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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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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