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Blend accountability with compassion

I recently travelled to KwaZulu-Natal for my aunt’s memorial service. We gathered together as a family, people travelling from the United States, England and various local cities, to celebrate her life. She was approaching seventy years old and her health had not been good for the past few years. Nonetheless, her passing was a shock to us. Sadly, she is survived by her mother, my grandmother, who is ninety-two.

In celebrating my aunt’s life, my family members spoke about the things we remember. Her sense of fun, her amazing creativity and the areas of her life where things were not so joyful. I found it fascinating to listen to everyone talking about aspects of her life, their interpretations and their idea of what she should and shouldn’t have done. This kind of reflection got me wondering what my eulogy will look like. What will people say about my life, my faults and mistakes? How will I be remembered by my loved ones?

My extended family is fiercely loyal, led by the matriarch, my grandmother. Those who marry into the family have a tough path in that they are often to blame for influencing negatively, or not being adequately supportive. It struck me how much people tend to blame others for how their life turned out. My view is that our lives are exactly the way they are because of the choices we made, both good and bad.

We can’t blame Bob for his poor financial planning when we love him for his sense of crazy fun. We can’t blame Henry for being boring when he provided well for Aunt Susan. We all make decisions and choices in our lives. The partner we marry, the career we choose or how we parent our children. Some of those work out very well and lead to great happiness and success. Other choices don’t end well, with divorce, ill health or misery. Sometimes we even blame others for what went wrong in our lives, but take full accountability when things go well.

When we talk of other peoples’ success, we tend to say that they were ‘lucky’. I believe there is some element of serendipity in the world, but every opportunity requires action to take it to success. Deciding to take that action could be one of our good choices in life and how we go about it could be another.

Assigning accountability to others for our failure and success gives our power away. The authors of the book The Resilience Factor write about a concept called self-efficacy. It means how much we believe we control our environment. If we believe that we have very little control over our lives, this belief leads to higher levels of stress and less happiness. In contrast, believing that we can exert control over our lives leads to lower stress and more happiness.

Another aspect of resilience is personalisation. This means how much we attribute the events of our lives to our own doing. Some people personalise everything and believe that all successes and failures are their fault. Others push accountability onto others by using blame. We are more resilient when we acknowledge that some things are outside of our control but that we can exert some influence over our lives.

Those who personalise too much tend to beat themselves up when they make mistakes or when things go wrong. A healthy dose of self-compassion is needed in these times, meaning that we treat ourselves with kindness as a close friend would do. We steer our self-talk away from blame and negativity, towards compassion and kindness. We allow ourselves the opportunity to mess up and still be worthy of love and acceptance.

I want my legacy to be important. I want to be remembered for the good choices I made and for doing my best to live a happy life. I know that I will continue to make many mistakes and that my decisions will not always be the right ones. But it is my intention to live on purpose and to strive for a life others would envy. I want my loved ones to talk of my professional success and my children to remember me for being the best mother I could be. I want to live in such a way that there won’t be much talk about what opportunities I let get slip away and how I didn’t make the most of the ones I did action.

  • Taking accountability for our choices helps us to feel more in control of our lives
  • Believing we can control the course of our lives with the decisions we make, builds resilience
  • Self-compassion is a healthy way to overcome negative self-talk and personalisation
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