Holding Ourselves Accountable and the Importance of Feelings

Managing Our Feelings

The details are fuzzy. I think we were at some kind of party, maybe a birthday for one of my son’s friends. We mothers were hanging out with the kids, chatting, watching them play. Near me stood a woman I didn’t know well. Her boy was perhaps seven years old.

I have no memory of what the child did or said. Probably, I hadn’t noticed. Whatever it was, it triggered in his mother an impressive outrage. Grabbing her son by the arm, she turned to me and said, “We have to leave. He’s upset me so much, I’m just too angry to enjoy myself any longer.”

Her vehemence surprised me, and not just because the boy’s behavior seemed innocuous. Mostly, I couldn’t imagine why she was taking his lapse so personally. He was just a child.

Being young and naive, I thought I could help. “Surely,” I said, “he isn’t making you angry. You have a choice about how you feel.”

That only offended her more. “I do not have a choice. If he didn’t behave that way, I wouldn’t be upset. It’s his fault.”

The Misery of Blaming Others

Watching her drag the boy out of the house, I felt sad. My first thought was for the child who would spend his life assuming responsibility for the feelings of others, then feeling ashamed and guilty because he could never make them happy. Also, I worried about how his mother might punish him, since when we blame others for our feelings, we tend to want to retaliate.

Still, I also couldn’t help feeling sad for her, too. She had cast herself as the victim of this person some twenty years younger than herself. Though he was a child, his brain not fully developed, and though he depended on her to teach him how to manage his emotions and respond to the challenges of the world, she allowed him to overwhelm her capacity to cope. Would she always expect her children to take care of her rather than learning to take care of herself? How miserable she must have been.

When We Refuse to Accept Responsibility

I could only hope that one day someone would say something she could take in, or an experience would shatter her worldview enough that she would be willing to address the pain that left her vulnerable, resistant, and afraid. If only she could learn to love herself, I thought, forgive herself, accept her imperfections, then she and her son would be happier.

Instead, she allowed her hurt to spill out and damage her child. But that is what we humans do. So often, we feel too ashamed to acknowledge that we have “character defects.” Instead, we blame everyone around us. In this way, trauma passes from one generation to the next.

Smeared window with a heart drawn on it, love that heals our shame and helps us take responsibility and be acountable

A year ago, when I first conceived of this topic, I had  read that President Trump had pardoned Sheriff Arpaio of Arizona. You may remember that a federal judge ordered him to “stop detaining people based solely on suspicion of their immigration status.” Arpaio refused and was convicted of contempt. [1]

When I read about the pardoning, I realized our current president really could unravel our nation’s checks and balances and make himself the ruler of an autocracy. After all, a functioning democracy demands that we have means to hold accountable those who abuse their power. If the courts are made impotent, we might lose the ability to do this. So how do we respond?

Nonviolent Resistance

In past columns, I’ve written about nonviolent resistance.  Nonviolence takes courage. To stand against military and political strength with little more than our spiritual presence and our love is risky. Nonetheless, it is more effective than being violent. Research of resistance movements worldwide, performed by Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, reveals that although nonviolence succeeds only 53% of the time, a mere 26% of the violent campaigns succeed in changing legislation or otherwise challenging entrenched powers. [2] Although at times, the best we can do is flee, such as when refugees seek asylum, if we are to hold governments accountable, we will need creativity and persistence.

This is also true in our individual lives. Whether we face a bullying boss, an abusive partner, or a racist stranger, we can choose how to respond. We see this described beautifully by Onnesha Roychoudhuri in her article, “How to Reclaim the Narrative –and Truth – in Post-Truth America.” [3]

Setting Boundaries

She describes a trip she took on a New York subway. During rush hour, a man boarded the train she was on and started shouting racist slogans. Those around him studiously ignored him, but he didn’t quiet down. Then people asked him politely to be quiet, reasoned with him, shouted at him, but he still blasted the commuters with his hate-filled tirade.

Roychoudhuri knew this could only end badly. Besides, she was tired of listening to him. Something had to be done, but what? How do you hold accountable someone who cannot see beyond his own anger?

You set boundaries. So how do you set boundaries in a situation where the only power you dare exercise is your voice? You can’t put the man in time out, you can’t detain him, you can’t leave, and attacking him physically will only cause trouble for all of you. Besides, that’s not  accountability. That’s punishment.

Punishment is Not Accountability

I won’t say punishment is never necessary, but it rarely makes us feel accountable. It often creates dependence. When punished, we learn to expect others to tell us what’s right and wrong. Besides, if we get punished for acting out, then the score is settled, so we have little impetus to change. We might want to figure out how to avoid getting caught next time. If we get caught, anyway, we’ll probably try to lie or bluster our way out of taking the blame. Accepting our responsibility and managing our emotions may not be high on our list of ways to respond when the threat of punishment looms over us. In the end, punishment tends to hurt us, shaming us and thwarting our growth.

Back on the subway train, the man continued to scream about all the immigrants, blacks, women, and homosexuals who had ruined his life. Perhaps he had been punished too often in his life. Maybe shamed, abused, neglected. In any event, he wasn’t about to take responsibility for his feelings. He was too badly wounded.

Breathing in Pain: Tonglen

When we see someone suffering, we can choose to hold their anguish in our hearts. Tonglen is a Buddhist meditative practice in which we breathe in pain, cradle it with gentle compassion, then breathe it out transformed into peace and love. We can do this for ourselves or for others. Had the man been able to recognize his own despair, he could have soothed himself with Tonglen. But as Pema Chödrön explains in her book Comfortable with Uncertainty, this type of meditation takes courage, especially when we do it for ourselves. It can be terribly uncomfortable to hold your rage, jealousy, or loneliness, recognizing that it belongs to you, “rather than blame it on someone else.” [4]

So if the man could not help himself in this way, perhaps Roychoudhuri could have used such a practice to calm her own heart and remind her of her oneness with this beleaguered man. In this way, she might have brought peace into a chaotic mess.

This is only one possible way to respond. Roychoudhuri used her ingenuity in a different way She not only defused the situation, but also created a joyful solidarity among the commuters.

Singing Together

She started singing. After she belted out a few querulous notes of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” other passengers joined in. Soon the entire car was filled with the raucous sound of music. Though the man tried screaming over their voices, he finally admitted defeat. At the next exit, he left the train. For a while, the passengers kept singing. Then they fell into a companionable silence.

Probably this did not change the man with a racist hatred so intense he felt justified in ranting endlessly at a packed train of people. Clearly, he did not understand the concept of taking responsibility for his feelings or holding himself accountable for his behavior. Like the mother who left the party with her seven-year-old son, that man blamed others for his pain. Just as I likely had no impact on the mother, so the crowd likely did not impact the man.

Nonetheless, when we use compassion and joy to resist hate, we are taking responsibility for our own feelings in a difficult situation. In that moment, we hold ourselves and others accountable. By honoring the pain we feel without trying to run from it, and by loving ourselves and others, we make a difference in the world.

Taking Responsibility for Ourselves

Regardless or whether we choose to flee or stand our ground with nonviolence, we must first recognize our own emotions. Otherwise, we will get lost in the fight. Roychoudhuri recognized her discomfort, then quietly observed her conflicting thoughts and feelings. Had she not been able to experience suffering without reacting in anger, she would not have been calm enough to consider alternative ways to cope

Roychoudhuri showed courage and resilience. She showed great wisdom.

In this way, did she help that hate-filled racist? Of course, we will never know. We rarely see the long-term impact of our actions. So is it possible that I influenced that mother whose sense of unworthiness was so deep she had to blame her son for her discomfort? Maybe my words created a nick in her defenses that someone else could open further. What about a president entrenched in his fear and rage? Who can help him face his inner truth? Will any of these wounded people learn to heal their shame? Will we?

Healing Our Shame

Last week, I wrote about Martha C. Nussbaum’s theory of “projective disgust.” This is when we feel so revolted by our own human frailty, weakness, and mortality, that we can’t face ourselves. Instead, we see our “faults” in everyone around us. When our revulsion is strong enough, we want to destroy the person on whom we project our fears.

This is how shame works. Many of us suffer from a “projective shame,” seeing in others the traits that make us feel ashamed. Though we all have within us a wounded child, some of us fear this vulnerable part of ourselves. We feel threatened by imperfection and refuse to accept our mistakes. It feels so much better, at least for a moment, to blame everyone else.

What heals such shame? Love and forgiveness. When we can experience the deep and abiding love that comes from unconditional acceptance, we can heal. Whether that love comes from a therapist, a teacher, a lover, a preacher, or God, if we allow it into our hearts, we can be transformed.

Tonglen practice can help us do this. As the Buddhist teacher, Joan Halifax, explains, Tonglen enhances our compassion and allows us to endure our suffering with kindness so we can attend to our fears and grief and shame. [5] Thus we start by practicing for ourselves, because we must first heal our own hurts. Through Tonglen, we can begin to recognize our true nature, forgive the ways we have betrayed ourselves, and discover our solidarity with every suffering person in our world. We might even discover that we can empathize with the shameful mother, our shameless president, and the racist man.

Practicing for the World

As in this video by Chödrön, we can also practice Tonglen for the world. By doing so, we encourage nonviolence, build our capacity for understanding and forgiveness, and soothe our desire for revenge. Even if we feel hurt by our past, we are responsible for how we respond in the present. If we shame others, we only encourage fear, animosity, and violence.

Those who behave badly are acting out of their pain. This is true for everyone, including ourselves. When we acknowledge this, we can start to take responsibility for our emotions and accountability for our actions.

Honor the pain of those around you. Also honor the pain in yourself. Be tender with your fear and sadness, forgive your failures, and learn to be a force of love in the world. In this way, you not only become accountable for your own behavior, you might help others be accountable for themselves.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Davis, Julie Hirschfeld and Maggie Haberman, “Trump Pardons Joe Arpaio, Who Became Face of Crackdown on Illegal Immigration,” New York Times, August 25, 2017, accessed 8/15/18.
  2. Stephan, Maria J. and Erica Chenoweth, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” International Security, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Summer 2008), pp. 7-44, 8, https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/IS3301_pp007-044_Stephan_Chenoweth.pdf, accessed 8/15/18.
  3. Roychoudhuri, Onnesha, “How to Reclaim the Narrative –and Truth – in Post-Truth America,” Yes Magazine, August 6, 2018, https://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/how-to-reclaim-the-narrative-and-power-in-post-truth-america-20180806?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=YTW_20180810&utm_content=YTW_20180810+CID_097a748b56177468dffbff1955960c8d&utm_source=CM&utm_term=How%20to%20Reclaim%20the%20Narrativeand%20Powerin%20Post-Truth%20America, accessed 8/13/2018.
  4. Pema Chödrön, Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion, Boston: Shambhala, 2008, 87.
  5. Halifax, Joan, “Meditation: Tonglen or Giving and Receiving: A Practice of Great Mercy,” https://www.upaya.org/dox/Tonglen.pdf, accessed 8/15/18.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens