9 Ways to Be Accountable When You've Been Abusive
As I sit in my bed and begin to type (beds are my favorite typing places), there is a part of me that says, Don’t write this article.
There is a part of me that still resonates deeply with the fear and shame that surround the topics of abuse and intimate partner violence - the taboo that most communities have around talking not just about the fact that people experience rape and abuse, but that people we know and care about might be rapists and abusers.
Perhaps most secret and shameful of all is the fear that we, ourselves, are or have been abusive - the fear that we could be those villains, those monsters in the night.
Nobody wants to be "an abuser." No one wants to admit that they have hurt someone, especially when so many of us have been hurt ourselves.
But the truth is that abusers and survivors of abuse do not exist, and have never existed, in a dichotomy: Sometimes, hurt people hurt people. In this rape culture we live in, sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between the hurt you are experiencing and the hurt you are causing someone else.
Seven years ago, when I first started training as support worker for survivors of intimate partner violence, I was sitting in a training workshop when someone asked what our organization’s policy was on taking requests for support from people who were abusing their partners and wanted help stopping.
The answer was brusque and immediate: "We don’t work with abusers. Period."
Fair enough, I thought.After all, an organization created to support survivors of rape and abuse should center survivors, not the people who hurt them. The only problem was, I wondered, What happens when people are both survivors and abusers? And if we don’t work with abusers, who does?
Note: I am not, in this article, talking about whether or not a relationship can be "mutually abusive." This is a conversation for another time. Rather, I am suggesting that people who are survivors in one relationship are capable of being abusive in previous or later relationships.
Seven years later, as a therapist who has worked with many individuals who are "recovering" or "former" abusers, I am still looking for the answers to those questions. The fact is that there are extremely few resources and organizations out there with the mandate, will, and/or knowledge to how to help people stop being abusive.
But doesn’t the feminist saying go, "We shouldn’t be teaching people how not to get raped, we should be teaching people not to rape?"
And if so, doesn’t it follow that we shouldn’t only support people who have survived abuse, we should also support people in learning how not to abuse?
When we are able to admit that the capacity to harm lies within ourselves - within us all - we become capable of radically transforming the conversation around abuse and rape culture. We can go from simply reacting to abuse and punishing "abusers" to preventing abuse and healing our communities.
Because the revolution starts at home, as they say. The revolution starts in your house, in your own relationships, in your bedroom. The revolution starts in your heart.
The following is a nine-step guide to confronting the abuser in you, in me, in us all.
1. Listen to the Survivor
When one has been abusive, the very first - and one of the most difficult - skills of holding oneself accountable is learning to simply listen to the person or people whom one has harmed:
Listening without becoming defensive.
Listening without trying to equivocate or make excuses.
Listening without minimizing or denying the extent of the harm.
Listening without trying to make oneself the center of the story being told.
When someone, particularly a partner or loved one, tells you that you have hurt or abused them, it can be easy to understand this as an accusation or attack. Very often, this is our first assumption - that we are being attacked.
This is why so many perpetrators of abuse respond to survivors who confront them by saying something along the lines of, "I’m not abusing you. You are abusing me, right now, with this accusation!"
But this is the cycle of violence talking. This is the script that rape culture has built for us: a script in which there must be a hero and a villain, a right and a wrong, an accuser and an accused.
What if we understood being confronted about perpetuating abuse as an act of courage - even a gift - on the part of the survivor?
What if, instead of reacting immediately in our own defense, we instead took the time to listen, to really try to understand the harm we might have done to another person?
When we think of accountability in terms of listening and love instead of accusation and punishment, everything changes.
2. Take Responsibility For the Abuse
After listening, the next step in holding oneself accountable is taking responsibility for the abuse. This means, simply enough, agreeing that you and only you are the source of physical, emotional, or psychological violence directed toward another person.
A simple analogy for taking responsibility for abuse can be made to taking responsibility for stepping on someone else’s foot: There are many reasons why you might do such a thing - you were in a hurry, you weren’t looking where you were going, or maybe no one ever taught you that it was wrong to step on other people’s feet.
But you still did it. No one else - only you are responsible, and it is up to you to acknowledge and apologize for it.
The same holds true for abuse: No one, and I really mean no one - not your partner, not patriarchy, not mental illness, not society, not the Devil - is responsible for the violence that you do to another person.
A lot of factors can contribute to or influence one’s reasons for committing abuse (see the point below), but in the end, only I am responsible for my actions, as you are for yours.
3. Accept That Your Reasons Are Not Excuses
There is an awful, pervasive myth out there that people who abuse others do so simply because they are bad people - because they are sadistic, or because they enjoy other people’s pain.
This is, I think, part of the reason why so many people who have been abusive in the past or present resist the use of the terms "abuse" or "abuser" to describe their behavior. In fact, very, very, very few people who abuse are motivated to do so by sadism.
In my experience as a therapist and community support worker, when people are abusive, it’s usually because they have a reason based in desperation or suffering.
Some reasons for abusive behavior I have heard include:
I am isolated and alone, and the only person who keeps me alive is my partner. This is why I can’t let my partner leave me.
My partner hurts me all the time. I was just hurting them back.
I am sick, and if I don’t force people to take care of me, then I will be left to die.
I am suffering, and the only way to relieve the pain is to hurt myself or others.
I didn’t know that what I was doing was abuse. People always did the same to me. I was just following the script.
No one will love me unless I make them.
All of these are powerful, real reasons for abuse - but they are also never excuses. There is no reason good enough to excuse abusive behavior.
Reasons help us understand abuse, but they do not excuse it.
Accepting this is essential to transforming culpability into accountability and turning justice into healing.
4. Don’t Play the ‘Survivor Olympics’
As I mentioned above, communities tend to operate on a survivor/abuser or victim/perpetrator dichotomy model of abuse. This is the belief that people who have survived abuse in one relationship can never be abusive in other relationships.
I find that social justice or leftist communities also tend to misapply social analysis to individual situations of abuse, suggesting that individuals who belong to oppressed or marginalized groups can never abuse individuals who belong to privileged groups (that is, that women can never abuse men, racialized people can never abuse white people, and so on).
But neither of the above ideas is true. Survivors of abuse in one relationship can, in fact, be abusive in other relationships.
And it’s for privileged individuals to abuse others because of the extra power social privilege gives them, but anyone is capable of abusing anyone given the right (or rather, wrong) circumstances.
It can be easy, when confronted with the abuse we have perpetrated, to try and play "survivor Olympics."
"I can’t be abusive," we may want to argue, "I’m a survivor!" Or "The abuse I have survived is so much worse than what you’re accusing me of!" Or "Nothing I do is abusive to you, because you have more privilege than me."
But survivors can be abusers, too.
Anyone can be abusive, and comparing or trivializing doesn’t absolve us of responsibility for it.
5. Take the Survivor’s Lead
When having a dialogue with someone who has abused, it’s essential to give the survivor the space to take the lead on expressing their needs and setting boundaries.
If you have abused someone, it’s not up to you to decide how the process of healing or accountability should work.
Instead, it might be a good idea to try asking the person who has confronted you questions like: What do you need right now? Is there anything I can do to make this feel better? How much contact would you like to have with me going forward? If we share a community, how should I navigate situations where we might end up in the same place? How does this conversation feel for you, right now?
At the same time, it’s important to understand that the needs of survivors of abuse can change over time, and that survivors may not always know right away - or ever - what their needs are.
Being accountable and responsible for abuse means being patient, flexible, and reflective about the process of having dialogue with the survivor.
6. Face the Fear of Accountability
Being accountable for abuse takes a lot of courage.
We live in a culture that demonizes and oversimplifies abuse, probably because we don’t want to accept the reality that abuse is actually commonplace and can be perpetrated by anybody.
A lot of people paint themselves into corners denying abuse, because, to be quite honest, it’s terrifying to face the consequences, real and imagined, of taking responsibility.
And there are real risks: People have lost friends, communities, jobs, and resources over abuse. The risks are especially high for marginalized individuals - I am thinking particularly of Black and Brown folks here - who are likely to face harsh, discriminatory sentencing in legal processes.
There is nothing I can say to make this hard reality easier.
I can only suggest that when it comes to ending abuse, it’s easier to face our fear than live in it all of our lives. It’s more healing to tell the truth than to hide inside a lie.
When we hold ourselves accountable, we prove that the myth of the "monster" abuser is a lie.
7. Separate Guilt from Shame
Shame and social stigma are powerful emotional forces that can prevent us from holding ourselves accountable for being abusive: We don’t want to admit to "being that person," so we don’t admit to having been abusive at all.
Some people might suggest that people who have been abusive ought to feel shame - after all, perpetrating abuse is wrong. I would argue, though, that this is where the difference between guilt and shame is key:
Guilt is feeling bad about something you’ve done. Shame is feeling bad about who you are.
People who have been abusive should feel guilty - guilty for the specific acts of abuse they are responsible for. They should not feel shame about who they are, because this means that abuse has become a part of their identity.
It means that they believe that they are fundamentally a bad person - in other words, "an abuser."
But if you believe that you are an "abuser," a bad person who hurts others, then you have already lost the struggle for change - because we cannot change who we are.
If you believe that you are a fundamentally good person who has done hurtful or abusive things, then you open the possibility for change.
8. Don’t Expect Anyone to Forgive You
Being accountable is not, fundamentally, about earning forgiveness. That is to say, it doesn’t matter how accountable you are - nobody has to forgive you for being abusive, least of all the person you have abused.
In fact, using the process of "doing" accountability to try and manipulate or coerce someone into giving their forgiveness to you is an extension of the abuse dynamic. It centers the abuser, not the survivor.
One shouldn’t try aim for forgiveness when holding oneself accountable. Rather, self-accountability is about learning how we have harmed others, why we have harmed others, and how we can stop.
9. Forgive Yourself
You do have to forgive yourself. Because you can’t stop hurting other people until you stop hurting yourself.
When one is abusive, when one is hurting so much on the inside, that it feels like the only way to make it stop is to hurt other people, it can be terrifying to face the hard truth of words like abuse and accountability.One might rather blame others, blame society, blame the people we love, instead of ourselves.
This is true, I think, of community as well as individuals. It is so much easier, so much simpler, to create hard lines between good and bad people, to create walls to shut the shadowy archetype of "the abuser" out instead of mirrors to look at the abuser within.
Perhaps this is why self-accountability tools like this list are so rare.
It takes courage to be accountable. To decide to heal.
But when we do decide, we discover incredible new possibilities: There is good in everyone. Anyone is capable of change. And you are braver than you know.
~ Michel de Montaigne
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