Why we resist taking accountability
After punching his wife, Sharon, in the face and stomach, Ron was ordered by a judge to attend therapy sessions.
He refused to attend the group of wife batterers. But he was willing and even interested to join a group of men who had trouble controlling their anger.
Why? Was he self-deceived? Did he not fully accept or feel adequate remorse for what he had done?
None of the above.
Renowned clinical psychologist Dr. Harriet Lerner has a more accurate and useful answer.
“Ron was resisting the notion that his crime defined him. You might argue that Ron is a batterer and that any language that softens or obscures this fact leaves him less accountable for his actions, but Ron will be more likely to accept responsibility and feel remorse if he can view himself as more than a batterer.
“For people to look squarely at their harmful actions and to become genuinely accountable they must have a platform of self-worth to stand on.
“Only from a vantage point of higher ground can people who commit harm gain perspective. Only from there can they apologize.”
Let me assure you at this point that in no way do I condone or justify any form of physical violence, and my heart is filled with deep compassion for those who suffer through it.
And I am also filled with compassion for the suffering experienced by those who commit violence.
If our goal is to stop violence and alleviate suffering for all, as mine is, then we have to see people through different eyes than the judgmental perspective we’re taught from birth.
We give lip service to love the sinner, hate the sin. But the reality is that we don’t really believe it, as evidenced by our language.
When someone cheats on a test, we don’t say, He cheated. We say, He’s a cheater.
When people lie, they are labeled liars. When a person steals, he or she is labeled a thief.
Our language is permeated with scarlet letters. Good people are well-behaved, virtuous, decent, etc. Bad people are dirty, degenerate, corrupt, sinful, etc.
Ron’s refusal to take on an identity defined by his worst deeds is, as Dr. Lerner says, a healthy act of resistance.
If his self-identify is equated with his violent acts, then taking accountability would threaten him with feelings of worthlessness.
This is why we resist taking accountability. As Dr. Lerner explains,
“We cannot survive when our identity is defined by or limited to our worst behavior. Every human must be able to view the self as complex and multidimensional. When this fact is obscured, people will wrap themselves in layers of denial in order to survive.
“How can we apologize for something we are, rather than something we did?”
We may not hit our spouses, but all of us are just like Ron. None of us want to be defined by our worst behavior. All of us viscerally resist shameful branding — and for good reason.
All of us desperately crave to be valued, validated, appreciated, and loved — especially in spite of our worst flaws and greatest weaknesses.
The way to take full accountability for our harmful actions is to accept to our bones that we are worthy of unconditional love and acceptance — just as we are in this moment.
As the Buddha said,
“You can search the ten-fold universe and not find another being more deserving of loving-kindness than yourself.”
I know with all my heart that this is true.
I don’t care who you are or what you’ve done. You are worthy of love, you are deserving of mercy and compassion.
You are not defined or valued by your worst deeds; your value is intrinsic and independent of the world’s perceptions and labels.
You are never a lost cause — you can change and improve. But in order to do so, you must first believe in and accept your worthiness.
To witness how much we all yearn to be loved and accepted, watch this tear-jerker: