I always speak about emotional responsibility and accountability and I always get asked what do I mean? For a long while I took this to be a self-evident truth. Meaning, in any relationship there is an (implicit and explicit) agreement that our interactions will be centred on emotionally responsible behaviour. I played myself intensely in this regard, L O L!! (Takes L and moves on)
Emotional accountability and responsibility are two ends of the same spectrum of behaviour. In other words they represent different points in a series of actions. Emotional accountability is about boundary setting – defining the terms of the relationship and establishing behaviours which are acceptable and not acceptable. Emotional responsibility is about taking accountability for actions that break/disrespect those boundaries. Sounds simple. Let me explain. In University I had a girlfriend. She was the first person I had sex with and I thought we would get married and live a happy lesbian life. She cheated on me with someone I thought was my friend. In response, I angrily confronted her and our altercation turned physical. In that moment I realised I was wrong, for putting my hands on her. It didn’t matter what she had done leading up to the altercation, I had physically violated and assaulted her and I had to take responsibility.
Emotional responsibility is about recognising how your actions contributed to a particular outcome and taking unreserved accountability for them. Most people think it’s merely about saying you’re sorry, that’s one part, but another part of taking responsibility is taking remedial actions.
Taking remedial actions
Often people are under the misguided assumption that uttering the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologise” warrants forgiveness on the spot and shows that you have taken responsibility. Not so fast! What people fail to understand is that an apology is not an exchange currency – you are not entitled to forgiveness. Further an apology without a plan on how you intend to change your behaviour in the future is a non-apology. Just don’t do it, if you’re not going to take full responsibility. APOLOGISING IS ABOUT ATTITUDINAL CHANGE – an apology comes after you have examined your motivations that led to your actions and realised they were wrong and changing your FUTURE ACTIONS.
This is because apologising is about acknowledging the role you played in producing a particular outcome. See apologies as more like questions, they ask what would be a way forward to prevent another incident such as the last.
Here’s the thing, emotional accountability/responsibility describes a range of actions utilised to set boundaries, communicate emotions, and seek resolution and affirmation when said boundaries have been broken. Sounds simple, but because human emotions are not simple there can be a lot of miscommunication often resulting in misunderstanding. I have realised that emotional accountability and responsibility are different ends of the same spectrum. For me emotional accountability sets the tone of an interaction whereas emotional responsibility is what needs to happen when a boundary has been broken or an abusive action has happened. Which leads me to another important point.
Emotional responsibility doesn’t depend on your intentions
Often people think that explaining that it wasn’t their “intention” to cause a particular outcome gets them off the hook. Or even more popular, saying I am sorry cleans the slate for a do-over. NOPE! In fact I’d say the one word I hate with a passion is “sorry/apologise”. Because let’s face it, a lot of people do apologies really badly.
See it this way, the French synonym for apology is amende honorable, which literally translates to ‘honourable reparation’. Reparation means “making amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money or otherwise helping those who have been wronged. Or the compensation for war damage paid by a defeated state OR repairing something.”
Each of these define an apology as involving an action. What action needs to be taken would depend on the situation. Sometimes the action requires you letting the person who is hurt decide the next steps. Sometimes it means making sure that you never do that again. However, in order to understand what taking accountability means, you have to know your own boundaries and that requires emotional awareness and boundary setting.
Setting boundaries (for yourself and others)
Boundaries are not the easiest thing to set because sometimes we just don’t know our boundaries. They can depend on our value system or they might be the result of past lessons learnt in previous relationships. For example a boundary I set is requiring radical honesty from myself and my partners/friends and family. This means I want the truth, every time. It’s difficult and it’s a learning process, but it works for me. Another boundary is full and informed consent. Whether it’s a hug or sex, people have to ask unless we have negotiated otherwise. It might seem harsh but those are my most important boundaries.
However, determining your boundaries is not always easy. A trick I’ve learnt is to listen to my body (this is not always easy), your body often tells you what makes you uncomfortable (some people describe it as instinct). Listen to your body, are you suddenly nervous, is your body reacting in uncomfortable ways to stressors? You might have difficulty breathing, or you might suddenly get hot or cold in reaction to something your partner/friend/family says or does. Look at it this way, have you ever felt annoyed, irritated, or disrespected and kept silent, only to head home and know exactly what it was that made you feel all those emotions? The ability to set boundaries means being in tune with those “instincts” and articulating yourself in the moment.
In the next couple of weeks, this blog will explore various aspects of relationships and we will revisit this topic all the time. This is because it is not simple and practicing emotional responsibility can be incredibly difficult.