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We create the patterns of our society through our choices and beliefs and practices. As such, the path to a future in which humans can be in an authentic and accountable peace with each other is fractal—we must be willing to practice authenticity and accountability at the small scale of ourselves and our lives, both in ourselves and in our immediate relationships.
Right now we are living in the pattern of excess—capitalism creates excess wealth and poverty. It also shapes us toward constant wanting and consumption, instead of being shaped to know what enough is, and how to feel satisfaction. In this age of excess, it is easy to see our relationships with others as transactional, temporary, and disposable. Racialized capitalism, in particular, trains us to expect that some people fall through the cracks into unjust suffering; our cultural individualism tells us this is acceptable, as long as we aren’t the ones at the bottom.
As a model of humanity, this one is failing us, hurtling us toward extinction.
If we hope to save our species, and to have human life on this planet, we have to learn from within how to live lives of satisfaction. We must practice how to move from a deep, sated, and respectful relationship to ourselves—in which we honestly articulate our needs and generate compassion for our choices—into a deep, satisfiable, and respectful relationship to anyone else.
If we hope to strengthen the net of our society, we need to strengthen the bonds between each pair and group of individuals. What we want is a net so strong, so satisfying, that no one can fall through it. A healed society would be one in which no one becomes the bearer of unjust hardship, where individuals don’t bear the weight of systemic failures. There is a degree of loss and pain that is a part of the human experience, but we can heal our relations to each other to move toward a reality in which no one is given a life that only produces trauma and suffering.
This may sound like an intellectual or solely internal process, but the truth is, this is our collective work; this is what healing and accountability look like. And there are practices for weaving and trusting that net.
Be responsible for your internal state, and the external impacts you might have on others.
It’s intentional that we think about internal accountability as a solo practice. So much of being in relationship with another is about being able to have deep awareness of what it is we want and need in a given moment, and what we’re feeling—be it safety or vigilance.
This can be immensely uncomfortable. We might be feeling some combination of vulnerable, insecure, scared, disrespected, angry, or other emotions that we aren’t always raised to hold with dignity. If we can’t be aware of—and responsible for—our own feelings, then anyone else we are relating to can easily become a site of our projections or unharnessed energy. We can have negative and harmful impacts we did not intend.
Trauma and toxic patterns trickle outward, viral. Even small misalignments within can create ripples that change the culture of a whole community. What begins as a wound in one person can move like a sharp knife through a friendship, romance, workplace, family, or community.
The good news is, accountable practices can be just as contagious. The more we can take accountability for our own feelings and impacts, the more we invite others to handle their own needs and feelings, which makes way for interdependence. Center, journal your emotional state, ground yourself by taking a deep breath; discover or develop a practice you can count on that helps you assess how you feel, not for the sake of controlling those emotions, but for the sake of honest communication. Be transparent with others about what those centering and grounding practices are for you.
Build relationships, not assumptions.
The way our societal constructs are set up, many of us believe we are the labels that have been assigned to us by those who seek to oppress and control us. Without any intention, we internalize these constructs and begin to see others as a collection of preconceived ideas, labels by which we may assign worth. By the time we are beginning to deepen into relationship with others, our assumptions may have created a whole set of hurdles that make it difficult to actually relate.
Be in a practice of curiosity as often as possible when entering into and developing relationships with others. Let yourself be surprised by the person in front of you, rather than constantly comparing them to limited colonial ideas of what their race, ethnicity, gender, class, ability, or other constructed stereotype is cast to be like.
Speak and listen with intention.
The world we are creating is going to require us to have some hard conversations, and many of us struggle with this skill that, ideally, should be fundamental. Have you ever found yourself lost in a monologue, when you wanted to be in dialogue? Or on the receiving end of a diatribe or rant when you needed a real conversation?
We want to be at ease and authentic in all of our communications, as we want to fundamentally be ourselves at all times. We also want to be intentional in what we express, with the understanding that our words cast spells over each other; our words weave a story of who we are and will be to each other. So much of the harm we cause each other happens through reckless speech.
When we are centered or grounded before we speak, it can help us stay connected in a conversation. For the record, you can be centered and still be messy, incoherent, anxious, upset, all the feelings. The difference is that you are actually aware of your emotional state and can thus be responsible for what you speak and share in that state.
Pay attention to how you feel before, during, and after your speaking. Interrupt yourself if you’ve lost your way. Give others permission to help you have a sense of time as you speak, to interject gently if it’s going long, or invite you to share more if you tend toward the shorter side of communications.
Give and receive feedback.
As we do our individual, internal work, we may come up with wonderful ideas about who we are, how we are. But that doesn’t mean that internal concept of self is how we’re actually showing up or being received. Asking for feedback from those around us can help us understand if we are aligning our behaviors and impacts with our intentions.
Many of us also think we can read each other’s minds and naturally intuit everything about how to be in relationships with each other. This can be true for children; I am often amazed watching child strangers fall into functional play patterns with each other. The stakes are pretty low, the focus on play is shared, and there’s an ease with both moving into connection and letting it go if it isn’t working. As adults, we need to be willing to fine-tune our relationships, and to learn with each other—to learn how our energy and expression lands on the other person, and to share how theirs lands on us. This doesn’t have to be a constant process, but I am always amazed at how much conflict is avoided with timely, direct, loving feedback. It is a gift to give someone a chance to shift their behavior and create more possibilities within the connection.
Set, hear, and honor boundaries.
I love the Hemphill Method for boundaries: Prentis Hemphill says “boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” In every relationship, there is a need for boundaries. Only you can know what your own boundaries are, and you are responsible for articulating them. The people you are in relationship with are responsible for honoring these boundaries, and letting you know theirs.
Boundaries are one of the places we can grasp compatibility, which is as important in work, family, and platonic relationships as it is in romantic connections. If the boundaries you need can’t be honored by someone? Or if you can’t honor the boundaries someone else has set? That means y’all aren’t compatible, and you might need to let the relationship go. There are so many humans out there, and some of them will easily honor your boundaries. With those who can’t honor boundaries while in direct contact, you might have to upgrade the boundary to one where there is minimal to no contact.
That’s also love.
Apologize and receive apologies.
We are blessed to live in a world where Mia Mingus has already given us a beautiful guideline around making apologies that truly acknowledge the harm that was done, the impact we have had on one another, how we will make things right, and how we will ensure that we don’t repeat that harm.
Our relationships benefit when we are able to apologize whenever we realize we have caused harm, whether that happens through our own reflection, through the impacted person letting us know what’s happened, or through others in our community helping us see where we need to be accountable.
With our apologies, we won’t always know what the other person needs for accountability. Don’t be afraid to ask. And be honest with yourself about how accountable you can be.
It’s also important to be able to receive an apology. We don’t want to rush and accept something that doesn’t actually touch into the wound, but we do want to be available to other people’s accountability. Receiving an apology, and the accountability measures, of another person is a sacred act. This is an act that affirms that people can change.
Accepting another’s apology doesn’t mean you owe them an ongoing relationship, or access to cause more harm. But receiving an apology also means being willing to set down any need to punish the other, to hold their behaviors over their head as if they aren’t accountable.
Apologies can take a long time to learn and to land, but to build accountable relationships, we have to know how to give and receive apologies.
Know when to hold on and when to let go.
Earlier, I mentioned compatibility. I want to testify for a moment on how powerful it is to lean into the relationships where you have the most compatibility, and quickly let go of those relationships that lack compatibility.
We live in an abundant world, a world with nearly 8 billion people alive at the same time. And yet we limit ourselves—we get into dysfunctional relationships and structures and commit to suffering for life. The truth is, every adult relationship is a choice. We choose to nourish a connection, we choose to work through conflict, we chose to stay… We can also choose to go. If the default setting of the relationship is conflict, if there are deep value differences that make the connection a constant struggle, if the rate of growth and change between people is uncomfortably different, it’s OK to let go.
Invest your precious life force into relationships where you feel seen, respected, cared for, challenged, grown, accepted as you are, and loved.
Follow the love, proliferate love.
Yes, this is a column about accountability, but my real goal at all times is to help us learn to love ourselves and each other. I know the blessing of loving myself, my co-workers and collaborators, my family, my friends—it feels like some of the most important political work of my life, weaving networks of love and care amongst my loved ones.
Love is how humans flock, love is how we murmurate. Amongst the masses, we find our people, figure out the right distance, and then we change together, and we thrive.
Being accountable is how we can come to truly love ourselves, and give and receive love from others. Being accountable in our most intimate relationships creates the pattern of societal accountability.
adrienne maree brown is a writer, editor, activist, social justice facilitator, coach, speaker, and doula. Her books include Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, which she wrote and edited, and Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements, which she co-edited. She is a YES! contributing editor.