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Accountability, Responsibility & You

Detail No. 3 a Series II by Hilma AF Klimt. Via Pinterest

I know I’m not alone when I say it often feels like we’ve become obsessed with ‘holding one another accountable’. There are authentic reasons for doing so, I’m not questioning that, but it can feel like some individuals are overly focused on holding others accountable for minor grievances or slights when perhaps they should move on.

Cancel culture is not a new phenomenon, even though the term ‘cancel culture’ might only have risen in popularity in recent years. I touched on this in a previous article about content and trigger warnings. Blame culture is hot and heavy, especially in a boot-stomping, finger-pointing digital world where, as Elif Shafak says, being ‘heard’ is more important than listening and learning. There’s an excellent article from Megan McArdle at The Washington Post on the problems of cancel culture, which I recommend anyone read if they’re interested on the topic.

But this piece isn’t about cancel culture per se; it’s about why holding someone else accountable can be problematic and how we can tackle those that might seek to control us in this way.

On the Matter of Accountability

Holding each other accountable is a vital part of creating the safe, inclusive and welcoming communities we all want to be a part of. There are absolutely times when someone’s behaviour needs to be counted, and the individual needs to be reminded of what is and isn’t acceptable. But there are also times when this approach steps away from being of value and into the murky territory of blame, hostility, judgement and — I’ll say it — toxicity.

People may try to hold us accountable for behaviour, emotions, reactions or responses that we’re still trying to process and understand. Advising us that how we’ve behaved is incorrect and they’re going to hold us accountable isn’t helpful in that moment.

Dr Nicole LePera, known online as The Holistic Psychologists, provides insights into why people might say things like “I’m holding you accountable.” She centres the statement as one that someone might use to shame you. She advises:

“A vast majority of us have been shamed as children, so shaming others is incredibly common — most people are unaware they’re even doing it.”

A personal example; in a past relationship in my twenties, a boyfriend didn’t like that I went out often with my friends drinking. On the occasions that I did go out, he would turn off his phone, refuse to respond to messages and wouldn’t speak to me the next day either. He would tell me he was ‘holding me accountable’ for my decisions to go out and engage in what he deemed destructive behaviour. The truth was, the behaviour only felt destructive to him because it removed the control he wanted over me and our relationship.

Dr LePera advises this is quite typical behaviour that often forms part of shame projection:

“When we carry shame about our past and who we are as a person, many of us project that shame onto others. Shame projections are when someone lets you know they disapprove of you and your actions in some way.”

The Difference Between Control, Accountability and Responsibility

In my experience, accountability was conflated with control. I will never know the inner workings of that ex-boyfriend, but I can assume that he was perhaps controlled in some way, either while growing up or in a past relationship and shaped for behaviours that didn’t fit the ideal dynamic of the other person involved in the relationship.

These are painful experiences to hold onto, especially if they result in bad break-ups or family arguments, and it’s easy to see how these can continue to play out in future relationships if they aren’t healed.

Now, if I had been going out, getting blind-drunk, engaging in risk-taking behaviours and generally acting in ways that endangered me or others, then absolutely I would need to be held accountable in a supportive way.

But even then, accountability for me and my behaviour would not have been my boyfriend’s responsibility.

It would have been my own.

Dr LePera says the best way to respond to this form of shaming is to make this clear. Responsibility for your behaviours, emotional reactions, responses — whether good, bad, ugly or terrible — is yours and yours alone. She says if someone says something like, “This is just me holding you accountable”, the best response is:

“I hold myself accountable. I am my own responsibility, not yours.”

Someone can raise an issue with you and your behaviour, and for me, that’s where the boundary lies. Awareness of problematic behaviour is then your responsibility to address and understand where the problems lie, how to work through them and what you might need from others to progress.

Approaching Accountability in Healthy Ways

Sometimes someone’s idea of what we need to be held accountable for won’t align with our own — and it’s not generally a problem for anyone else. It might be a control issue rather than an accountability issue.

Sometimes we have enough awareness to take ownership and responsibility for how we need to be held accountable — other times; we won’t. That still doesn’t mean someone else gets to force you to take accountability, but they can approach the situation with openness and support to help you in the right direction.

Healthy relationships are built on foundations of curiosity and communication — and it’s these two concepts that can lead to better conversations when you or someone you’re involved with needs to be held accountable.

Whether a friend, partner, lover, family member or colleague, Dr LePera advises:

“Healing is about understanding that secure, emotionally healthy people do not shame others. They are curious. They openly communicate. They ask questions. They’re committed to their own learning and to learning another perspective.”

If someone repeatedly uses the accountability card in your life, it’s essential to reshape the boundary within that relationship. You can thank them for bringing an issue to your attention and remind them that accountability for your actions is solely your own to work on.


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