Accountability, Self-Improvement, and Rage

In some circles, particularly business, the idea of accountability is used frequently. The idea is that unless we hold a person accountable, they are unlikely to do what they should be doing. Sometimes I hear people apply this notion to themselves. They make themselves accountable to themselves. Accountability represents external mechanisms or measures which are overseen by another person so that we know that if we do not perform as we should, we will have to answer to that other person somehow. This threat is supposed to “keep us honest.”

It makes some sense in a situation where people have no relationship with each other whatsoever to put mechanisms in place that will provide an incentive for the other person to do what we want that person to do. That is what a paycheck is about. But in a situation where the people do have a relationship, including in a situation where we have  a relationship with ourselves, that accountability structure builds in an assumption that we cannot trust the other person (or ourselves) and that the other person will not gain anything–mastery, accomplishment, or relationship pleasure–from doing whatever it is that we are trying to get him or her to do. We are assuming without some threat of loss, that person will by default not do whatever it is we want him or her to do.

There is a subtext of mistrust and of low expectations here that is quite damaging. In our interactions with other people, what we expect of them is often what we get. If we set up a structure of mistrust, the other person is more likely to be untrustworthy. This is not because he or she has intrinsically dishonest motivations, but because an atmosphere of distrust is fundamentally alienating. It creates a sense of isolation and expendability for the other person, and this makes it difficult for that person to engage with the situation seriously. In other words, in such an atmosphere, a person does not want to risk his or her own deeper value system by caring about what happens.

I often see people set up self improvement campaigns using the idea of accountability. Sometimes they tell someone else they are trying to do something and enlist that other person to hold them accountable. Sometimes they set up rewards for themselves for accomplishments. Sometimes this “works” for them. And sometimes it just proves to themselves that they are untrustworthy. But it is always based in a fundamental statement of mistrust–a reflection to themselves that they would not make an effort without fear of loss.

Overall, responses which are destructive are identified as rage in my profession. Rage can feel like anger, or it might not feel that way. But it is a deep motive to be destructive which is often invisible to the person holding it. Every interaction we have with another person gives that person some meta-reflection of him or herself. And that includes our interactions with ourselves. When we reflect mistrust, a need to control, or low expectations, we are conveying our deep assessment of that other person. That deeper reflection has more power than any surface, obvious aspect of the interaction. And those moments of reflection accumulate and create a picture of the other person to him or herself.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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1 Response to Accountability, Self-Improvement, and Rage

  1. allisonfine says:

    Beautifully put and absolutely true.

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