I had a hard conversation with my mom recently.
I addressed something she did a long time ago that hurt me. For privacy reasons I won't give the full story, but as a teenager I went to her for help. Instead of taking me seriously, she dismissed and punished me. Thinking I was making excuses.
That's the nutshell version.
I've realized since then how that moment impacted me. And I've grieved since then how, if I did receive the support I was asking for, it probably would've helped me tremendously.
I never had the tools to talk about it back then nor was I given the space to address it.
But those things have changed.
I've grown, she's grown, and our relationship has grown accordingly.
So when we were talking about something recently that reminded me of that incident, a part of me - we'll call it intuition - rang loud and clear in my mind:
Speak on it now.
I'm learning to listen to my inner knowing without question, so I rolled with it.
"Do you remember when I asked you for help with this and you punished me for it? That hurt me."
She responded in a way I didn't like. But it's the way a lot of people tend to respond.
Feeling misunderstood and a little defensive, she wanted to explain her side of things.
She wanted to be heard for her intentions and the innocence in them.
She wanted my understanding. Something she did not give me back then. Nor was she offering it now.
She wanted the benefit of my doubt. Of my grace. Again, things she did not give me back then. Nor was she offering them now.
So it's no surprise that while listening to her respond the way many people respond, I felt the same way I think many of us do in my position:
Not understanding or full of grace the way she wanted me to be. Instead, I felt defensive in return.
Initially my inner teen came right back up, filled with frustration:
I said you did something that hurt me and you just can't acknowledge that.
I wanted to shut down her plea for understanding and get back to the point of what I was talking about, because that's what felt fair. She hurt me, and I've been owed an apology. That's that.
She always held power in the situation. My side was always ignored. I didn't want my side of things to be ignored anymore.
And honestly, I wasn't wrong for that. I didn't bring it up to be dismissed again. I brought it up to be heard.
To neglect that would be to neglect myself.
Does that mean ignoring her side, though? Shutting her down?
It could've been. I could've let inner teen take the wheel. I could've interrupted her and argued my point. But as the impulse arose, so did my intuition again. Subtle, but clear.
I zoomed out and took a better look at the person who was speaking to me.
I realized I wasn't seeing someone who was trying to gaslight me, dismiss me or shut me down. Nor was I seeing someone who was consciously trying to avoid accountability. I don't think she was even thinking about accountability to consciously avoid it.
What I was seeing was someone faced with the question so many of us face again and again throughout life:
"What does it say about me that I hurt this person I love?"
A scary, painful question for anyone who knows love, let alone a mother face-to-face with her child.
Society tells us the answer is this:
"If I admit I hurt this person I love, it means I'm a bad mother/friend/partner etc."
So it turns out, I was having a painful conversation about something my mother did and how it impacted me.
My mother was also having a painful conversation, but about her identity and value as a mother.
I wasn't the only person who was vulnerable in that conversation. To pretend I was would have been false, and honestly, narrow-minded.
But does her side of it that change the fact that I want, and deserve, acknowledgment? That that's what I'm here to get?
However, it does help me understand how to approach the person I'm asking it of.
Because I too have been faced with that question of "what does this say about me?"
And I too have had moments of buckling under the pain and intimidation of it.
So I get what that sort of knee-jerk reaction is. I recognize what it looks like when we scramble to show evidence that we're not the bad person this would suggest we are.
We bring our intentions to the table.
We bring our context to the table.
We bring our reasons to the table.
We bring our humanity and an honest sense of helplessness to the table.
"We all have our shortcomings. I don't mean for mine to harm you. I tried my best. I'm not perfect." (can't you see that and forgive me anyway? Love me anyway?)
We bring all this other stuff to the table not to avoid accountability, but to avoid the idea that to fail at good-humanhood in a moment means we're less than good people overall.
I'm no mind-reader, but this is what I saw and heard from her when I paused. When I breathed. When I observed.
I didn't just see my mother. I saw a whole human struggling with something all humans struggle with.
The playing field was even.
So I let her speak for a moment, hard as it was at first. I listened to her defend a character and identity that I wasn't attacking.
She came to an ending that set me up beautifully, genuinely asking, "so I mean, what do you want me to do?"
I caught it, calmly, and without hesitation.
"I want you to understand that what you did hurt me. And I want you to acknowledge that."
She was quiet now, taking her turn to pause, so I continued.
"I'm not questioning your character or your capabilities as a mother. I know how much you've given and how hard you've worked to be a good mom to us. I know you did everything you could with what you had available. And that if you thought something different would help me you would've done it. I know you wouldn't hurt me on purpose.
Mom, no one can take that away from you.
What I'm saying is that all of that also doesn't that take away from the fact that when you did that, it hurt me anyway."
She finished that last sentence with me. "It hurt you anyway."
"Right. Okay." She nodded, taking in what I was saying.
"I needed your understanding. I was asking for your help and you punished me for it. Maybe in your eyes you were helping, but it didn't. It hurt me. And I think about how my life might have been very different had you heard me out and supported me instead."
Both of us drying some tears at this point, she took in what I was saying.
I wonder if in her pause she was doing what I did in my own pause.
I wonder if she took a moment to see the humanity unfolding in front of her on the other end of the conversation.
I had to find a little faith in her that she wasn't trying to dismiss my experience in centering her own.
Maybe she had to find a little faith in me that I wasn't trying to invalidate or diminish her effort, identity, or intentions in voicing that she managed to hurt me anyway.
Relationships have to have the capacity to hold space for both sides of the experience, after all.
I can't know for sure that's what was going through her head, but I did feel her really listening and taking it in.
So when she finished her pause and said "Okay. I'm sorry. I understand. And I really, truly am sorry for hurting you,"
That's all I needed to hear.
I thanked her. We dried our tears. We moved forward and spent some quality time after that.
It felt like a dose of healing. I'm sure we have more to come.
I think we want conversations of accountability to be seamless and in favor of the "victim".
I tell you that you harmed me. You listen intently. You understand flawlessly. You tell me you're sorry and mean it. Everything gets better.
If only humans were designed to be so neat and tidy.
It can happen. But more often than not, in my experience, it doesn't.
More often than not accountability is a messy dance of knowing when and how to speak, pause, listen, regulate, affirm, get curious, acknowledge and - my God, please - ask for what you need.
And sometimes we have to wait our turn when it's not fair to.
Sometimes we have to hold space to get space.
Sometimes we have to acknowledge to receive acknowledgment.
Because we never know what our feedback is going to trigger in someone else and our nervous system isn't the only one in the room.
Our experience isn't the only one in the room.
Our pain isn't the only pain in the room.
It doesn't mean we set ours aside to prioritize theirs. It means we find a way to hold space for both.
That's the work of relationship. Holding space for both of the people in it.
She needed to know her "good mom" identity wasn't in question before she could feel safe to acknowledge those actions that may have contradicted it.
Is that fair? Maybe. Maybe not.
But if someone asked me if I got what I needed, the acknowledgment and apology I originally was looking for when I brought it up?
My answer is yes, I did. I got that and more.
I got to learn more about her.
I got to see humanity in her.
I got to be eye to eye with her.
I got to learn more about myself.
I got to practice standing in my truth with her.
I got to see fruit of all this relational skill-building I've been doing.
I got to feel closer to my intuition. My internal sense of knowing and guidance system.
And I got a hard-earned believable dose of honest acknowledgment, that I can trust she didn't give without meaning it.
Hopefully she got much of the same.
Hopefully we get to feel closer now. Even if it's just a touch.
I say all of this to say, as much as we've been trained to think it is, accountability isn't had by fighting enemies.
This is the work of blame.
Accountability may involve difficult conversations, and it may happen in tension, but it's here to bring us closer to one another.
Holding space is the work of accountability.
Compassion is the work of accountability.
Regulation is the work of accountability.
Clearly stating your needs is the work of accountability.
Patience is the work of accountability. I'm grateful I practiced my pause.
And even with all of that, accountability rests on both parties acknowledging and making their peace with both sides of the experience...
Regardless of who goes first.
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