New York City, NY

The Absence of Interpersonal Accountability

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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“It is wrong and immoral to seek to escape the consequences of one’s acts.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Asa psychotherapist of over three decades in NYC, working through relational conflicts and disagreements with clients has become an expected and frequent occurrence. It is indeed, an integral part of the work. Likewise, as one who is also familiar with being a therapy patient, showing up for misunderstandings with my therapist was a valuable part of my healing and growth.

Engaging in difficult conversations taught me how considering others' perspectives could enhance my consciousness. It challenged me to hold a space for conflict so that I could responsibly and respectfully process various points of view. Most importantly it reminded me that it was anathema to question, object or search for answers in my narcissistic family. Throughout much of my childhood and early adult life, this persistent absence of accountability set me up to simultaneously doubt my perceptions and be suspicious of others' motives.

So recently when I had a challenging impasse with a client that triggered deep-seated dread, it gave me pause. I was no stranger to dissension. Why was I so flummoxed by this predicament?

Driven to explore my visceral activation, I revisited my history and the underpinnings of my reaction. This led to the raw wound incurred from dealing throughout my life with those within and outside my family who proclaimed blamelessness, who were always in the right. Adroit at soldiering through, it was daunting to realize just how traumatized I still was from being on the receiving end of the incessant refusal to honestly share responsibility for any sort of relational struggle.

Sifting through memories laid bare injurious exchanges. Defensiveness would morph into insinuating I was delusional, too sensitive, completely mistaken and off-base. Moreover, the disorienting premise that nothing had occurred, that I was operating from complete fabrication, would knock me off balance.

After a while contesting one’s reality became tiresome and corrosive. The unwillingness to consider another’s disparate reality and try to find common ground demoralized me to the point of recoiling from relationships. Giving others the benefit of the doubt became a ludicrous thought. Ultimately this form of incessant betrayal calcified into disillusionment and paranoia. Anticipating scenarios in which acrimonious debates or complete denial compelled me to sever connections and simply go it alone.

Bringing all this to consciousness assisted me with pulling myself out of the morass of activation ignited by transferential dynamics with my client. Furthermore, the wise feedback from my client (who came around to fully embracing her role in our ‘standoff’) made it explicitly clear that the absence of interpersonal accountability, irrespective of it being intentional or not, is an insidious form of gaslighting.

To be accountable means to willingly own up to one’s actions. It’s to take the high road and humbly examine one's part in any debacle no matter how big or small. How ideal it would be if we all lived according to this plan! Unfortunately, that’s a far cry from how relational difficulties are typically handled.

It’s understandable that our initial impulse is defensive posturing when up against any sort of recrimination. The problem is staying stuck there. When attempts to address uncomfortable, messy disagreements are met with oppositional defiance, condescending derision or trivializing that never morphs into earnest accountability, the person seeking resolution is left with feelings of defeat and disappointment. Impotence leads one to either walk away from the relationship or with resignation, one concedes to put up with a toxic dynamic.

Researchers Karina Schumann and Carol Dweck (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 2014) conducted a study that sheds some light on why lack of accountability exists.

Schumann and Dweck looked at the link between believing in the ability to change and taking responsibility for mistakes and wrongdoings. They discovered that those who refuse to acknowledge their part in transgressions do not believe that taking responsibility for their actions fosters personal growth.

Their findings suggest that folks who presume that personality remains intractably fixed are deterred from owning up to their behavior. In other words, if I don’t believe I can change or evolve then why bother expending energy on empathic effort. However, if I believe I’m capable of change then I’m motivated to admit fault and be accountable for my behavior and choices. In short, for many, it has to be personally meaningful and advantageous to be decent.

The pervasive mindset of those who scoff at notions of self-realization is that transactional motivations take precedence over how actions impact others. Accordingly, survival needs, as opposed to moral conduct, are the driving force behind one’s choices. Due to these conclusions, Schumann and Dweck continued examining what they refer to as an empathy deficit.

Needless to say, this is disconcerting. The closeness we need becomes too perilous to even try to attain if ethical relational standards are largely considered superfluous. Yet as with most things in life, survival prioritizes staying ‘safe’ over being fulfilled, even on the most essential levels. Consequentially, for many, this means isolation and insulation. This is a tragic, but apparently necessary option even though it’s obvious that togetherness is the needed panacea.

If as psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg and cognitive theorist Jean Piaget suggest that where we are developmentally largely determines how we define moral principles and accordingly how we relate to others, then it seems as if a vast demographic is stuck in the pre-operational stage (2 to 7 years old) of development. The focus on the self to the exclusion of the other is emblematic of this stage. Intentions are instrumental and egocentric.

While egocentrism is certainly tolerable when expressed by a toddler, coping with it in adults is taxing. Moreover when self consumed posturing is constant, it causes damage to those seeking mutuality.

Perhaps what helps me survive this egocentric landscape are those few folks who value building character. Knowing that I have the privilege of rendering therapy to those that understand, “we cannot live better than in seeking to become better” (Socrates) sustains a modicum of faith in humanity.

‘Becoming better’ means adhering to beliefs and rules of conduct that comprise integrity and what is honorable. Hence, critical thinking, accountability, empathy, showing up for difficult conversations, and taking the risk of sharing an unpopular opinion, are recognized as necessary to mental health.

Being answerable to misunderstandings and misdeeds requires one to access within the strength of humility. With humility psychological and physical energy will not be wasted on defending, concealing, impressing, justifying, glorifying, or self-promoting. Instead, energy will be channeled into maintaining the sort of inner peace and balance that comes with owning who one is, cultivating connections characterized by authenticity and vulnerability, and remaining curious and open to intellectual and emotional growth and moral development.

From this place, we can admit that our inherent fallibility sets us up to resort to our lower impulses. To take the proverbial high road we desperately need guidelines, a blueprint of humane dictums to instruct us how to operate from a place of decorum and decency. Otherwise, we are lost. This became remarkably obvious for me when I was given an assignment many years back in seminary to define my essential values and moral principles.

This list of ethics continues to remind me of what I aim to live by. It assists me with living by a code that, within the scope of my human imperfections holds me accountable and mindful of my choices.

Self-knowledge: To aspire to actualizing inner and outer potentials of mind, body, spirit, through commitment to self-examination and healing of core wounds and self-destructive patterns.
Generosity/Charity: To give, within reason and in accordance with self care monetary aid, time, assistance, service, and compassionate listening and advice if requested.
Sexuality: To consciously express sexuality through creative channels and loving affection towards others and self, adhering always to mutual consent and values of fidelity and honor.
Respect: To acknowledge and honor the inherent value and worth in all living creatures, nature, and ideologies, with the exception of those which espouse hate as their creed.
Honesty/Communication: To actively live, speak, and generate truth, as I understand it, irrespective of feared consequences.
Tolerance/Diversity: To uphold with others a climate of respect and curiosity regarding fundamental differences as pertaining to race, culture, ideology, and lifestyle, unless to do so would prove detrimental to the integrity of one’s ethics (i.e.- Nazism, battering of one’s wife or children, etc.).
Kindness: To reach within for the compassion and empathy necessary to treating others as one would wish to be treated.
Recognition of Divinity: To acknowledge and remain open to the diversity of Divine presence, and manifestation within scripture, prayer, meditation, nature, art, people, literature, music, science, philosophy, and everyday experience.
Humility: To re-direct humiliation and false pride into an experience of self/other acceptance, with the intent to restore dignity.
Gossip/Slander: To curtail impulses to idly engage in communication which damages another’s reputation.
Envy: To perceive ill will towards another’s advantages and strengths as an excess of aggression and an absence of gratitude, and to abide by the intention to rectify this state by examining what seems to be lacking within.
Education: To actively develop and broaden the mind through intellectual, creative, and metaphysical/philosophical pursuits.
Responsibility and Discipline — To remain steadfast and reliable with proactively carrying forth behaviors which efficiently demonstrate towards self and others a mature sense of priorities.
Lifestyle — To put materialism in proper perspective so that there is balance, and moderation with regard to lower impulses and higher ideals.

Operating at a level that requires abstract reasoning and ethical principles means being willing to attach value to higher ambitions, such as mutual respect, mindful listening and humility, over oneupmanship or saving face.

Still, some will always believe that self-realization is not worth the effort, as it doesn’t fulfill the immediate desire for sensory gratification. Ironically prioritizing the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain creates what is defended against. By failing to face the consequences of our actions we deny our humanity and that of others, thus setting in motion a corrosive, discouraging chain reaction in which disillusionment becomes misanthropy. For that reason, as trite as it may sound the simple practice of accountability can restore mobility and hope. We owe that to ourselves and to each other.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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