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 is a psychotherapist, writer, speaker, and media contributor on emotional health and relationships. She specializes in helping people uncover their inherent worth and learn to accept themselves -- imperfections and all! Sharon writes a popular blog called Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance and several ebooks including Navigating the Codependency Maze.

4 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

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