We all know someone who’s never, ever in the wrong—the parent whose constant refrain is “because I said so,” the partner who transforms into a debate team captain, the co-worker with a Rolodex full of convenient excuses, or the friend who laughs away any attempt at serious conversation. It can be tough to deal with someone who shrugs off responsibility for their mistakes or missteps... and it’s even harder to recognize that kind of behavior in ourselves.
“When gentle feedback is given—maybe a performance review, or a partner or a friend gently bringing this up as a pattern—then somebody who's really willing to take a step back and develop insight and work on themselves can notice and do something about it,” Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of Detox Your Thoughts, told VICE. Still, acting on that kind of “gentle feedback” is often easier said than done. “You can become very conditioned to have a knee jerk reaction behaviorally, where you just get used to evading blame—it can be very, very, very difficult for some people to take responsibility because they've never done it before,” Bonior said.
Whether you’ve been told that you regularly duck accountability or whether you’ve tried to deliver that message yourself, unraveling why someone might be having trouble accepting blame is the first step to accepting the situation at hand. “It is challenging to maintain a healthy relationship with someone who refuses to accept accountability,” Barrie Sueskind, a licensed marriage and family therapist, told VICE. “It's important to manage your expectations so you don't get frustrated every time it happens. If someone has demonstrated limited capacity for compassion and self-awareness, don't waste your energy imploring them to acknowledge your perspective and accept blame.”
Here’s how to decode what you (or someone else!) is doing when they’re refusing to take responsibility—and how to decide whether or not it’s worth the effort to try to break the cycle.
You were constantly blamed for things as a child
While constantly dodging blame for small things, like forgetting to turn the air conditioner off or taking a harsh joke too far, might seem purely selfish or mean-spirited, experts say that kind of response can actually come from a place of hurt. “Many people are raised to believe that accepting blame for wrongdoing diminishes their inherent value and makes them unworthy of love,” Sueskind said. “In some families, acting out or making mistakes can mean severe punishments. The worst penalties include having love, affection and attention withdrawn. Adults who suffered these painful consequences in childhood will often avoid blame at all costs because they associate accepting accountability with a rupture in important relationships.”
It might be difficult to suss out that kind of pattern in, say, a co-worker, where you’re less likely to be intimately connected—but if you do know enough to sense this kind of history, it could be worth letting them know that your relationship is a safe space to take accountability for mistakes by doing so yourself. “One of the best ways to teach people is by modeling behavior, demonstrating that it's okay to acknowledge when you've messed up or made a mistake, and that doing so can offer healing in a ruptured relationship,” Sueskind said. That might mean calling yourself out for forgetting to feed the cat, or offering an immediate, no-strings-attached apology when you’re late to happy hour—small things that make it clear that in this house, we fuck up, and that’s totally OK!
You expect yourself to be perfect
If the idea of being wrong about anything, ever, totally challenges your view of yourself, you might be laboring under the burden of perfectionism, a personality trait that revolves around the need to achieve perfection—or, at least, appear perfect to others. Perfectionism is often touted as a positive quality by bootstrap-pulling Baby Boomers and prospective employers, but in reality… it kind of sucks!
“It's often very threatening for certain people to accept responsibility, because maybe they're already so insecure, or their ego is so fragile, that they feel like, well, if I did something wrong, then I'm worthless,” Bonior said. “[Making a mistake] means that all their beliefs about themselves, like whether they're smart, or competent, or a good friend, come crashing down because they have this sort of ‘all or none’ perfectionism: if I'm a good friend, I never let people down or if I'm a smart person, I never screw up the project.”
The thing about being a perfectionist is that at some point, you’re going to fall short of your own standards—and by clinging to the idea that you have to be an infallible operator, moving through life flawlessly, you might actually be hurting the people around you, too.
You have a victim mentality
OK, if you genuinely think that you’re the wronged party in every single conflict you encounter, I have some bad news: You’re not. In fact, you’re probably not even reading this article, so let’s just spell out what a “victim mentality” is for whoever has to deal with you: It’s the mindset that everyone else is wrong and out to get you, and that any concession on that stance is a threat to your survival.
“People who lack self-awareness have a hard time accepting blame,” Sueskind said. “Some people find it difficult to recognize their part in any conflict, and tend to blame other people and circumstances rather than acknowledging their own role.” If this sounds like someone you know, just know that it’s still probably not a malicious pattern of behavior—instead, Sueskind called it “immature” behavior that leads people to become “disempowered and angry, depressed, or both.”
Here’s how to deal
If things are getting toxic, end the relationship
First thing’s first: think seriously about whether this evasive behavior is something you want to—or should—be putting up with.
“It's important to think in terms of cost-benefit analysis: Is this something that actually I can live with? Do I want to live with this? And do I want to actually try to work on this in the absence of the other person being willing to work on it?” Bonior said. Obviously, some relationships are easier to end than others—refusal to accept blame could be a romantic dealbreaker, but something salvageable in a distant friendship; it could be worth having a serious discussion with when you notice a pattern with a family member, but worth tuning out from a co-worker.
Bonior also said evading all blame can veer into abusive territory if the evasion becomes an act of control—or if the other person is constantly shifting blame onto you, and using that blame to cut you off from other loved ones or make you feel so bad about yourself that you stay in an unsafe situation. “I've seen plenty of relationships where people are gaslit into believing that everything is their fault,” she said. “So, I think you have to really watch your own reactions too, because over time, this could wear you down and you could start blaming yourself more than you should be, because you’re being told so much that everything is your fault.”
Make sure to focus on what you really need
If someone’s evasion doesn’t seem to be coming from a place of coercion or malice, there are other ways to deal—most of which involve letting go of the need to place blame at all.
Bonior said it’s essential to center any conversation you have on “I” statements— like, “I feel confused when I ask you why you didn’t do the dishes like you promised and you blame me for having ‘delicate cookware,’” versus “You never do the dishes and you always come up with the weirdest, dumbest excuses!”—in order to make it clear that you’re not on the attack. “It's a cliche, but it actually really helps, because people who are prone to evading responsibility are going to get really easily defensive,” Bonior said.
Sueskind said that if avoiding blame is a bad habit that someone is showing no signs of breaking, it’s worth letting go of “XYZ accepts responsibility” as an end-goal and focusing elsewhere. “Make specific requests associated with practical results,” she said. “What do you want to get out of the situation beyond disagreement about who is at fault? Offer clear-cut solutions to the conflict and lay out expectations for moving forward.”
It can also be helpful to acknowledge your own role in a conflict or unpleasant situation—even if the other party involved doesn’t do the same. “Taking accountability for your part in the situation may not lead the other person to follow suit, but it will allow you to work on dynamics within your control instead of being at the whim of someone who is unlikely to reflect on their role or take steps to improve the relationship,” Sueskind said. “Taking accountability is an essential ingredient for self-improvement and personal growth. It is freeing to recognize that you can be imperfect and still worthy of love and respect.”
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