I, like most human beings, have hurt others during the course of my lifetime. Some of these times were simply misunderstandings, others were based in my own ignorance. I can’t actually think of any times that I intentionally hurt someone. There were times that I was lost in my own sadness or hurt and lashed out without a thought for the impact on others. Some of the things I’ve done have been long forgotten by others, some have had lasting repercussions. There have been many times that I’ve gone to others, to apologize, knowing that I must have hurt them and there have been some occasions when others came to me letting me know that I’d hurt them. (See My Journey with Homophobia for one of these situations)
There have also been times when someone who might not know me, or doesn’t know me well, accuses me of being “just like every other _____ (fill in the blank… “white person,” “social worker,” “snotty upper class bitch,” or “racist”…). This has happened on more than one occasion. At these times my response is often very similar, it starts with a rushing in the ears, followed by my cheeks burning and my chest tightening and a very strong urge to start listing every single accomplishment or Indigenous friend, or friend of colour I have, to prove I am not any of these things. To prove that I am a “good person” and that these accusations are unjust. Usually the other person doesn’t stick around long enough for me to formulate my defence. Later, I begin to wonder if I really am what they say I am, and feel a wash of shame. I start to feel think, “What’s the point of trying to be a “good person’ if no one else can see it and if I’m going to be accused of being a bad one anyway.” Or I think, “Maybe I just can’t get it right and as hard as I try to help others, broaden my understanding or make changes in the world, I’m just fundamentally, a bad person and will likely do more harm than good.” None of these responses have actually fixed any of these situations.
A few years ago I came across an article called “The Occasional Evil of Angels” by Cindy Blackstock. She spoke about all the good intentions of social workers throughout history and the ways in which they have caused extensive harm and damage. She speaks about the residential school era, the 60’s Scoop and the current child welfare system. Her solution to this was to challenge social workers to be more self critical, look deeper and stop assuming that good intentions were enough. I found this article extremely comforting, as it showed a way to move forward that didn’t include a constant state of defensiveness nor a feeling of helplessness and fear of the next mistake.
Here’s some ways that I’ve found to work through, and learn from, accusations against me:
Intentions versus Impact
While explaining your intentions can feel good and sometimes does actually resolve a situation, it doesn’t always help. Of course I know my own intentions, but even if they were good, it does not change the impact of my words or actions. It’s the impact that needs to be addressed.
Just because I meant well, does not mean the harm felt was irrelevant.
Learning what exactly it was about your words or actions that felt harmful is one step towards a better understanding of each other. Even when I feel the accusation is unfair or completely uncalled for, listening is my first, and best defence.
- Don’t assume you have no responsibility for what has happened. Start by hearing the other person out. They may not be calm, and you may not feel calm, but if you can stay calm, the situation is less likely to escalate. Ask non-judgemental and genuine questions to get a better understanding. You do not need to tolerate verbal abuse, but if you can sit through the anger to hear the hurt, you will get further than only reacting to the anger. Listen for the hurt behind the words or names and do what you can to address this.
- Check in with others who might understand the other person’s position. Don’t only go to the people who will ‘get you’ to confirm that you are right and they are wrong. See if you can understand another perspective, a way that your words or actions could possibly have done harm from the vantage point of the other person.
- If the other person is willing ask some of the following questions about how to “make things right” these might include:
“What steps need to be taken to repair our relationship?” (if there is a relationship and it is to continue.) “What needs to change to ensure this type of situation doesn’t happen again? How can I do or say things differently?” Ask what the other person feel you need to understand about their situation to help you in your future interactions.
Good Person versus Bad Person identities
When we are accused of harming another or are called ‘a racist’ or ‘sexist’ we get stuck on our self concept of being “a good person.” This, I believe gets in the way of many relationships being repaired on both individual and society level. As long as we think that we are ‘good’ and others are ‘bad’ we will never be able to find understanding. I believe that it is pointless to speak in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ when referring to ourselves, or others, as if a person’s entire identity, character, and being can be summed up in a word.
If we cannot acknowledge behaviours that harm, in ourselves, we cannot address them. Conversely, if we cannot see goodness in ourselves, or in others, we will not believe change is possible and will give up.
If we believe that we are fundamentally bad, or if we fear that we are really a bad person, our shame will be overwhelming when another points out a mistake, to us. We will either react with anger, like someone has stuck their finger into an open wound, or shut down completely, maybe even just become bitter, believing there is no point in trying any more. We need to let go of these self concepts and know that EVERYONE does good and bad things. EVERYONE makes mistakes and the way forward is to work at the things that will repair relationships and learn to get along better.
Individual or Representative?
As a primarily, individualistic society, we struggle with the concept of collectivity, particularly when it comes to ‘bad behaviour.’ Some of the most divisive, and harmful discussions and actions I’ve seen, are when an individual is addressed as if they represent everyone who is like them in some way, or ‘made an example of’ due to one characteristic they have in common with a particular group. This can result in either overly harsh or overly permissive consequences to behaviours depending on the traits being highlighted in that person.
When you are named as a ‘type of person’ or “just like every other____’ the sense of self rises up to defend our individuality. For the person making the accusation, in my experience they are aiming it at me, an individual, often one they do not know, because no one else will hear them and their pain or anger.
I may be the only human listening, in a large system that has caused harm to a group of people for generations. I become the ears that they’ve been looking for.
As an individual, this feels unfair, and unjustified. I didn’t do all those things, I wasn’t even around for most of them. I can’t change the whole system and may feel defensive as someone who believes she’s been trying and unacknowledged. In these situations there is often nothing I can say to try and connect with the angry or hurt individual. Even agreeing and talking about ‘being on their side’ is rarely helpful when anger is intense. I may have not done anything to harm them in any way other than being present and a representative. I can’t say I’ve felt it in the moment, but afterwards I have come to a place of feeling honoured that they saw me as someone who would listen, even if the conversation did not end well. I see this as them entrusting me with their pain and anger and hope that I can honour it by advocating for changes, where I have power to advocate and where I believe it is needed.
Acknowledging my own power is important in both my emotional and physical or verbal response to those accusing me of harm.
I need to be really honest with myself about the fact that I likely do have the power to harm others, even inadvertently.
Pretending I don’t, only serves to keep me ignorant of my own position and responsibilities. To do this I would have to acknowledge that there are different levels of power in society, between individuals. It would mean moving away from moral judgements about others and myself in order to consider what changes I am capable of making, to imagine that each of us have different levels of power, influence and agency, for a wide variety of issues.
It sucks to find out that something you said or did hurt another person. It is scary to be accused of something that you didn’t do, or didn’t mean to do. It’s disheartening and sometimes enraging to be labelled a ‘bad person.’ But you are not alone.
We are all imperfect humans who make mistakes, cause harm and lose relationships. You don’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to fight to prove you’re perfect. You can face this, you can learn from it and you can grow. We are all a part of making our world a better place and it starts with our own interactions and relationships.
Check out Bad Behavior – Who’s Responsible?