You suffered a traumatic experience. Maybe you were raped? Fought in Afghanistan and watched buddies die? Robbed at gunpoint while walking to your car at night? Served on a jury and recommended a killer receive the death penalty? Whatever the event, in the aftermath you are suffering post-traumatic stress, and are seeking ways to cope.
In this blog we often talk about effective coping as resting on a tripod of acceptance, accountability, and developing a coping plan. If you’re like most people, you might look at that “accountability” component and automatically assume it means, “taking responsibility for what happened.” Not always.
Sure, if you’re speeding on a rain-slicked road while a little buzzed on alcohol, and the car spins out of control causing an accident that injures others, you need to take responsibility that the accident was your fault. In most traumatic experiences, however, life throws a curve ball and – through no fault of your own – you happen to be in way. Maybe you’re one of the “others” in the accident just described. You’re driving safely for the weather conditions but you were still involved. Will you feel compelled to dwell on things you should have done, and load yourself with guilt because you didn’t? Too often, victims of trauma afterwards torment themselves with, “I should’ve done this,” a comment that cripples them with guilt.
In our coping triad, accountability does not mean admitting that you were at fault for what happened. It means, “recognizing that you are responsible for evaluating your role in the event.” In many cases, you must choose not to blame yourself, not to form a pity parade, and not to make it all about you as a sufferer. That’s what accountability means in this context: Empowering yourself to choose how best to evaluate your traumatic experience, and how best to resolve the subsequent emotions you feel.
Helen is 33 years old. When she was 8, over a period of two months she was sexually abused multiple times by an acquaintance of her parents.
“For a long time, well into my 30s in fact, I went through the whole range of emotions and efforts to deal with the trauma. I held it in, telling no one. I blamed myself and felt guilty as hell. But I always found a way to let others know that, in general, I had a rocky childhood, and because of it I needed special handling. No wonder I had trouble with relationships. Guys didn’t want a fragile glass doll. Commitment on my part? Forget it. At some level in my mind, they were all in it to rape me. Then 5 years ago I met Rick. He was the one for sure. The night he proposed I broke down and confessed the whole sordid story. He was a rock. Encouraged me to get into counseling and a support group. He was with me all the way and we got married while I was still in treatment. But here’s the thing. I stopped being a martyr and blaming myself for the event. It happened! I didn’t deserve everyone’s sympathy because of it. I had no right to expect others to pad the corners of my world because I was abused as a child. Counseling, Rick, and my support group helped me empower myself. I’m actually ready to end the counseling sessions, but I will stay with my weekly support group. We understand each other like no one else can. We have walked in each other’s shoes and somehow that brings us strength as we help, and are helped by, each other. Yeh, I’ll stay with Rick, too.”
In the blog entry on November 15, 2019, we said, “Instead of putting yourself as the main ingredient in the coping recipe, reduce your part in the recipe. You can accomplish this by allowing your troublesome emotions and interpersonal conflicts to help you increase your sensitivity to others – your empathy toward them – who suffer from conflicts similar to yours. This sensitivity and empathy will encourage you to reach out to help them. The bonus? You will discover ample helpings of personal satisfaction to help you cope better with your own problems. In other words, happiness will emerge from your altruistic actions.”
We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: The true human beauty of empathy is that both the giver (you) and the taker (the other) reap the psychological benefits. There is no more effective therapy for your coping difficulties than empathetic service to others. As you travel the road to finding personal satisfaction, you will discover that whatever your plight, you are not alone in your difficulties; you will realize that the best way to have coping strength emerge from your actions is to make sure you leave no one behind.
That’s what’s really meant by accountability. Not self-blame, but being there for others who, like you, need help in evaluating the reality of challenges imposed by obstacles on life’s path.