In the last handful of years, there has been an increased focus on being accountable and taking responsibility for our actions. I have really appreciated seeing the energy and attention towards wanting to do and be better, primarily birthed by GenZ and Millennials. It’s about time!
But are we truly being accountable, or are we just telling people what we’ve done wrong and why we did it?
I remember back in 1989, when I was a newbie in Alcoholics Anonymous. There were many things that were disturbing to me about early recovery, I think the one that irked me the most was when people were sharing about making amends, as part of the 12 steps of recovery. I would sit in meetings when people brought this up, and freeze. The idea of me going back and saying I was sorry to people who I had harmed seemed terrifying! And that was before I truly had any understanding of the difference of making amends versus saying I’m sorry. The good news for me was that I did not plan on staying in AA or NA long enough to do any of the steps, therefore, deep down I knew that I would never have to actually do the Ninth Step, which is making amends to those we have harmed.
That’s what my mind said, my body said, “Holy Fuck!”.
In case you’re wondering, I did stay around long enough to work through the steps, and made my amends where doing so wasn’t going to harm others.
In case you’re wondering Part Two, it mostly sucked during my first round of amends. There was one huge thing that came out of it for me at the time, having to go through the process of making a fucking inventory, sharing it with somebody else, and then making amends, utterly convinced me that I needed to change my behaviors because I never wanted to go through this fucking process again! What an impactful deterrent!
Over time amends became easier, and a regular part of my life. There are times I even enjoy it, because it creates opportunities for connection and intimacy with the people in my life. In addition, it raises the bar on what is acceptable behavior for me today.
As a counselor and coach, I have supported, guided and held space for many people who have wanted to make amends, were petrified of making amends, and didn’t know how to do it “right”. So it occurred to me over the years that it might make sense for me to create a formula/protocol for people to follow during this process.
Here are the basics.
1)First things first, are there any tangible actions of retribution that need to be addressed before somebody is going to be able to hear, digest and believe what you’re going to share with them?
Meaning, do you owe them money, you have to replace garments that you destroyed, do you need to help them find a new place to live, etc.? They are probably not going to be able to hear a word you say until this is taken care of, or at least we have explicitly stated to them our plan and timeline to do so.
2) Share with them first the broad strokes, and then the details of all of the ways that you perceive you have harmed them, and any ways that they have communicated to you that they have felt harmed by you. I encourage you to write out in whatever shape or form will make sense for you in advance, and read it over out loud several times to make sure you cover everything during this conversation. Our fear and shame can be powerful obstacles to remembering what we want to communicate and how.
3) This is the step that typically gets lost in the contemporary version of taking responsibility and being accountable for our actions, or our lack of action. Before we start any of this process, what are the steps that we need to take in our lives so that we do not repeat this behavior with this person, or anybody!
Meaning, saying, “I’m working on it”, whatever the fuck that means, does not cut it. Most people in our lives probably already know we’re working on whatever the thing is that we’ve hurt them doing
For example, if during an interaction where I became rageful and said some really hurtful and abusive things to somebody I care about, telling them that I’m working on my anger does not create any trust or sense of safety. They already knew that I was working on my anger just by hanging out with me. What evidence do they have that they aren’t going to experience these behaviors again?
I’d like to share with you an example of what these three steps would look like in a clear and practical manner.
Let’s say “hypothetically” that I had rented a room in my home to somebody I didn’t know off of Craigslist or some roommate finder app. They lived here for a year and it was predominantly a good experience for both of us. We had a verbal agreement that if either one of us wanted to change the situation, they needed to share with the other person and give 30 days notice.
Things were starting to shift and I didn’t want them living there anymore, and they had playfully walked up to me one day and said, “Hey Michael, if you ever get sick of me living here and what your home back to yourself, just let me know.” And they started laughing. I had very gently and carefully shared with them that I was ready to have my home back to myself. They asked me if I was kidding, and I let them know that I wasn’t. We talked about it for a little bit, I supported them around knowing this was a surprise to them. They expressed being surprised and disappointed, and they were clear that they would be able to get everything together and move out in 30 days. A couple of days later, they said they had too much going on in their life, and they wouldn’t be able to find a place to move out in 30 days. I asked them how much time they need and they said they could definitely do so in 60 days, and I let them know that it was fine with me.
Starting a couple days later, they began being verbally abusive with me on a regular basis. That escalated to verbal abuse with character assassination. I don’t feel the need to share here what they said and did, because I don’t think that’s important. They were clear that they were hurting me, and I wasn’t engaging or “fighting back”. The details of what they said don’t seem important. They knew what they were saying was hurtful. They ended up moving out in a few weeks because they called my landlord thinking that they could manipulate my landlord in some manner, but the landlord actually asked me to write up a formal letter including them in it requesting they leave by a certain date, which I did. They did not pay me what they owed me, nor was there any mention of the verbal abuse or character assassination.
I have needed to contact them a couple of times for various packages that have accidentally been delivered here, and have run into them another few times out in the world. Each time we see/text each other, she is very light and friendly, and wants to connect. I have chosen not to reciprocate, because this is what I’m waiting for.
1) Pay the money you owe me. It’s not a lot of money and will make no difference in my life, it’s just a symbol and it’s the first step.
2) In verbal or written form, state the various ways that you hurt me in detail, so that I understand that you understand.
3) Share with me your plan of what you’ve been doing to work on this in the last year, what you’re doing now and what you plan to continue to do.
Here are some examples,
“I’ve been going to therapy and we’ve been working on the pain and trauma I experienced as a teenage girl, and how when I get scared I become aggressive, hurtful and violent. I meet with her weekly and will continue to do so.”.
“I went away for a two week meditation retreat to learn how to meditate, and to create a daily practice. I’ve been meditating twice a day since and will continue to do so. I don’t feel as tense and anxious as I used to.”
“As you know, I was in rehab for drugs several years ago. I went to AA and NA and it didn’t feel good to me, so I didn’t continue to go. I have found a yoga community of people that are clean and sober that practice together and that has been amazing for me. It feels good to not be doing drugs anymore, even though I was only smoking weed a few times a week. It feels incredibly supportive being part of a community of women working on our anger together through Yoga.”
“I found this amazing somatic therapist that I’ve been working with. I think you actually know her. I have been able to release a lot of the anger and aggression I’ve carried around for years. Even though it’s really hard, when I feel scared or hurt, I try to be with it and cry instead of taking it out on others and pushing them away.”
This is how we make amends, take responsibility and be accountable for our actions.
We need to explicitly have an action plan for how we are being responsible for not repeating our behaviors again with anybody in our lives. Being responsible and accountable is about changing our behaviors, and the patterns that create them. It’s not about treating a specific person better or differently, so they like us and keep us in their lives. It’s about growth and development.
We were close friends due to the fact that she lived here during the pandemic forcing us to quarantine together, we got to know each other really well. I understood from our conversations, and the conversation she had on phone, FaceTime and zoom that when she felt threatened or scared, she became abusive to people she cared about a lot. We had many conversations around this. I was very clear in setting the boundary that this kind of behavior is not acceptable to me at all, and I would not tolerate it in any shape or form. She understood this and she appreciated the boundary. When she broke the boundary, and continued to do so, because of the work that I do professionally and the work I’ve done on myself personally, I was aware that her behavior was now out of control and she literally couldn’t do anything about it. Having that awareness, and the fact that she even shared that with me several times while she was being abusive, that’s not taking responsibility or being accountable for your actions.
That’s the equivalent of saying, “I know I’ve been a jerk to you, because I’m a jerk. I’ve always been a jerk, so if we’re going to be in each other’s lives, I am going to continue to be a jerk to you.”
So, are you really taking responsibility and being accountable when you harm others? Or are you basically informing them that if I’m in your life, I just will continue doing the thing that hurts you, so it’s on you to deal with it?
To be ridiculous for the sake of illustration. Let’s say every time you make a smoothie, you leave the glass in the sink for a couple of hours and all the fruit and vegetables dry and stick to the side of the glass. When I see this in the sink, I take the glass and throw it at you. And then I, “Take responsibility and be accountable for my actions”, and let you know that I know that it’s physically painful to have a glass thrown at you and sometimes having the glass shatter and cut you, and it must be really scary to have somebody do this, but this is what I do when I’m angry, because when I was a kid my mother used to do the same thing to me.”
If somebody said this to you, what would it feel like at that moment for you?
Would you feel safe or trust them moving forward?
What evidence would you have that without you knowing it, you may run into some other landmine that’s equally harmful, or worse?
This is why that third step of creating your plan of clearly addressing and shifting your patterns, and behavior is necessary to create trust, safety and connection. We must have a plan so that others know that the patterns and behaviors will change. This is how we take responsibility and become accountable for our actions in a healthy and sustainable way. This is how we create deeper intimacy, while still being beautifully flawed human beings.