The difference between defensiveness and accountability

Learning to pay for your mistakes might lead to immediate difficulty, but is better in the long run

Tilottama Barua
Published : 22 Oct 2023, 01:28 PM
Updated : 22 Oct 2023, 01:28 PM

You know that horrible moment when you realise you messed up? We’ve all been there. But now comes the part that’s even harder.

We have two options – own up to it and apologise, or deflect blame and try to cover up your mistake.

I used to be terrible at accepting blame and owning up to my errors. I’ve been working on getting better at it for a long time and it’s not always easy. I still have issues with it sometimes.

There was a time when I would never shoulder the blame and hold myself accountable, especially in front of other people. Even if the issue stemmed from a simple misunderstanding, I would immediately react by being defensive and trying to minimise the issue. Now I see how awful I was being.

Since that time, I have come to realise how essential genuine accountability is in order to grow from our mistakes. We often try to deflect blame because we think that making a mistake means that we are bad or incompetent people. We think that admitting to our flaws will realise our worst fears. But, the truth is that when we get defensive, it is the result of our anxieties and insecurities. And it usually ended with me feeling angry and hurt although I was the one who screwed up.

Think back on all the conflicts in your life, how many times was an apology – a sincere apology – able to fix things? To me it feels like nearly every single time. The only occasions where a sincere attempt to remedy the situation and change so it doesn’t happen again are truly extreme. Like stealing someone’s cat or murdering their mother.

Now consider all the times you’ve been on the other side of the argument. When you know you are right and the person you’re in conflict with is wrong. Every time this has happened, my fondest wish has been for them to say they are sorry and promise to try and do better.

Since coming to this realisation I’ve made the effort to try and apologise sincerely every time I’ve been wrong. And, you know what? Every time I’ve done so, I’ve immediately felt better.

We all have this innate understanding that we, and the people around us, are simply human. We’re flawed and we can’t and shouldn’t expect anyone to be perfect.

By embracing this idea, I think my reactions have gotten a lot better over time.

So, the next time you make a mistake, tamp down that flaring sense of defensiveness, insecurity and anger. All it does is try to make you deny your own wrongdoing and deny the blame. It makes you feel bad and hurts your ability to learn and grow.

Instead, just try to apologise, look honestly at what you did wrong, and how you could do better next time. Taking responsibility and being genuinely accountable for your own words and actions will not make you a bad person.

Instead, it will give you the chance to become a better one. One who is truly worthy of the respect that you want. And, occasionally, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a chance to laugh at your own idiocy and move on.

By choosing accountability over defensiveness you help yourself develop personally, show integrity and improve as a problem solver. And you help others by improving your relationships with them.

This article is part of Stripe,'s special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.