I’ve read countless articles and social media posts calling for domestic violence offenders’ accountability. As someone who committed that offense, those calls used to feel like a vigilante was headed my way. What I’ve learned through my change process, however, is that accountability does not need to be scary. In fact, being accountable is something worth striving for.
Accountability does not need to be scary. In fact, being accountable is something worth striving for.
I’m pretty sure many who cry out for holding domestic violence offenders accountable probably do mean that they want to see offenders punished. They want justice—or maybe it’s vengeance? True accountability, however, is not punishment, but rather a mindset, a way to think about ourselves in this world. It’s a code to live by, and an admirable one at that.
By the way, this topic of accountability extends far beyond domestic violence. Since this blog exists to help individuals who are working to stop abusive behaviors, I’m centering my examples there. But accountability applies to business, politics, sports, personal goals, relationships, leadership, and citizenship, just to name a few. It’s also a characteristic that none of us master, including me. That’s why I’m writing this post using “us,” “we,” and “our,” because everything here applies to all of us.
Accountability’s alter ego: defensiveness
To better understand accountability, it helps to first look at its opposite—defensiveness. We all get defensiveness sometime or another. The problem with too much defensiveness, however, is that it limits our growth. We end up stuck with a life that is less than what is possible. And, it leaves us exhausted just trying to hold our ground. Often times that ground is more of a swamp than a hilltop anyway.
Defensiveness limits our growth.
Another downside is that defensiveness harms relationships. Our partners need to feel heard when they protest. They want to know they have some influence on our behavior and interactions inside our partnership with them. Defensiveness is so harmful that relationship expert John Gottman says it one of the signs that a relationship is headed for failure.
Excessive defensiveness has the affect of shutting down others’ willingness to offer constructive criticism. Instead, their objections are likely to come out in less helpful ways, like snide comments or passive-aggressive behavior. Or they withdraw, killing the connection and intimacy between us.
There are really four kinds of defensive tactics:
Denial is when we do not tell the truth about our actions to others or ourselves. Statements such as, “I never did that” or “I’m not violent” demonstrate denial if they aren’t true. Even, “I’ll never do it again” is denial if it’s just hope and there’s no solid plan for change. The trouble with denial is that it is living in fantasyland. Our reality never gets better until we get real.
Blame shifts all the responsibility for what’s gone wrong onto something or someone else. Saying, “I was drunk” or “If she didn’t nag, I wouldn’t have hit her” is blame. Our goal with blaming is to get out of trouble, but it seldom works. As long as we focus on what others do—something we can’t control—we give away our power to make our circumstances better. Plus, we end up sounding like whiners. Others see the diversion and we lose their respect.
As long as we focus on what others do, we give away our power to make our circumstances better.
In rationalizing, we attempt to justify our behavior by claiming it was necessary, even though it was not. Examples like, “I pushed her to quiet her down” or “I wanted to make him listen” are moves to rationalize our actions. This strategy attempts to helps us feel better about ourselves, but once again, it doesn’t work. Deep down, we know there are alternatives and that we have to be able to respond differently, so we still feel guilty. Everyone else sees our rationalization as a bunch of weak excuses, and we fool no one.
Minimizing downplays what happened so it doesn’t seem that bad. Declaring, “I didn’t really hurt her,” “I just slapped him,” or “I only did it once” leave the impression that it was no big deal. Our objective with minimizing is to escape consequences or reassure ourselves that we are not that bad.
We seldom see ourselves objectively and it is easy to ignore the impact of our actions. Then, we lull ourselves out of making corrective moves. Even if the offense was small (a subjective description), it remains an offense. Better to address problems when they are small than to let them grow—which they almost always do.
Why so defensive?
Psychologists tell us we get defensive because we are wired to protect ourselves. We have a built-in need to maintain a somewhat fixed sense of identity. Otherwise, accepting every outside reflection of who we are would send our minds into chaos. Therefore, we tend to resist messages that are counter to what we already believe.
Our view of ourselves is never quite accurate, however. If we over-protect it, we’ll miss opportunities to improve. I might think I have a nice smile, for example. But I should also want my partner to alert me that I have broccoli stuck in my teeth.
Defensiveness is not an unchangeable character flaw. It is an unconscious and automatic reaction to a perceived threat. Unfortunately, the threat is often not as big or real as we perceive, and therefore our reaction to it is more of an over-reaction.
Defensiveness is not an unchangeable character flaw.
People who were shamed or punished harshly as children are particularly prone to defensiveness due to how their brain’s wiring developed in that environment. The good news is that our tendency toward defensive over-reactions can be changed. The upside benefits are definitely worth the investment in time and effort to do so.
Mindset shifts toward becoming less defensive
Sometimes shifting our thoughts helps us be less defensive. We may need to reframe or reinterpret criticism as good and not as a sign of a romantic disaster. Having our partner criticize, then responding to their concern, is healthy for a relationship. This builds intimacy between the two individuals when done well.
We all have different thresholds for what we view as an attack. Recognizing that others might not be sensitive to the same things we get defensive about can help, too. We can consider how those less sensitive individuals think, then adopt their thought processes on the issue.
Separating who we are from what we’ve done makes a huge difference in our level of defensiveness.
Separating who we are from what we’ve done makes a huge difference in our level of defensiveness. Each of us has faults and makes mistakes—it is part of being human. And, each of us is a worthy and lovable person because we are created that way. The first does not negate the second. Remembering this helps us not be so defensive because the criticism becomes less personal. It is about what we did rather than who we are.
The advantage of accountability is the opposite of the problems created by defensiveness: more personal growth, better relationships, and gaining respect and admiration from others. The last one on this list might be hard to believe. Doesn’t accountability mean that everyone is going to blame us for everything? No.
Consider the difference between two coaches. Both just lost an important game. One goes to the press conference and demonstrates accountability: he admits his game strategy didn’t work. He sees now that he should have made adjustments to the personnel on the field sooner. He confesses that his team was not as prepared as they needed to be.
The other coach goes to his post-game press conference and takes no accountability. There was not enough time to prepare for this game, given the team’s packed schedule. The referees made bad calls. His players did not play with focus or motivation.
Clearly in neither case was the loss entirely the coach’s fault. After all, they were not the ones on the field. But which coach do we like and respect? Which do we believe will eventually create a winning team? It’s the first one of course, and the difference is because he demonstrates accountability.
Characteristics of highly accountable people
Since accountability is the far more desirable trait, here are four things we can do to demonstrate it:
Accountability starts with listening objectively to whatever complaint or criticism comes our way. Is there some element of truth to what this person is saying? How is whatever happened affecting them? I know that staying open-minded is really difficult. I find it helps to listen like the situation does not involve me.
Taking responsibility means owning everything we did wrong, could have done better, or could have used our influence for a better outcome. When I get past my defensiveness, I like to systematically go through the events and ask myself where my actions were less than ideal. Usually, I come up with even more room for improvement than the person who complained had identified.
Am I a masochist for finding fault with myself? No. Here’s the truth: admitting failure or guilt doesn’t have to be painful. In fact, it can be freeing in a couple of ways.
Admitting failure or guilt doesn’t have to be painful.
If we’re defensive, others will continue to press us to admit our wrongs. Confession takes that immediate pressure off and helps the other person feel heard and valued—a good relationship booster. I’m not talking about giving lip service to someone to get them off our back, but sincerely accepting our wrongdoings.
Admitting responsibility is also hopeful. Over time, we can see patterns of things that we regularly struggle with. By owning these shortfalls, we have now identified areas for improvement, which is the start of things getting better. I don’t know about you, but I have a long list of things to work on. It’s helpful to be able to focus on the areas that cause the most problems the most often.
Act to correct
Of course, just admitting wrong but then not doing anything about them is empty. Accountability means not only apologizing and expressing care, but also attempting to restore the damage and working to insure the situation doesn’t happen again. I previously wrote about good apologies and follow-through in this blog post, so I won’t repeat those points here.
I’ll be the first to admit that none of these steps are easy. The good news is that, when we commit to them and follow through, how others see us improves tremendously. People like, respect, and even admire accountable people. Deniers, blamers, and excuse-makers—not so much. Accountability has become such a rare trait, this is a fantastic way to set yourself apart from the crowd.
Better still, how we feel about ourselves is also restored. Seeing ourselves as fallible people who work to fix our mistakes is a lot more inspiring and worthy of our pride than someone who doesn’t. The key is deciding which person you want to be, then following that path.
Seeing ourselves as fallible people who work to fix our mistakes is inspiring and worthy of pride.
Perhaps someday the call for holding domestic violence offenders accountable will no longer be a cry for punishment. Rather, it will be a statement wishing those who have caused harm in a relationship to find something better. That’s the path to ending domestic violence that we at the Ananias Foundation take.
God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere. He is already aware of the truth about us—everything we say, do, and think. That makes the notion of a judgment day pretty sobering. If there is an ultimate time for accountability, it has to be when we die and face God. Defensiveness and excuses won’t work.
None of us are perfect enough to be with God for eternity. “Above average” or “better than most” doesn’t get us into heaven, either. Fortunately, God made a way for those who trust, love, and follow him. He sent his son Jesus to die for our shortcomings. Talk about someone who demonstrated accountability! He’s taken responsibility not only for himself, but all of his followers.
If this is true, then why should we worry about accountability? Jesus already covered it for us. While God does not expect us to be perfect, he is using our life here on earth to prepare for eternity. Plus, he blesses those he sees practicing accountability now. The list of long-term benefits I wrote about above is evidence, so we don’t have to wait until we die to be better off.
If you’d like to check out this amazing relationship, click here.