This is a Part 2 of a 2-part series about change, written using knowledge about the psychology of change so that we can all be on the same page about the actual steps of making a change in your life, what it means to do the work of change, and how to see if someone is fronting to avoid actually changing and being responsible for their actions. Part 1 explained what motivation is, what the process of change generally looks like, and how to give a meaningful apology. This Part 2 covers important parts of the planning, action, and maintenance stages in the process of change, explained in Part one: 1)what accountability is and what makes it a key to true change, self-reflection, and 2)learning how to set realistic goals/plans for change. My goal with this Part 2 is to: Help people be able to see if someone is actually doing the promised work of change and Put a spotlight on accountability. I want us to give just as much shine to accountability as we do to forgiveness. Because from a psychotherapy and mental health point of view, forgiveness is NOT needed for healing. At all. Someone can definitely heal and live a full life without ever forgiving the person(s) who have hurt them. But the flip side isn’t true. Accountability is SO IMPORTANT for healing. Without accountability, true healing and change will never quite be possible. So many people see change as something that happens to someone so they can be passive and watch change happen. But that’s not true. Change is active, both for individual people trying to make changes in their lives and also for the community as a whole.
“It’s Done. Let’s Just Move on.”
So they’ve apologized to others and have forgiven themselves, now it’s time to move on, right? Actually, no. Change is not about “moving on”. Moving on implies putting things behind you. And when someone puts something behind them, with time, they start to forget about it. Out of sight, out of mind is real. So instead of “moving on” or “moving past” something, change is actually moving towards. The person wanting change now needs to start walking the walk: making the sometimes uncomfortable moves towards change and community-healing. Because yes, their actions do have an effect on the people around them and, on some level, their communities. Change is not about looking good in public, getting people to forgive them so they can feel better/comfortable, or getting back to the way things were before as quickly as possible, etc. That’s not the kind of motivation that leads to lasting change. That could be what first pushed them to think about changing, sure, but after awhile, that’s not going to be enough to keep them going when no one is clapping or even looking at them anymore. Again, unless they are changing because they want to deep down and they see the change as worth it to them personally, the change is not going to last. Walking the walk isn’t always going to feel easy or good. It’s gonna feel like hard work sometimes because that’s what it is.
Action and Accountability
Forgiveness is nice. Someone forgiving themselves when they are ready to change is very important. I will say, though, that I see a lot more energy given to rushing towards automatic forgiveness. ESPECIALLY if this is someone with social power, someone most people like, and/or someone who makes popular music/art. Rushing to forgiveness messes with the process of change for 2 reasons. First, it assumes that forgiveness is a mandatory part of the process of change. And it is not. Forgiveness is each person’s choice. It’s not even a required part of healing. Someone could have pushed themselves, worked hard, and transformed themselves into a totally different person and it is still someone else’s prerogative to not forgive them and/or to never want to deal with them again. And someone can heal and live a full life without ever forgiving the person(s) who have harmed them and/or harmed others and that’s fine. Not everyone will forgive. Some people won’t be allowed in certain spaces as a direct result of something they have done to someone else. That’s called respecting other people’s boundaries.That’s also the consequences of their actions and they gotta deal with it. Could someone feel upset, frustrated, tired, etc. because of these consequences? Sure. And if they need to express those feelings to people, they should process those feelings with a consenting friend and/or therapist. That is exactly where those feelings belong.
What is Accountability?
Less talked about than forgiveness, but more important to me, is accountability. Forgiveness is nice, but accountability is a key to long-lasting change. People feeling as if they are not accountable to anyone is one of the reasons for the abuse, neglect, etc. we see in the government, at our jobs, in our schools, in our communities, in our churches/places of worship, in our families, in our romantic relationships, in our friendships, etc. There is so little accountability going on throughout people’s lives that many people don’t seem to be clear on what accountability is or what it looks like in the real world. To be accountable means that someone is holding themselves responsible and/or is being held responsible for what they have done and/or for what they were supposed to do. Being accountable is also about accepting the consequences of your behavior and choices.
Accountable to Who, Exactly?
We are all accountable to someone or something in our lives. From the time we are born, there is usually SOMEONE who can check us. Whether it’s parents, teachers, older peers, bosses, landlords, the IRS, etc., at some point, everyone has to answer to someone else. A person, who is serious about changing, holds themselves accountable to the people harmed. Accountability includes reparations. Specifically listening to the person(s) who have been harmed and basing your plans for change on what they need and don’t need from you. Being accountable means being committed to not repeating that behavior without demanding forgiveness and/or expecting rewards for changing. And to do that, you have respect the boundaries of other people and accept the potential social consequences of your actions. Another part of reparations is working on learning new ways of acting/thinking/speaking to take the place of the old ways. So when someone is facing (constructive) criticism about their lack of change and/or not being willing to learn why what they did was messed up, they are refusing to be held accountable and are refusing to really change.
Another level of accountability is being accountable to the community (I plan on writing a separate piece about community accountability later this year). In a better world, it is the community’s job to provide safety to its members. Close friends, relatives, people that the person trying to change respects, etc. should acknowledge the harm done and tell the person they are responsible for resolving it. Instead of what usually happens: Enabling their loved ones, trying to make the work of change as easy as possible, and/or making them feel comfortable with not changing at all. When people are not also held to higher standards by their loved ones, peers, and community, they feel like they can avoid the work of change. Where is the push to even start contemplating change when everyone is acting as if the person hasn’t done anything wrong? Part of community accountability is checking in people’s growth and being willing to receive that check-in. Holding yourself accountable to the community means being willing to be accountable for your actions and your words from the past and in the future. Strength isn’t just somebody saying something with their chest. It’s also to being answerable for what they do and the effect it has on other people. No gaslighting or lying. Just standing up and being willing, not to move on, but to continuing to move toward change by accepting feedback and constructive criticism. Similar to how I described the healing power of boundaries in the Boundaries 201 Part 2 piece, personal and community accountability go a very long way in making positive long=lasting change possible. Accountability creates the right environment for change and encourages more growth in the future. Without personal and community accountability, people eventually won’t trust each other and strong community ties are not possible in that situation. Accountability is part of the work that keeps people and communities feeling safe. And safety and trust in each other is at the core of powerful movements and revolutions.
Working on Yourself
So what does the work of change actually look like? Where does someone even start? I think one of the first things to do is to make time for self-reflection. And I’m not talking about taking 10 minutes to think about why this person was right and that person was wrong. Assuming by this point, you are at the place where you want to make changes for yourself, it’s not about what other people did anymore. Your main focus should be on yourself. I’m talking about setting time aside time for days, weeks, possibly months, to really dig into everything that happened, the role(s) you played, how your actions affected others, etc. You can use my life reassessment piece here as a starting point (it includes links to my piece on mindfulness so check that out) to help figure out how to start the process of taking stock of your life. Taking the time to look at your life bit by bit in an honest and deep way will give you a clearer idea of how to move forward without repeating the same life lessons over and over again.
The process of self-reflection will take as long as it takes. Don’t rush it. This is a difficult process and many people prefer to rush through it to get to more feel-good parts, like a glamorous redemption/prodigal son story. But it’s the journey that’s important here, not to be cheesy. But it’s literal facts. If someone rushes through their process just so they can get back to the part where everyone likes them again, it’s a fake peace. They didn’t acknowledge that something in their life isn’t right. They didn’t come face to face with the need for change. Without acknowledging and understanding the entire realness of what happened, they can never truly apologize and feel sorry for their part in what happened. And if they don’t feel sorry, they will not change. That’s why I believe that no one should accept any kind of apology (or even worse, accept a non-apology) just to “keep the peace”. Again, that’s a fake peace and it won’t last.
“I Mean, At Least I’m Honest”
Someone acknowledging what they did and/or “being honest/blunt” about the things they do that hurt people (low-key or high-key) is not enough. The work doesn’t stop there. No applause. No pat on the back just for honesty. That’s less than half the work. It’s good that someone knows themselves. Y’all know I love a mindful person. But my next question every time is, “Ok so now that you know you’re like this, what are you planning to do about it?” Because if the person doesn’t plan on doing anything serious to change in the long term, they can hurt someone just as badly as someone who isn’t aware of themselves at all. If someone feels like they aren’t able to get as deep as they need to on their own, that is probably a sign to start looking for a therapist for a professional outside point-of-view. Vet the therapist to make sure they already have the values you are trying to build in yourself. Just…just saying.
Setting Goals and Making Plans
Someone has been reflecting, is becoming more and more mindful, possibly working with a therapist, and feels ready for the next step, so what’s next? It’s time to take what you have learned about yourself (and are continuing to learn about yourself because self-reflection shouldn’t stop) and decide what needs to be done to change. This is where SMART goals come in. I learned about this from working at community health organizations for years and this is a great way for people to organize themselves and make sense of where they want to go. SMART goals (and objectives) are like the compass for change, making sure someone doesn’t lose track of where they are and where they are going. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
Meaning each goal focuses on 1 thing the person wants to improve. Saying “I wanna be a less angry person” doesn’t do anything here. It’s too general. A more specific goal would be “I want to stop getting into arguments with my coworkers”. Being clear and specific with goals is very important to keeping a person’s motivation going. If a goal feels too big, impossible, etc., people are more likely to burn out or give up on changing. Keeping the goals specific and easy to keep track of makes them easier to accomplish.
Meaning can someone measure their progress with this goal and how will they know when they have accomplished this goal? That 1st goal (“I wanna be a less angry person”) is too general to measure progress. How would someone define “less angry”? What would that even look like? The 2nd goal (“I want to stop getting into arguments with my coworkers”) is easier to measure someone’s progress with. Someone can literally track how many arguments someone is getting into and watch as the number goes up or down.
Meaning how realistic the goal is, depending on the person’s situation. How do they plan on getting this done and what do they need realistically to do this? Do they need to start taking classes, buy some books, consult with some people, etc.?
Meaning is this goal even related to the thing they want to change? Is this goal actually helpful to the person’s growth and/or to the person(s) affected by their actions? Is this the right time for this goal?
Meaning there’s a realistic deadline by when either the goal will be achieved or someone will check in by that time to see what to do next. What can the person do today to make working towards this goal easier tomorrow? Every SMART goal has at least 2 objectives (mini goals) to break down the goal into smaller, easier steps.
The great thing about someone organizing their goals for change into something like SMART goals is it helps them organize and make sense of a process that can feel very huge and overwhelming. Taking the time to plan the next steps sets a solid foundation for change and helps a person remain accountable to themselves and to the people around them. And someone organizing their life into SMART goals, in general, is a great way to approach other things they want to accomplish in their life.
There is always going to be someone promising change or promising to change. And it’s important for us to be able to know how to recognize this process/work in others when it’s time to hold people accountable for their actions. Awareness is always key. And taking the time to stop and critically think about a situation is 1 of the tools that will set us free. Change is a process that lasts someone’s whole life and knowing more about the process of change and what change looks like will help you figure out if someone is really walking the walk. Remember that motivation for true, long-lasting change comes from within and with the understanding that 1)forgiveness is not mandatory and 2)that there are justifiable social consequences (For example: other people setting their own personal boundaries aka “cancelling”) that happen as a result of their actions. We as individuals must hold ourselves accountable and push ourselves to grow everyday towards the better future we want. And we as a community must hold each other accountable so we can create the environment for the growth and trust in each other that makes the true change we fight for possible.
Thanks for reading. The next post will be a Reader’s Request on Sunday 4/14/19, covering 1)estrangement after you’ve cut off contact with family, and other people who were once close to you, 2)mourning the lost relationships of still living people, and 3)how to manage the people in your life who still have connections with those estranged people.