Revealing Men
Revealing Men
Accountability Changes Men Struggling with Abusive Behaviors and Addictions

What does it mean to hold yourself accountable for your behavior? Is it simply admitting to wrong-doing or can it be the catalyst for change? Randy Flood, host of the Revealing Men podcast, psychotherapist, and Director of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan takes a look at how accountability can become the foundation for change in men who struggle with abusive/controlling behaviors and addictions. Al Heystek and Otha Brown are principal therapists at the Men’s Resource Center and provide counseling for domestic abuse and anger management as well as treatment for sex addiction and problems with pornography. Some of the clients they see are referrals from the court system or from intimate partners making strong ultimatums. Heystek says, “We talk about probation officers, and partners, and others … they want men to get accountable and be empathic.” And even though clients express remorse for what they’ve done, many don’t know how to move beyond that. Brown says, “Men come into our service feeling a lot of shame. They’ve felt really bad about what they did. And yet, they miss the impact of their behavior on their partner. They’re saying ‘I’ve taken responsibility’ but they don’t really understand the impact of their behavior.” Brown and Heystek talk with Flood about how the process of learning to be accountable takes their clients on a journey of self-discovery and healing. While active denial, blame, and minimization are barriers to accountability, they compassionately explain how those defenses are ultimately in the service of avoiding the searing pain of shame and guilt for hurting the people they love.

Knocking Down Barriers to Compassion

Many of the men they see rationalize their behavior based on how they were brought up. “Guys will talk about what they did,” says Brown, “and then soon after they’re talking about their experience as a kid. How they were raised. The behavior of a parent or father figure. In some ways thinking that this was helpful for them. Rationalizing what they did in their relationship. It’s a story of being treated violently, abusively, and no one there to explain ‘hey, that’s wrong’ and ‘there are better ways to teach this lesson.’” Flood observes that men who were abused can grow up thinking they deserved it. Or that that’s the way you make better men, by punishing them or shaming them.” He notes that these long-held ideas—coupled with socialization—can be barriers to change: “If they can’t have compassion for what happened to them, then that’s a barrier for them having compassion for others.” Later in the conversation, he quotes noted author and feminist, bell hooks: “The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead, patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on other patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”

Building a Foundation for Change

Flood notes that accountability becomes the foundation for change because, “If you’re not accountable, you’re not able to talk about yourself. You’re not able to talk about what’s going on with you.” A person who isn’t self-aware will have a difficult time being held accountable, let alone be open to change. Brown talks to his clients about the importance of being vulnerable, transparent. He says, “Without vulnerability, there can be no connection. This is the problem in a lot of relationships. Men come in, and for better or worse, sort of objectifying their partner. And not really making a connection on a feeling level. And start fighting. Start arguing. Using power strategies. Because they fail to be vulnerable and make connections with their partner.” Being vulnerable might also mean letting go of control says Heystek. “Accessing that vulnerability…. and not getting into the adrenaline of being angry, or frustrated, or defensive. The enemy of accountability isn’t just those emotions (because those emotions are in the service of trying to stay in control). Because if I have that adrenaline going then I’m trying to manage or control the conversation.”

Finding Acceptance and Empathy

To get to a point of vulnerability – and, Flood adds, humility – Brown and Heystek’s clients need to access and talk about their feelings. As Brown explains it’s not that easy. “It’s the way we’ve been socialized and raised. ‘If I start talking about my feelings, then I’m no longer masculine. …That’s soft. I don’t want to be soft.’…It’s such a threat for men who believe their masculinity is absolved of feelings.” This is when the support and example of other men come into play. Although both Brown and Heystek offer one-on-one counseling and therapy, it’s when clients participate in men’s support groups that they’ve seen remarkable change. Heystek says, “we try to create an experience for men where they can, in a safe place, look at what they did, be accountable for it, and also to experience empathy. From us. Not condoning their behavior. But to go ‘hey, we’re all humans. We all make mistakes.’ And the power of the group, of course, is that you’re not less than, you’re not better than, you’re just one of the guys.” It’s not about measuring on a hierarchy of how bad someone is by how they behave. It’s just seeing the inner struggle that contributes to the behavior that they all have in common.

Recognizing the Value of Community

Brown and Heystek talk about how their clients open up in men’s support groups in remarkable ways. Brown says, “Sometimes I get people who say ‘I won’t talk in group.’ And, I say, well, give it a shot and we’ll see what you think. …And, you know, after a couple of times (and I’ve just seen it over and over) guys are coming in and they’re baring their soul. They’re talking like they were group participants for years. This is an opportunity for a man to be different. He thinks of himself as ‘I don’t talk in group’ but he gets there and he hears comments of other men and other men mentioning their feelings and their experiences and he comes out and he’s different. …When we give guys a chance to be human with each other, they take it. They stop the one-up-men-ship, they stop the put-downs, they stop the embarrassment, and they begin to open up and be for real. I’m amazed when it happens but it happens in groups and guys get it.” Heystek adds, “I think that’s how men learn humility…from being in a community. Being with other people. You don’t learn humility by reading a book. You’re with other people and you deal with those feelings…of shame, “I’m worse than” or arrogance, “I’m better than” – the group experience provides a chance to deal with both of those kinds of feelings and come to another place where ‘You know what? I’m just one of the human beings in here.’ And when [men] get to that place, then [they] can be more accountable and empathic.”

Taking Ownership of Bad Behavior

As the conversation nears its end, Heystek describes how he sees the tie between accountability and change: “I can own what I did. I can own the feelings that I have about it. I can connect the dots between what I did and how that affected my partner or somebody else or maybe my child and have conversations about that without getting upset and defensive. Because I know that I don’t have to identify with those bad things that I did. I can own that I did those things but that doesn’t mean that I’m this bad guy.” Flood encourages anyone dealing with the fall-out from abusive or controlling behaviors and addictions to contact the Men’s Resource Center, “We have a place here where we create these sacred circles to give people a chance to…connect to empathy for themselves and for others and be a better human being.”

A Path Toward Accountability and Change

This complete conversation is on the Revealing Men podcast available through Stitcher, Spotify, Google, and Apple. You can also find an extended conversation with Flood and Heystek about men’s spirituality and sacred masculinity there. Contact the Men’s Resource Center online or call (616) 456-1178 to learn more about our counseling and consultation services including the Transformations group for sex and pornography addiction treatment. If you’re looking for guidance on breaking the cycle of abusive behavior, check out “Stop Hurting the Woman You Love,” a book co-authored by Flood. And feel free to reach out if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast.