You are more than the worst thing you’ve done.
That thing you did that you’ve been ignoring, trying to hide from friends or family out of shame, having stress dreams about—it’s time to address it.
We all harm people, friends, family, acquaintances, and people we love deeply. But our worst mistakes don’t have to define us. We are all capable of harm, but we are also capable of growth and transformation.
“You are more than the worst thing you did” is a call to build our capacity to be accountable for all levels of harm we may cause others from small scale hurt and breaks in trust to violence and abuse.
Recognizing that we have harmed someone does not mean we have to believe we are terrible, irredeemable, undeserving people. We are called to truly understand the impact of our actions, but this does not mean losing all self worth.
In order to build accountable communities, we have to learn how to hold the dualities that we and the people we love have caused harm and that our past actions don’t have to define us so long as we: recognize this harm and its impact, apologize, make a meaningful effort towards repair, and change our behavior.
This site is an offering to inspire your journey with accountability and an invitation to take meaningful steps to becoming the person you want to be.
Some resources are focused on more severe harms, some are focused on lower-level harms, but these resources may still feel applicable to you. Please take what is useful to you and leave what isn’t.
What is holding us back from being accountable?
“If we cannot reveal what we have done or what was done to us without being seen as inferior, damaged, tainted, broken, monstrous, irreparable, and so on, then, out of a core human drive toward dignity, we will not do it.”Nathan Shara (Beyond Survival)
What is a moment you feel shame or guilt about? Has this shame or guilt prevented you from being accountable or acting in alignment with your values? What does it require of us in order to be accountable?
What are some bodily responses you have when you are called in/out? Has your instinctual response prevented you from being accountable in the past? How can you respond from a place of radical love rather than defensiveness? Is there repair you need to do for how you have responded to situations in the past?
Nathan Shara, therapist, facilitator, educator and writer, offers some reflections on facing shame in the excerpt of Beyond Survival.
“Shame is different than guilt. While guilt focuses on our behavior (‘I did something bad’), shame creates an identity: ‘I am bad.’ Shame keeps us stuck, isolated, and hiding. With no way to escape from the totality of our belief (‘I just am wrong’), we may do some of the following:
- hide what we feel is bad about ourselves and try hard to pass as “good.”
- overcompensate in other parts of life through overwork, caretaking, or perfectionism to make up for whatever is “wrong” about us.
- defend ourselves from any insinuation that we might have done wrong, attempt to rationalize, or justify our actions.
- blame someone else, try to divert responsibility, or shift the focus onto another.
- attack anyone who draws attention toward the source of our shame, try to have power by dominating or shaming others.
- numb through self-harming use of alcohol, substances, food, sex, technology, and so on.
Most of us use all of these strategies in different moments. Overaccountability and underaccountability are two sides of the Same coin: ‘I can’t stand how bad I feel and can’t imagine making it right (overaccountability) so I’m going to hide that it (whatever it is) even happened, or lie about it or blame someone else (underaccountability).’”
What is accountability?
“There is no way to ‘hold people accountable.’ People can only ‘take accountability.’ Accountability is a continuous, active, voluntary process of being responsible to yourself and those around you for your choices and the consequences of your choices. Unlike punishment, it is something we do rather than something that is done to us.”Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan (“Fumbling Toward Repair”)
Are there feelings coming up for you while watching this? Are they tied to a particular instance in which you caused harm? If so, do you feel like you still have work to do to be accountable for harm you caused?
Mia Mingus, writer, educator and trainer for transformative justice and disability justice divides accountability into four main parts—Self-Reflection, Apologizing, Repair, Behavior Change. She writes about what each of these entails and describes her view of accountability in her blog post, “The Four Parts of Accountability: How to Give a Genuine Apology” from which the following is an excerpt:
“Accountability is not merely confessing what you’ve done; it is a process that must be practiced. It operates within relationship and though there are key common threads, accountability will look different depending on many variables such as the kind, severity, and length of harm, violence and abuse; the nature of the relationship(s); the quality and consistency of prior accountability work done, if any.
For most of us, we have been taught to fear accountability and struggle to know how to conceive of it outside of punishment or revenge. Accountability does not have to be scary, though it will never be easy or comfortable. And it shouldn’t be comfortable. True accountability, by its very nature, should push us to grow and change, to transform. Transformation is not to be romanticized or taken lightly. Remember, true transformation requires a death and a birth, an ending and a beginning. True accountability requires vulnerability and courage, two qualities that we are not readily encouraged to practice in our society.
Accountability should be proactive. We should be forthcoming about our mistakes, rather than hoping no one finds out about what we’ve done. Ideally, we would proactively communicate with others as soon as we know we’ve messed up or haven’t done what we said we would do. This is true whether someone has made us aware of what we’ve done (or not done) or whether we’ve come to the realization on our own. We would care more about doing the right thing, than “getting caught.” We would not put the labor of reaching out and checking in about our accountability on someone else, especially those we’ve harmed. We would proactively do the work to be accountable for ourselves including the work to not run away or hide.
Proactively taking accountability for our actions is an important way we can build trust with the people in our lives. It is a practice that demonstrates our character, integrity, capacity for self-reflection, and the kinds of values that we are committed to. It is a practice of interdependence, a way to care for those we love and our selves, and shows that we have done our own internal work to take responsibility for our actions.”
What are your values? Are there things you did today that were outside of your values? Are there things you need to do to take accountability? How can you integrate this daily practice of reflection into your life?
9 Ways to Be Accountable
In 2016, Kai Cheng Thom, a writer, performer, healer, wrote an article entitled “9 Ways to Be Accountable When You’ve Been Abusive” that provides a helpful framework for accountability.
Cheng Thom starts, “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.”
- Listen to the survivor
- Take responsibility for the abuse
- Accept that your reasons are not excuses
- Don’t play the “survivor olympics”
- Take the survivor’s lead
- Face the fear of accountability
- Separate shame from guilt
- Don’t expect anyone to forgive you
- Forgive yourself
Accountability is not synonymous with incarceration and punishment.
Shira Hassan, a harm reductionist and prison abolitionist who founded Just Practice which consults with organizations about transformative justice, says, “The difference between punishment and consequences is that punishment often is not the same as transformation.” Common Justice, an anti-violence and anti-prison organization in New York City says, “Meaningful accountability can reduce violence in ways punishment cannot.” Read more at any of the sources below:
- Isolation Cannot Heal Isolation – Blyth Barnow found in Beyond Survival
- What Does Accountability Look Like Without Punishment? – JOSIE DUFFY RICE & MARIAME KABA & REINA SULTAN found in We Do This ‘Til We Free Us
- Punishment Is Not Accountability – Virginia Domestic Violence Action Alliance
- You Can’t End Violence With More Violence – An interview by Sarah Jaffe with Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan (Audio and text)
- Statement on Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex (2001) – INCITE! and Critical Resistance
For more reading on accountability, here are two blog posts by the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective:
• New Year Intentions and Practicing Accountability by Mia Mingus
• Healing and Justice, Together and Apart: Accountability Beyond the “Process” by Alix Johnson
What is a good apology?
“Transformative accountability means that when we apologize there is congruence between our words, emotions, and actions.”Nathan Shara (Beyond Survival)
While apologizing is only one part of what it means to be accountable (all listed under “What is Accountability”), as Mia Mingus says, “Apologizing well is a fundamental part of accountability. It is a skill that we should all understand and practice consistently. You cannot take accountability if you do not know how to apologize well.”
The following is an excerpt from Mingus’s blog post “How To Give A Genuine Apology.”
“This write-up primarily focuses on apologizing to people that we care about; people with whom we want to continue to be in relationship; people who are already in our lives and with whom we have loving or caring relationships. There are many different factors in apologizing and everything cannot be covered here. This write-up does not cover how to apologize to people to whom you’ve done severe harm, violence or abuse. Nor does it cover how to apologize to people who have power over you or across significant power differences, for example. Though there are similar threads and principles that run throughout every quality apology, I strongly recommend that people ask for support from their pod people and/or work with an experienced transformative justice practitioner who can help you navigate the specific complexities of the situation, harm, violence, relationship, community, culture for other types of apologies.
Here, we will focus on conflict, hurt, misunderstandings, small breaks in trust, and low-level harm. We begin with these because most of us do not know how to navigate these smaller experiences and our relationships suffer or even end because of it…
In my time doing transformative justice work, I have found that these are the components of a good apology. Depending on the relationship and your track record of accountability with the person or people you are apologizing to, you may not need to do all of these steps every single time. However, I would encourage you not to skimp, especially if you haven’t done the work to build up a strong track record or culture of accountability, reliability or trust in your relationships.
The goal of these steps is not to be over-accountable, but to be thorough and to tend to those who were harmed, hurt or impacted by your actions. Again, here we are focusing on people you love or care about and with whom you want to be in relationship. We are focusing on conflict, hurt, misunderstandings, small breaks in trust, and low-level harm.
1. “I’M SORRY.” It may seem silly to begin with this, but I cannot tell you how many apologies I have heard that do not include “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” It is important to apologize in your apology.
2. NAME THE HURT/HARM. This is an opportunity to name what you did and demonstrate that you understand what happened. If your behavior was racist, say it was racist instead of “confused” or “hurtful.” If you made an assumption, own that you made an assumption. If you bullied or gossiped about someone, name it. Every single one of us knows what it is like to have someone skip this part of their apology or skirt around actually naming their behavior. This step in particular can go a long way to help build back trust and is a moment to practice humility and clarity.
3. NAME THE IMPACT. A quality apology acknowledges the impact, no matter your intention. It is not to say that intentions don’t matter at all—the difference between someone purposefully setting out to harm you vs. someone who harmed you unintentionally is important. However, this is not the place to explain or wallow in your intent. This is a time to tend to the impact your actions (or inactions) had on someone else. This is a chance to practice care, empathy, and compassion. “I can only imagine how painful that was for you.” “I would be very hurt and angry too.” “I can see why you wouldn’t trust me again.”
4. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY BY NAMING YOUR ACTIONS. This step is probably the most important part of an apology. You need to name your actions and what you did. This is a chance to put yourself in the apology and the hurt/harm. This is a chance to truly take responsibility. “I can only imagine how painful that was for you because you told me that you don’t like to be teased about that and I teased you about it anyway.” “I would be very hurt and angry too. I promised you I would be there and then I didn’t show up and I didn’t call.” “I can see why you wouldn’t trust me with something confidential again because I shared something that you had confided in me and I explicitly swore to not tell anyone.” “I made a mistake.” “It was my fault.” “I did/I do ______.” “I didn’t/I don’t _____.”
This is a place to practice true remorse, show vulnerability and to again, focus on the impact, instead of the intent. This is a great opportunity to practice integrity.
5. COMMIT TO NOT DOING THE HURT/HARM AGAIN. The final step of an apology is to commit to not doing the hurt/harm again. This step is key because it doesn’t matter how great your apology was if you continue the hurt or harm. “I promise not to tease you about that ever again.” “I don’t want to be the kind of person you can’t trust because I care about you and I will work to earn back your trust, knowing that will take time.” “I will do my chores from now on.” “I will ask you what you need next time instead of making assumptions.”
The hardest part of this step is that you actually have to do the thing you say you will. This is where our own daily work to be accountable to ourselves and others plays a key role. Hopefully you are building the skills to change your behaviors already, so that you can make good on your commitment.”
– Mia Mingus’ blog post.
– Podcast on how to apologize with Harriet Lerner.
– Nathan Shara’s excerpt “Saying Sorry, Feeling Sorry, Doing Sorry, Being Sorry” in their essay “Facing Shame” in Beyond Survival.
What are accountable communities?
How can we create an environment in our communities where it is not only possible but encouraged and the norm for people to be accountable?
“In order to move from shame toward accountability and healing, we need to believe that safety, connection, and dignity are possible. If we know or believe that our physical, sexual, or material safety will be violated if we disclose either the harm that was done to us or the harm we have caused), then concealing these things is an understandable and fundamentally adaptive way to maintain our safety. If we experience social rejection, ostracism, and isolation by disclosing our experiences of harm (whether surviving harm, causing harm, or both), then concealing, minimizing and denying these experiences are logical and fundamentally life affirming strategies (albeit with huge costs). If we cannot reveal what we have done or what was done to us without being seen as inferior, damaged, tainted, broken, monstrous, irreparable, and so on, then, out of a core human drive toward dignity, we will not do it. Therapist and author Harriet Lerner writes: ‘If identity—who you are—is equated with your worst behaviors, you will not accept responsibility or access genuine feelings of sorrow—because to do so would invite feelings of worthlessness. How can we apologize for something we are, rather than something we did?’” – Nathan Shara, “Facing Shame” in Beyond Survival
What is Transformative Justice?
Mia Mingus writes in her brief description of Transformative Justice, “Transformative Justice (TJ) is a political framework and approach for responding to violence, harm and abuse. At its most basic, it seeks to respond to violence without creating more violence and/or engaging in harm reduction to lessen the violence. TJ can be thought of as a way of “making things right,” getting in “right relation,” or creating justice together. Transformative justice responses and interventions 1) do not rely on the state (e.g. police, prisons, the criminal legal system, I.C.E., foster care system (though some TJ responses do rely on or incorporate social services like counseling); 2) do not reinforce or perpetuate violence such as oppressive norms or vigilantism; and most importantly, 3) actively cultivate the things we know prevent violence such as healing, accountability, resilience, and safety for all involved….
TJ invites us to not only respond to current incidences of violence, but to also prevent future violence from happening, thereby breaking (generational) cycles of violence. TJ works to respond to immediate needs in a way that moves us closer to what we ultimately long for. In other words, how can we respond to violence in ways that not only address the current incident of violence, but also help to transform the conditions that allowed for it to happen? We must work to respond to current violence and its impacts in a way that does not undermine our long-term visions for preventing violence, responding to violence, and ultimately ending violence. What would it take to not only respond to rape, but to end rape? To not only respond to domestic violence, but to end domestic violence? To end child abuse? To end bullying? To end all forms of abuse?” Read more here
A TJ APPROACH ATTEMPTS TO MAKE PROACTIVE ACCOUNTABILITY SAFE AND COMPELLING
The following is an excerpt from the chapter “Excerpts from Ending Child Sexual Abuse” by Staci K. Haines, Raquel Laviña, Chris Lymbertos, RJ Maccani, and Nathan Shara in Beyond Survival:
“Our vision challenges us to create a collective culture of growth and dynamic support. One that acknowledges and supports each individual’s inherent dignity and worthiness of connection, while simultaneously demanding rigorous self-accountability and mutual accountability. We aim for forms of accountability that enable transformation–transformation of survivor experience, of sexually abusive behavior, of bystander engagement, and of the broader conditions that allow child sexual abuse [and all other harms] to continue. We see that abuse happens when one person believes, consciously or unconsciously, that their needs, wants, and preferences take precedence over others. People engaging in abusive behaviors are often numb to, or seemingly unable to feel, the impacts of their behaviors on others.
While the impulse to villainize or banish may be understandable, we must engage, name the harm, and call upon this persons dignity in order to hold standards that support safety, connection, and dignity for everyone involved, and above all for those most directly impacted by the harm.
For many people, the idea of giving attention to the healing needs of a person who has been sexually abusive is difficult to tolerate, particularly when there are limited resources available for survivors. It is important to center the needs of those most directly impacted by the harm in a situation.We also hold that recognizing and attending to the humanity of those who harm is a central aspect of transforming our families, communities, and society. Seeing and dignifying the healing needs of people who abuse also runs counter to the idea that some people “out there” are “monsters” who are expendable or need to be “weeded out.” By standing for everyone’s need for healing, we challenge the dehumanizing logic that is central to systems of oppression, domination, and abuse. By standing for everyone’s need for healing, we maintain our commitment to a vision of true liberation.”
Resources for Personal Support
We all need support to become our most accountable selves. The following are resources to provide support in navigating being accountable after causing harm, as well as finding healing and accountability after experiencing harm, recognizing that each of us may hold identities as both survivors and perpetrators of harm in different situations.
Virtual Restorative Justice Facilitation
The Ahimsa Collective has a team of facilitators who work one-on-one with people who have caused harm and people who have survived harm to support healing and accountability. Sometimes this work may lead to a facilitated dialogue. Read more here.
Center for Awareness, Resources, and Education (CARE)
CARE is a confidential Tufts resource available for one-on-one sessions with anyone who has been on the receiving or giving end of sexual assault, harassment, stalking, or relationship abuse. CARE staff can provide support in learning more about consent, respecting boundaries, and more. Their services are free of charge.
Set up an appointment with one of the CARE staff here.
Student-led Individual and Group Support at Tufts
It is important to have a strong network of care and support in processing all that comes up when doing the work of being accountable for any level of harm. Unfortunately, we often lose peoples in our lives and easily become isolated when we cause harm, which makes accountability exponentially harder.
If you’re interested in finding individual support or group support, fill out this short, optionally anonymous form here.
Centered Accountability Course and Self-Accountability Club
This self-paced course seeks to transform your relationship to accountability, helping you discern where you are over and under accountable and learn practices to move through overwhelming emotions. Sign up here. The self-accountability club provides varying levels of opportunities for engagement with accountability, such as guides and prompts, and skill-building videos. Read more here. Instagram: @accountabilitymapping
For some harms we may cause, a lack of a full understanding of consent can be at the core of the harm we caused
Consent Workshops – Action for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP)
ASAP leads consent workshops for students and student-groups that offer an engaging way to learn about consent and how to implement it into your daily life.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a workshop.
Boundaries + Consent Course Recordings – Share the Load
This introductory course is a trauma-informed, neuro-diversity-aware approach to consent. The course expands upon consent as more than “no means no” or getting permission—consent is a language and an embodied practice.
Read more about the course here.
Cost: $250, 25% discount for people who need it
How can I better support a friend in being accountable?
We can’t do the work for our friends who have caused harm to hold them accountable, but we can do our best to support them in being accountable. Mia Mingus tells us, “accountability happens in relationship… Accountability is often bound up with healing and tackling our trauma is work best done with someone(s) we trust and can rely on.”
The following resources are to support you in supporting your friends. This work may include asking them tough questions, being a sounding board as they process the consequences of their actions, connecting them with resources, or even supporting or holding an accountability process for them. This work shouldn’t just fall on you alone, and it can even be harmful if it does, so try to find support or encourage them to reach out to any of the resources above.
Engaging with the person who caused harm:
Nathan Shara, therapist, facilitator, educator and writer, offers some assessment questions for folks who have caused harm in their chapter Facing Shame in Beyond Survival:
- How are you relating to this situation?
- How would you describe your behavior with ____?
- How do you think it impacted ____ when you ____?
- How do you feel about telling people in your life “I caused harm to ____?
- How do you think about or understand what caused you to harm ____?
Shara says, “Here, we can begin to get some sense of how much shame, numbness, blame, and avoidance may be running the show: We can also listen for indications about whether the person is able to acknowledge their behavior as harmful, the extent to which they are able to consider the person or people they’ve harmed enough to consider the impacts of their behavior, how much they are or aren’t able to feel remorse, as well as their will and motivation toward change and repair.”
Action for Sexual Assault Prevention at Tufts (ASAP) also offers workshops on having conversations with people who have caused sexual violence. Email email@example.com for a workshop for you or your student group.
Shara also reminds us to be conscious of our own perception, “Sometimes we are so eager to believe that someone has changed that we may rush toward forgiveness, extending trust long before they have demonstrated any real shift toward new action. Other times, the volume of our own pain and anger about the hurt or the betrayal is so loud that we can’t actually hear anything but our own story, including anything the other person might say or do that indicates real remorse, apology, or amends.”
In an article titled, “When People Who Harm Don’t Consent to Transformative Justice,” Hunter Ashleigh Shackelford provides a helpful framework to think about when our friends who have harmed others are unwilling to begin the process of being accountability. Supporting them in being accountable does not necessarily mean continuing to support them if they are refusing accountability. In the webinar Moving at the Speed of Trust: Disability Justice and Transformative Justice, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, queer disabled femme writer, organizer, performance artist and educator, says, even when you can’t get accountability from someone, you can still get harm reduction by making immediate concrete demands of them. Here is a list by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence of other interventions mostly beyond convincing someone to take accountability.
Know a resource that should be added to this page? Want to share your experience with accountability in a reflective format for others to read? Want to connect around building transformative justice at Tufts/your community? Reach out!