How do I determine who is accountable for what?

Most of us can agree that accountability is an important part of being a person of integrity. But how do you determine who is accountable for what? A healthy relationship is one in which both individuals behave with integrity. But what does that mean, really?

Integrity is when a person lives their life according to their values, even when it’s hard or uncomfortable. And by values, I mean an intentional moral code that defines right and wrong action, both internally (thoughts and feelings) and externally (actions).

That’s a lot to unpack. Let’s break it down by keywords:

Intentional: This means you’ve thought about what’s really important to you. You aren’t just floating through life according to rules and norms passed down to you by your family, friends, coworkers, teachers, or clergy. You have a clear identity of your own, that you have  intentionally developed after careful reflection.

Moral code: These are the rules you have established for yourself, based on intentional reflection. This is your sense of right and wrong. It’s important to note that not everyone follows the same moral code. Our moral code is a product of our culture, religion, and temperament.

We have both an internal and external moral code.

Internal Moral Code: You can’t live a life of integrity until you take charge of your thoughts and feelings. We all know people who look great on the outside, but when nobody’s looking they behave entirely differently.

In fact, we’ve all been there! To a certain extent, hypocrisy is part of the human experience. Nobody is perfect. But when hypocrisy is your go-to response to life – when your internal world and external image don’t match – you are in serious trouble.

Integrity starts on the inside. You can do all the “right” things when the world is watching, but if you are a negative, toxic person inside your head, you are caught in a dangerous Shame Cycle that will eventually implode.

External Moral Code: Walk the walk, even when no one is looking. One of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle, has mastered the art of one-sentence wisdom. One of my favorites is, “Just do the next right thing.” Sometimes it’s not black and white. Sometimes what is right is really, really hard. Or maybe what’s right for us is going to really disappoint someone else. That gets us to the next keyword…

Uncomfortable: Yikes. Sometimes it’s hard to do the next right thing, right?! Life doesn’t promise us it will be easy. In fact, sometimes it’s really hard. Especially if you decide you’re going to live your fullest, best life. Because your fullest best life is not always going to feel warm and fuzzy. Sometimes, your best life is going to hurt. That pain is there, standing between you and all the good things. So you have to walk through it if you want to get to the other side.

Luckily, as Glennon Doyle reminds us, “We can do hard things.” This is perhaps her most famous and beloved quote, and there’s a reason for it. We all need to be reminded of this, pretty much every day.

Whether you are a child stubbornly resisting learning to tie his shoes, or you are faced with setting boundaries with a toxic bully in your life, you can do hard things. Yes. You can!

Being accountable doesn’t mean you’re perfect.

Absolutes like “always” and “never” are dangerous words. No matter how intentional you are, you aren’t always going to do the right thing. Expecting yourself to never hurt anyone else is an unfair and unrealistic prospect.

Because we are all different, and each on our own journey, sometimes, your next right thing is going to bump up against someone else in an uncomfortable way. That’s okay. It happens. The trick is to be fully present and intentional about each step, and try to love yourself and the other person through it, even when it’s hard.

Others aren’t going to be perfect, either.

Ideally, we would all be in healthy relationships all the time. But it isn’t that simple. Sometimes we are born into toxic relationships with parents, siblings, or extended family.

Sometimes we meet people who seem great at first, and it is only once we get to know them that we realize that they aren’t who we thought they were.

And sometimes our own insecurities and shame cloud our judgement and pull us into Shame Cycles that we feel helpless to escape.

Toxic relationships and Shame Cycles may feel impossible to resolve, but that is not actually the case. I don’t mean to diminish the complexity and emotional struggle it takes to extract yourself from painful relationships. Believe me, I’ve been there and it is not easy! But it isn’t impossible.

Perhaps the hardest thing in toxic relationships is identifying what exactly isn’t working. Usually, in these cases you are putting a great deal of time and energy into the relationship. Often, we feel as though there just isn’t anything left to give.

And perhaps you are right… I’ve adopted two techniques to measure the quality of my relationships:

The bottomless bucket

When I’m examining a relationship, I imagine that I’m pouring my love and energy into a bucket. I close my eyes and I can actually see it. My love looks like sparkling water, and the bucket is an old aluminum garden bucket with rope handles. This is what mine looks like, but your bucket can be whatever you’d like. Maybe it’s a bright blue plastic beach bucket, or a wooden bucket hanging over a well.

I’ve had relationships in the past (so, so many of them!) where I felt like I just kept pouring and pouring love in, yet it never filled. It was only through a great deal of reflection and therapy that I understood that many of the buckets I was pouring into had giant holes in the bottom. It didn’t matter how much I put into it, it was never going to get full.

There are infinite reasons that relationship buckets get holes. I’ve spent endless hours trying to figure out why a person is never satisfied. These endless hours were just another form of my love being dumped into an abyss.

It’s okay to seek understanding about other people’s dysfunction. Sometimes, that helps us heal. Just make sure that you are seeking understanding so that you can forgive them, and not because you want to try to fix them.

You can’t patch the holes in other people. This is a futile waste of your time. Instead, focus your energy on patching your own holes. This is the only thing you can control.

If you find yourself pouring and pouring love into someone else to the point of exhaustion, and you’re never getting anything back – or worse, it seems as though they are actively hammering away at your own bucket, chipping out holes so that all your healthy love is draining out – then perhaps it’s time to stop and think about whether this relationship is adding value to your life or the other person’s. Maybe it’s time to set some boundaries to extract yourself from the Shame Cycle.

Apply the circumstances to a neutral party.

Another of my favorite ways of holding myself and others accountable is to imagine myself having the exact same interaction with other people. Often, when we are caught in the middle of a Shame Cycle, we are too close to even recognize what’s happening. If we pull ourselves outside of the cycle and apply the same circumstances to a neutral person (real or imagined), sometimes this will help the lightbulb turn on over our heads and illuminate the situation.

Here’s an example:

You have a friend who wants to have lunch every single Wednesday. You enjoy having lunch with her, but sometimes you have scheduling conflicts – a deadline at work, a child home sick, a flat tire, whatever!

When you have to cancel, which is very infrequently, your friend becomes passive aggressive. She calls and texts every hour all day, telling you how much she misses you, how she had so much she needed to talk about, or explaining how much harder and hectic her day was than your own.

You end up feeling so guilty that the next time you have a scheduling conflict, you cancel it and show up to your usual lunch date, even though you’re feeling resentful and stressed.

We’ve all had this sort of interaction at one point or another. Guilt is one of the ugly ancestors of shame (along with anger, humiliation, abandonment, and pain).

To extract yourself from this Shame Cycle, mentally remove the other person from the situation, and replace them with someone with better boundaries. If you can’t think of a specific person, make one up. In your mind’s eye, literally pluck the demanding person out of their seat at the table, and plop someone else down in her place.

How does this new person react to your cancellation? Is she understanding? Sympathetic? Does she wish you sincere luck on your big project at work? Inquire genuinely about the health of your sick child? Does she offer to come help you change your tire, or pick you up from the service station while your car is getting worked on?

Let’s move back even further. Considering your full, busy life, is a once-a-week lunch date really even reasonable? Maybe it is! In which case, great! But maybe it’s not.

Maybe you don’t just resent the guilt trips on occasions you have to miss, but you resent the entire premise. You have other friends you’d like to have lunch with, and you really only have the funds or the time to go out to lunch once a week. Maybe once a month is a more reasonable expectation.

Or maybe, this relationship needs to be put on hold entirely, either permanently or temporarily, until you have a better handle on just how toxic this situation has become for you.

What if you’re the one with a hole in your bucket?

Since we all have a little (or a lot!) of generational trauma, we all have a few holes in our bucket. Those holes manifest in different ways for different individuals. Sometimes, they show up as emotional distancing (this is my fatal flaw). Sometimes they show up as controlling, guilt trips, gaslighting, or other forms of manipulation.

It’s absolutely crucial that you dig deep to recognize your own holes, your own toxicity. Because until you know the holes are there, you can’t get to work repairing them. It’s okay to not be perfect. There is no shame in weakness. The shame starts to accumulate when you aren’t willing to explore and get curious about your areas for growth.

It’s never too late to hold yourself and others accountable.

It’s true that the longer you wait, the harder it may be to attain accountability. Once we become accustomed to living in a situation, even if it is highly toxic, it can feel safer to just stay where we are rather than risk the conflict and discomfort of developing new, healthier norms.

But remember, “We can do hard things.” I would argue that accountability is not optional. It is a necessity for the well-being of yourself, your family, and even for the toxic people in your life. The sooner you get to work exploring your relationships, the sooner you and others will begin to heal.

And remember that you don’t have to take this journey alone. If it feels overwhelming, seek the help of a mental healthcare practitioner or coach. In my experience, the more you focus your intention on building a healthy life, the more healthy people find their way into your life. The trick is to just start.

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