Accountability 101

To continue on the theme of forgiveness, or lack thereof — I am reblogging (and heavily editing, mostly for length) this list from this article on abusive relationships, in the spirit of educating people who are apparently not well-equipped to hold themselves or others accountable for their actions.

This list is pretty straightforward and easy to understand.  It’s a good start to understanding how decent, empathetic people take responsibility for the things they have done that hurt other people.

I am not forgiving, but I have accepted the truth that things are never, ever going to change in a way that I will accept.  Because once you learn how decent people who really love each other treat each other, there is no settling for second best.  And no one in my family can even manage to pull off the first one.

1. Listen to the Survivor

When one has been abusive, the very first – and one of the most difficult – skills of holding oneself accountable is learning to simply listen to the person whom one has harmed:

  • Listening without becoming defensive.
  • Listening without trying to equivocate or make excuses.
  • Listening without minimizing or denying the extent of the harm.
  • Listening without trying to make oneself the center of the story being told.

What if, instead of reacting immediately in our own defense, we instead took the time to listen, to really try to understand the harm we might have done to another person?

When we think of accountability in terms of listening and love instead of accusation and punishment, everything changes.

2. Take Responsibility For the Abuse

After listening, the next step in holding oneself accountable is taking responsibility for the abuse. This means, simply enough, agreeing that you and only you are the source of physical, emotional, or psychological violence directed toward another person.

A simple analogy for taking responsibility for abuse can be made to taking responsibility for stepping on someone else’s foot: There are many reasons why you might do such a thing – you were in a hurry, you weren’t looking where you were going, or maybe no one ever taught you that it was wrong to step on other people’s feet.

But you still did it. No one else – only you are responsible, and it is up to you to acknowledge and [genuinely] apologize for it.

The same holds true for abuse: No one, and I really mean no one – not your partner, not patriarchy, not mental illness, not society, not the Devil – is responsible for the violence that you do to another person.

A lot of factors can contribute to or influence one’s reasons for committing abuse (see the point below), but in the end, only I am responsible for my actions, as you are for yours.

3. Accept That Your Reasons Are Not Excuses

In my experience as a therapist and community support worker, when people are abusive, it’s usually because they have a reason based in desperation or suffering.

      “I didn’t know that what I was doing was abuse. People always did the same to me. I was just following the script.”

All of these are powerful, real reasons for abuse – but they are also never excuses. There is no reason good enough to excuse abusive behavior.

Reasons help us understand abuse, but they do not excuse it.

4. Don’t Play the ‘Survivor Olympics’

This one is not really applicable, I think, unless and until anyone else is willing to admit that our mother was abusive and/or neglectful to her husband and her children.  Yes, parentifying and deliberate parental alienation are abusive things to do to children.

There is the point that “Anyone can be abusive, and comparing or trivializing doesn’t absolve us of responsibility for it.” This might be applicable to the idiotic “Susan was very upset when Dad died” excuse.

5. Take the Survivor’s Lead

If you have abused someone, it’s not up to you to decide how the process of healing or accountability should work.

Instead, it might be a good idea to try asking the person who has confronted you questions like:  Is there anything I can do to make this feel better? How much contact would you like to have with me going forward? If we share a community, how should I navigate situations where we might end up in the same place?

At the same time, it’s important to understand that the needs of survivors of abuse can change over time, and that survivors may not always know right away – or ever – what their needs are.

Being accountable and responsible for abuse means being patient, flexible, and reflective about the process of having dialogue with the survivor.

6. Face the Fear of Accountability

Being accountable for abuse takes a lot of courage.

A lot of people paint themselves into corners denying abuse, because, to be quite honest, it’s terrifying to face the consequences, real and imagined, of taking responsibility.

7. Separate Guilt from Shame

Guilt is feeling bad about something you’ve done. Shame is feeling bad about who you are.

Shame and social stigma are powerful emotional forces that can prevent us from holding ourselves accountable for being abusive: We don’t want to admit to “being that person,” so we don’t admit to having been abusive at all.

People who have been abusive should feel guilty – guilty for the specific acts of abuse they are responsible for.

If you believe that you are a fundamentally good person who has done hurtful or abusive things, then you open the possibility for change.

8. Don’t Expect Anyone to Forgive You

Being accountable is not, fundamentally, about earning forgiveness. That is to say, it doesn’t matter how accountable you are – nobody has to forgive you for being abusive, least of all the person you have abused.

In fact, using the process of “doing” accountability to try and manipulate or coerce someone into giving their forgiveness to you is an extension of the abuse dynamic. It centers the abuser, not the survivor.

One shouldn’t aim for forgiveness when holding oneself accountable. Rather, self-accountability is about learning how we have harmed others, why we have harmed others, and how we can stop.


9. Forgive Yourself

You do have to forgive yourself. Because you can’t stop hurting other people until you stop hurting yourself.

When one is hurting so much on the inside, that it feels like the only way to make it stop is to hurt other people, it can be terrifying to face the hard truth of words like abuse and accountability. One might rather blame others, blame the people we love, instead of ourselves.

This is true, I think, of community as well as individuals. It is so much easier, so much simpler, to create hard lines between good and bad people… It takes courage to be accountable. To decide to heal.