why some people won't take responsibility

Why People Refuse to Take Responsibility and How to Cope

Do you know someone who refuses to take responsibility for their mistakes or wrongdoings?

Or perhaps, you’re the one who struggles to admit when you’re wrong.

Sometimes it’s hard to admit that we’ve done something wrong or made a mistake.

And it’s challenging to deal with others who repeatedly deny responsibility and blame others.

frustrated woman
Photo by Julien L on Unsplash

Why it’s important to take responsibility for mistakes

Accepting responsibility for our actions is a sign of emotional maturity; it demonstrates self-awareness and a belief that we can change and learn to do better. On the other hand, people who don’t think they’ve done anything wrong, have no reason to change.

Owning your mistakes is also important relationally. When we repair the damage or harm we’ve caused, we build stronger, healthier relationships. In comparison, denying responsibility deteriorates trust and goodwill.

Before we delve into how to cope with someone who skirts responsibility, it’s helpful to first understand why some people do this.

Why some people have trouble taking responsibility

While there are a wide range of reasons for avoiding accountability, below are some of the more common reasons.

Feeling entitled.

Some people think they’re superior to others and therefore are entitled to do what they want without bearing the consequences.  Often, this is an unconscious attempt to overcompensate for self-doubt, low self-esteem, or insecurity.

Trauma.

Avoiding responsibility can be a response to trauma. Some people who experienced painful abuse, criticism, betrayal, rejection, or other trauma, continue to see themselves as victims; they are so focused on their own emotional pain that they struggle to see how they harm others.

Others have traumatic memories of being severely punished, blamed, or ignored when they made mistakes as children. Which, understandably, makes them reticent to admit when they’re wrong now.

Perfectionism.

People who expect themselves to be perfect or have impossibly high standards also have trouble acknowledging their mistakes and shortcomings.

Perfectionists base their self-worth on their performance and achievements. So making a mistake—and admitting they are less than perfect—is especially painful for them. And all-or-nothing thinking magnifies small mistakes, making them seem like major failures to a perfectionist.

Shame.

Shame is an overwhelming feeling of embarrassment or distress. And when people feel ashamed of their behavior, they may “shut down”, deny, hide, or lie about their behavior in order to save face and lessen the distress they feel about it.

Inability to change.

Research about taking responsibility shows that when people believe they can change, they are more likely to admit their mistakes. This makes sense because taking responsibility for our mistakes is usually the first step in changing our behavior.

How to cope with someone who won’t own their mistakes

Communication tips

Avoid having the same argument repeatedly. If someone will not accept responsibility, change your approach, or table the issue. Continuing to push them to take responsibility or apologize will only make them more defensive. Instead, see if you can agree on solutions.

Try to communicate using “I statements” rather than “You statements”. An “I statement” emphasizes how I’m feeling and what I need rather than accusing or blaming the other person. Here’s an example:

“I statement”: I feel embarrassed when you rush through dinner with my parents and leave abruptly. I’d like it if you’d sit and talk with us for a bit.

“You statement”: You’re always rude to my parents.

You can read more in this article: Healthy Communication

Don’t accept all the blame

It’s important to own your part, but don’t take responsibility for other people’s actions, problems you didn’t cause, or circumstances you can’t control.

If you have codependent tendencies, you may try to fix other people’s problems or make excuses for them. However, this creates a vicious cycle where you’re doing all the work while the other person shirks responsibility.

Eventually, this will cause you to feel resentful and dissatisfied—and it rarely leads to the other person learning to be more responsible or accepting blame for things they’ve done wrong.

Having a relationship with someone who won’t acknowledge their wrongdoings

As you know, it’s very difficult to have a relationship with someone who consistently refuses to take responsibility for their behavior. You may need to limit your interactions with them. Or, in some cases, this may be a dealbreaker and you’ll need to consider whether you can continue a relationship with someone who repeatedly causes you harm, doesn’t take responsibility, or make amends.

Gaslighting

This type of behavior can become abusive. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where one person not only denies responsibility for their wrongdoings but denies that the events occurred. It’s a form of manipulation used to deny responsibility, shift the blame onto someone else, and cause the victim to question their perceptions and reality.

People who are being gaslit, feel confused and like their losing their grasp on reality. They feel like they are always to blame.

If you think you’re being gaslit, I encourage you to get support from a professional counselor, hotline (such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline or Love is Respect), or support group (such as Codependents Anonymous or Adult Children).

Self-care and self-compassion

When dealing with someone who won’t accept blame (or blame shifts), it’s important to be kind to yourself and take good care of yourself.

Therapy can provide a safe place to process your feelings and develop coping strategies.

Read more about self-compassion:

Are you the one who won’t accept responsibility?

Perhaps it’s you—not someone else—who won’t accept blame. If you know that you’re at fault, it’s time to start owning up to your mistakes and responsibilities.

Try to be open to feedback. Often, slowing down can help; don’t be so quick to respond defensively, but take time to consider other people’s perspectives and thoroughly think through your responses before acting.

You might also benefit from learning how to make a complete and sincere apology. Here’s one example of how to make a “good” apology.

And finally, if you’re not sure whether you’re at fault, it may be helpful to get an outside perspective from an impartial friend or therapist who can provide an impartial point of view and help you get clarity about what’s your responsibility and what isn’t.

©2021 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.

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Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

14 thoughts on “Why People Refuse to Take Responsibility and How to Cope”

  1. Thank you for this post because I have struggled with this situation with a friend I’ve had for over 20 years. I finally sent a letter telling her that her continually pointing out the things in my life that she doesn’t agree with (i.e., my daughter who sings beautifully, my church and the songs we sing) are hurting me. I told her that I am aware of the emotional abuse done to her by her own mother and how it might affect her. And I asked for her to share with me her pains and that we can pray about them together. As it turns out, I have not received any communication from her since I sent the letter three months ago. I do believe she suffers from shame and high expectations of others. (I find this often in people who have “religion” and base everything on the rules and a feeling of hierarchy of belonging to such a famous religion instead of owning personal responsibility.) I have accepted this treatment from this person for so long and after helping her move across the country, I couldn’t believe that she would still pull it on me. But I think I understand better and I don’t expect any different from her. I can hope for a change, but the change has to come from me in how I take care of myself.

  2. This is one of the most helpful things I’ve ever read as an ACoA and an ACoA. Thank you Sharon, you’ve been one of the best online sources for healing that I’ve found.

  3. Thank you Sharon
    as I shift from 25 plus yrs of agency behavioral health counseling into my own private practice , i find your observations and thoughts inspiring and quite applicable to my current work . I feel the article on those who don’t take responsibility is quite compelling .
    With Gratitude
    Jack Brennick rochester NY

  4. Hi there, what if it’s my therapist who is refusing to take responsibility? My therapist of 12 years has crossed lines expressing her negative Covid views over some months when I was discussing my distress over Covid, which has caused me to be triggered and upset after appointments. I have been trying to sort it out with her for over a month. She has apologized profusely now, said she will not express those views anymore, but refuses to genuinely acknowledge that she made a mistake. Says it was her ethical duty of care. In my third appointment and number of emails trying to sort it out, she finally said at the end that “if I think I need an acknowledgement, then I acknowledge I shouldn’t have said things”. She really didn’t seem to want to do it, and I ended up feeling like I’m the problem needing it. I have an extremely traumatic history, and now I’m feeling sick and head wrecked from this situation. To be clear, I’m not anti vaccine. Thanks for your help.

    1. I really appreciate you sharing this experience here as I had something similar happen to me. I have been confused and unclear about it as well and uncertain as to why I felt there had been a breach of trust. Trust your feelings. Perhaps if there isn’t resolution going forward with the next appt, it may be time to change your care provider. Other people will learn from the consequences of their actions. Perhaps you will be happier with a new doctor and glad you did it. It’s valid to expect others to respect you. We are not worth less than the other person sitting opposite us, no matter how many degrees they have.
      Be well.

      1. My comment is some months since the original post but thought it important to share.

        I am one person who has caused problems in my family for my wife and son through failing to take responsibility and I’m not sure how to change my behaviour.

        I do feel shame when my behaviour is called out and I find it very confronting when criticised (even when the criticism is constructive and warranted). I become defensive and quite often all I remember is how I felt in the moment rather than the message on how to improve.

        The motivation to change has become a negative one. I do things to avoid arguments and further criticism. Fear is not a health motivation. Hence, the conversations have become more like “we spoken about this before”, my wife feels like I’m not listening. My apologies, while sincere, now seem to be hollow because they’re not backed up by real change.

        To anyone out there, from person floundering from self-awareness won too late – when your partner/husband/wife/bf/gf or what ever tells you what they need – find a way to suspend your own emotions long enough to hear what they are telling you they need you to do, and just do it whole heartedly and sincerity. Just find a way to listen, and remember, and understand and them do.

        1. I appreciate your comment here. This is the viewpoint I need to hear from my husband and partner of 16 years. There has never been an us in our marriage; only me and my codependent tendencies aiming to fix everything, while he lives the bachelor life without any accountability. He was my first and only love, I gave him all the fruits of my hands, the fruit of my loins, my very essence, and it still wasn’t enough. He refuses to see how the foundation of our marriage was built on my sweat and tears, and his selfishness and deceit, or how any of his toxic behaviors have affected me (and our son). I am at the point that I fear for my safety when he is around, and his, too. I don’t want him anywhere near me. If only he could find these sentiments you have shared here within himself; we could have it all together. It seems he wants to stay stagnant and blameshift, and I was meant for more. Looks like I’ll keep on growing, just without him. I send you many well wishes in your endeavors. I hope you’re on the right track, for you and for your family. Stay strong, the worst is behind you! GBU from Minnesota.

  5. This person is my grandson, who I assisted with raising, with his Father in and out of Jail or Prison, single Mother, two other children, my grandson feels discouraged with his mom and siblings, had issues in school after all was said and done he did recieve his Diploma, He says I got my diploma, I did it. What more do. You want. He moves things around in the room when he stayed with me, ask him for help in picking up behind himself, I have always had his back. I have always tried to be in couraging, loving, supportive, my other Grandchildren and Children feel I show Favoritism. But I support all my kids, but some need that extra support. This is my baby, my son’s oldest son, he’s 21.

  6. My brother is 58 years old and has schizophrenia, which he has medications that he takes that work.
    3 years ago he got a rare blood disease called cryoglobulinemia, that caused gangrene in his fingers and toes.
    Dr. said he was 99.9% to die.
    He spent 2 months at hospice. Miraculously, the gangrene never turned wet, and he gained enough strength back, so they were able to amputate all the dead fingers and toes. He kept his thumbs, and the doctor’s made inserts for his shoes so he could walk, they also moved the nerves in his hands so he could have prosthetic fingers that he can actually move.
    He has absolutely no gratitude for this blessing he received from God.
    He will not wear the fingers or walk or try to do anything. He thinks everyone else is supposed to do everything for him, and when they don’t, he screams and curses like a 2-year-old child.
    It’s ridiculous.
    He lived with my mother who recently passed, and she enabled him by doing everything for him.
    The state took custody of him temporarily, and I’m trying to get custody of him, but whenever he doesn’t feel like he is getting enough attention, he acts up at the place they have him.
    He never does this when he is with me, he will just try to tell me he can’t do something that I know he can do, and I won’t buy his bullshit, and tell him he can sit there all day, but I’m not doing it for him, and then eventually he will do it.
    Thee problem is when we go to court, they are going to say to me “How can you stop him from acting like this when you are at work, and he is at home by himself?”
    I can’t. I have to work, no one else is going to pay the bills. There is no reason he can’t take his medicine, feed himself, and use his prosthetic fingers to do things around the house.
    I broke him of his laziness 10 years ago when I spent a month with him while my mother was out of town. When she came back, he of course went right back to doing nothing except lying in bed and complaining/cursing about everything, and she allowed it. Nothing I could do about it then.
    She had his power of attorney.
    How do I make a 58-year-old who acts like he is 2 grow up?
    If he doesn’t, Medicaid will take the house to pay for his Dr bills, and he will be stuck in whatever place the state has him. Everything my mother worked for her whole life will be lost because he wants to act like an imbecile.

    He currently got sent to a hospital, because an 83-year-old man who is at the place he lives, fell out of his bed, and all 3 of the people who work there were understandably attending to him.
    My brother starts yelling and cursing because they weren’t paying him any attention, and he had the nerve to tell me when he called me from that hospital, that I didn’t pay enough attention to him when I went and got him so he could see our mother before she died, because I was spending most all my time tending to her instead.
    How can someone possibly be that selfish? It absolutely disgusts me.
    Am I wasting my time trying to get guardianship of him?

    1. 1st , he does need to care for himself and learn to do things and yes he is feeling sorry for himself . I find a lot of people when they do not have a hobby or something meaningful in their life to enjoy or if sitting home , while everyone else does things they enjoy , then the only joy or care they have , is to grasp to others for attention. People need attention . It is a healthy need . But , if they don’t have something they love doing and can’t fullfill themselves with something they r doing that has them feeling good about themself, they will lash out at another and want their attention tThis helps them feel a sense of self worth. Getting attention , means others care about him. By the person giving them attention, this make them have some sort of self worth in the world. He has no self worth . And he has probably loved feeling sorry for himself . He has lived by getting his self worth from attention of others . He is angry when he ask one to do for him and they will not because this shows him someone does not care about him and it makes him feel more worthless.

      It is not good to cut a person off and just say do for urself . They can become angry and impulsive and not rational. How about trying to find him things and y’all explore things he love doing and can fill his day . If can , he will begin doing the other things he won’t now. He will take more pride in this he does . it helps make the other things easier . He will have to find his worth .

  7. As nice as this was to read it still didn’t help me understand how to take more accountability. I understand it’s a problem. I understand it will ruin relationships and friendships. I understand I NEED to be more accountable. I understand the reason I am not is due to trauma from my childhood always being called stupid and wrong and made fun of by everyone whenever I messed up. It’s anxiety as well, I want to be perfect although I know perfection is unattainable I still strive for it. I hate to be wrong. Even when I know I am it’s like pulling teeth to get me to apologize. I cringe even after saying those words, “I’m sorry”. I hate it and I know that that is stupid. I know it shows “emotional maturity” being able to admit your faults but I merely cannot and I do not know how to change. After 30 years like this HOW can I change?

  8. My wife (42f) had a pretty good childhood, but her father was exceptionally, and sometimes randomly critical of her, and i think that has seriously impacted her ability to process and feel shame or guilt, and often leads to either her denying that something she did, or didn’t do, ever happened, or turning it back and saying that I am attacking her when i ask her to take responsibility and help me fix the problem.

    She ran our finances for over a decade, and I thought she was doing a good job of it, we always had the money we needed (for the most part) and the bills were getting paid. During Covid her spending habits became clearer to me and i became concerned and told her I wanted to be more involved in our finances. Every time she would deflect by showing me her convoluted budgeting system that as she described it I could tell did not account for everything she was spending. (namely THC products after legalization in our state) I let that go for a while, but reached a breaking point as she slowly shifted more and more expenses on to me, even though I deposited most of my check to her account and the one credit card I controlled was nearing its limit. With admittedly little warning I rerouted my direct deposit into my account as I would no longer just throw money into hers and hope for the best. I came to find out that she had been running up/maintaining over 50K in credit card debt and was just paying the interest at that point. I proceeded to get a reappraisal on our home to get rid of PMI and got a HELOC to pay off most of the CC debt, as well as tracked spending on a new joint account and made a budget that i presented to her for feedback. She did not participate fully in the budget and hardly ever contributed what was needed, and then ran up another 18k on the one credit card we kept open, which included expenses related to a DUI and car repair.

    I have tried to get her to work with me on fixing the issue, but she steadfastly refuses and just says that I am too aggressive in blaming her. I have tried to mitigate my anger on the issue, but it seems like if I bring it up I am bringing it up too much, but if I don’t then she never addresses it. I think that at this point her own shame has turned into pure anger at me as she is unable to process her guilt or even apologize. I’ve told her several times that all I want is her to take responsibility, apologize, and help me fix the problem. I’ve taken on a second job to try and make ends meet. I think we are on the brink of divorce, but i doubt she will consent to counseling as she’s quit our two previous times when we started dealing with the money issues.

    How can i get through to her?

    1. As you know, trying to get someone else to change is difficult and frustrating! Instead, your effort may be better spent on taking care of yourself. Consider going to individual therapy and attending Al-Anon or Codependents Anonymous. It sounds like there are a number of issues going on and you need and deserve support!

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