The Parenting Place offers a set of parenting tool box courses aimed at helping parents recognise the communication tools they learned in their family of origin and then introducing some (probably) new tools to learn and develop. I trained as a tool box facilitator several years ago, and always felt that the creative potential around communication tools could have been embraced far more.
I mean, do I even need to explain about the micro-management mallet? Or the sandpaper of criticism and fault finding? What about avoidance caution tape or – a personal favourite – the moaning chisel of complaint? So, they could have done more, but one thing that really stuck with me from the programme is the five As of Love: Appreciation, Affection, Accountability, Acceptance and Attention.
Although I may have struggled to tell the difference between Appreciation and Acceptance – I’m not sure how these are different, really, when what is being appreciated isn’t ‘what you do’ but ‘who you are‘ – I’ve become more aware and appreciative of the wisdom of including Accountability as a foundational aspect of a loving relationship.
In the toolbox, accountability is framed as teaching children the importance of accepting responsibility for what is theirs. If I agree with my child that they are now old enough to be responsible for…whatever…..then I need to give them space to remember to do the job and then hold them accountable for following through. I have to keep a hold on my own need to protect my child from pain by rushing in to fill the gap that they are learning to take on.
This makes logical sense, but there are emotional drivers that can cause us to sabotage the process at almost every stage.
I may not really want my child to be independent. I may doubt my own ability to allow my child to suffer discomfort as they learn. I may not have communicated as clearly as I think what my expectations are and then I may get frustrated when these are not met. I may be afraid of my child’s resentment/anger/defiance. I may want to control how my child meets my expectations rather than giving the space for them to find their own way. I may focus on finding fault with first attempts and discourage my child as they learn. And those are just the things I can think of off the top of my head.
Accountability is hard work requiring courage, resilience, self-awareness, compassion, empathy and clarity in both listening and speaking. And let’s be honest, many of us reach adulthood without actually having grasped the skills of either stepping up and not stepping over, or else setting good, clear boundaries and then following through by letting the consequences land where they belong.
But according to Brene Brown, accountability is also foundational for any learning/growing we may hope to do both personally (inner work) and relationally (outer work).
So here’s how Brene defines accountability: You own your mistakes, apologise and make amends.
You might want to pause with that definition for a moment and see how that lands for you…uncomfortable much? Feeling a bit wriggly or bristly?
Accountability is also an antidote to shame and blame, because accountability recognises that there is shared responsibility.
Harriet Lerner (I have mentioned her before) in her book Why won’t you apologise? gives several examples of situations where there is an unequal amount of blame in a situation – but even if you are only responsible for 20% of the issue, you can still apologise for that 20%.
This can break a stalemate and reinstate the possibility of relationship because accepting what you are responsible for and offering a sincere apology for that (no more, no less) is ultimately liberating for everyone.
You might want to pause again and reflect compassionately and without judgement on the level of shame you are currently feeling and the level of blaming you are currently engaging in. If you are still working on accountability as a relationship skill, then chances are there are some relationships where you are probably defaulting to shame and blame as a way of discharging discomfort and pain.
Accountability is not an easy choice to make and yet here’s the kicker: when we avoid accepting responsibility for what is ours we create more trouble than we save ourselves from. Equally, when we step in to take responsibility that is not ours we deny others the opportunity to own their agency, accept their power to act and to bring forth their best and fullest self.
Take some time to reflect
Are there relationships where you are avoiding accountability, either by not accepting your own responsibility or by not holding others accountable? How is that affecting you? Where are you feeling it in your body? What is it like for you as you consider this?
When you’ve taken time to name and feel the way things are for you, reflect for a moment: how would you like the relationship to be? Can you think of one or two concrete outcomes you would like or changes you would value? And are there one or two small steps you can make now that will move you towards those changes?
Pause with lectio
Read the story below slowly, bringing an awareness of accountability, boundaries and empowerment as you read. You might find yourself in the story somewhere, or it might be a word or phrase catches your attention. Let your attention stay where the Spirit stirs up the energy and stay curious about where your life is engaging with the text.
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralysed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’
The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.”’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there.John 5:2-13
Too hard basket
Avoidance is a strategy that many of us employ when we feel like whatever we are facing is too hard. It’s not as effective as you might hope…I’m sure you know that already.
So, what if you got a little basket and a stack of little notes and as your day allows, take a minute or two to do a quick review of the day so far, writing down any interaction or activity that you have metaphorically already put into the too hard basket – even if you are telling yourself that you are only temporarily putting it off. If you have allowed yourself to be distracted, then you are (unconsciously) putting it off. Be honest. Be accountable and write it on a note and put it in the basket.
At the end of the day, review one more time and then see what you have in your basket. Stay interested and curious….well, look at that….this one is hard….why is that one here? This isn’t an exercise to shame you into action, but to help you discover what is it that seems too hard? What will move me towards feeling able to tackle this?
Set a boundary
Pick one of the aspects of accountability that is hard for you and practice it in a safe setting. Choose something small and manageable with someone who will be understanding and encouraging. Do you have trouble being clear about expectations? Is it hard to let the consequences land with the other? Having been clear about expectations, do you need to practice leaving space for the other to feel the gap and learn to take responsibility to fill it? Do you need to practice being with discomfort and pain so that you don’t discharge those into blame/shame?
Who can support you as you do this? And what does support look like for you?