness can give you a bit of mental space and allow a new thought to emerge – perhaps a wiser thought, a more helpful thought, a more able response.
Here’s another story to illustrate what I mean. Barry is a program manager for a pharmaceutical manufacturer. For several months he had been juggling a very challenging workload. A member of his team had to take an emergency absence leaving him short-staffed at a critical time. Barry prides himself on his ability to rise to challenges and he worked overtime to get the job done. Unfortunately, in the midst of this, he missed an important detail and made a mistake.
Barry’s boss called him to inform him of the mistake and the subsequent fallout. Even though his boss was very understanding and gave Barry a pass due to his exceptional workload, Barry hung up the phone feeling terrible. Then Barry noticed something – this feeling was very familiar. He described it this way:
I sat there for a moment with this familiar feeling of part embarrassment, part worry, part defensiveness. I wondered what was up. Then I heard myself say, “You hate to make mistakes. You think you are someone who never makes mistakes.” When this came to me I knew it was true and for some reason it struck me as funny. What a silly thing to think. Everybody makes mistakes. I never realized it was just thinking. I burst out laughing. So I went from feeling miserable about myself to laughing at myself. It took about 30 seconds.
I am not saying that personal accountability is bad. In fact, the deeper you see the inside-out nature of feelings and experience the more accountable you have to be. I’m saying that feeling bad about yourself is not the same as being accountable.
All of us carry around thinking about ourselves and become very attached to some of it. We identify with this thinking as our self image and experience our image as who we really are instead of just thinking we’re creating. When this thinking gets triggered we can get locked into a mental bind. Seeing that it is just thinking frees us from the grip. This is what happened to Barry. At first his feelings of shame, self doubt, and denial did not look like thinking. Once he saw what was really happening inside, his mind cleared and offered up more useful thinking.
This kind of realization leads to humility – that you are doing your best in the moment given your thinking. Humility is a natural outcome of seeing how the mind works. As you grow in awareness, you learn that it is grace – not guilt – that leads to lasting positive change.