My bad

What to do when you mess up

I thought I told you not to tell anyone

Why are making such a big deal of it? Nobody cares.

Working to change the world means that you’re going to risk screwing up. That’s scary, but worth it! Allies make mistakes. That’s one of the ways you know you’re learning.

When you make a mistake, it’s important to own up to it. This means apologizing and changing your attitudes so that you won’t make the mistake again. This is called being accountable.

Why is it so hard to be accountable?

In two words? Difficult feelings.

When we make mistakes we often feel like bad people. We may:

  • Feel challenged, guilty, defensive, embarrassed, confused or angry.
  • Blame ourselves and worry that if we own up to what we did, we’ll make it into an even bigger deal.
  • Fear being rejected or punished by the people we hurt.
  • Worry that we’ll end up harming the person who was hurt even more.

The list goes on. No wonder we often try and avoid accountability!

Allies need to learn to cope with these challenging feelings to be able to apologize well.

Common responses that are *not* accountable

  1. Defensiveness: “I didn’t do that.” “You took it the wrong way.” “You’re hurting me by bringing this up.”
  2. Tone policing: “You are so angry, I can’t talk to you right now.” “It’s your fault I can’t say sorry!”
  3. Making excuses: “I normally wouldn’t do something like that but I was under so much stress—“ “I can see how you took it that way, but what I really meant was—”
  4. Minimizing and blaming the LGBTQ person: “It wasn’t that bad.” “Stop making it into such a big deal.” “It was just a joke!”
  5. Denial: “I didn’t do that.” “That’s not my experience, so it can’t be true.”
  6. Intellectualizing and arguing: “You’re overreacting, you’re not being logical.”
  7. False apology (you’re not sorry for your actions, you’re just sorry that the person is upset): “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
  8. Avoidance: “Uhh, wanna get some ice cream?” “I’m just too overwhelmed to talk about it.”
  9. Apologizing without understanding: “Let’s just forget about it. I promise I will never say that ever again!”
  10. Being self-absorbed and overly apologetic (and so asking the LGBTQ person to take care of you): “OMG I’m soooooooo sorry! It won’t happen again! Please give me a hug!”

The problem with these kinds of reactions is that they prioritize your feelings and needs instead of focusing on the LGBTQ person who was affected. That is the exact opposite of what allies need to do. Defensive reactions often make a situation worse.

I came out to my dad and told him I liked girls and was thinking about dating women. He took it well enough. After some time, he asked me if I was dating any guys. I was offended—it felt like he was ignoring my coming out. I told him I wasn’t interested in dating guys and asked him, “Why does it matter?” He apologized. I appreciated his apology because he seemed to understand my need for privacy and to refrain from using labels. - CJW

Check out this video on how NOT to be accountable when you screw up someone's pronouns.

We all respond poorly at times. Being accountable takes practice and isn’t always easy.

Before you respond...

  • Calm down. Do whatever you need to do to feel more relaxed in your body.
  • Remember your values. As an ally, you want to be someone who can grow and can handle being told when you’ve make a mistake.
  • See being called out as an invitation to be a better person. By telling you that you screwed up, an LGBTQ person is showing you they feel safe bringing up hard topics with you.
  • Remember, we all make mistakes. This doesn’t make you a bad person. Even if you do first react in a way that isn’t accountable, know that you can apologize for that too.
  • Try to understand your responses. Practice being curious. Maybe they’re totally wrong and you didn’t do anything harmful. But what if you’re wrong? Is that a possibility? You might feel defensive, but does that always mean someone is attacking you?
  • Get support from your straight or cis friends who can both care for you and help you be accountable. 

How can I be accountable?

  1. Breathe. Stay calm so that you can listen well.
  2. Listen and really hear what the person has to say. Understand the impact of your actions.
  3. Acknowledge what you did and how it made them feel. Let them know you understand why what you did was hurtful.
  4. Apologize. Let them know that you are truly sorry.
  5. Commit to doing better, and let them know how you plan to change. You may decide to learn more on how to be a better ally