Callouts and Selfcare

People we’ve hurt don’t get to treat us however they like.

People from socially conscious parts of the Internet talk a lot about apologising: how to listen and empathise when someone tells you you’ve hurt them, how to acknowledge the damage you’ve done, how not to double down. There are a lot of good reasons for that—if we want to maintain healthy relationships, apologising is a basic skill—but one of the hardest and most important parts of how we deal with having hurt people is one of the ones we discuss the least. Finding out you’ve upset someone can make it hard to be kind to yourself—but I think self-care, self-respect and boundary-setting are important in those situations for that reason.

If you know me, you know I grew up in a house where doing anything wrong led to physical and emotional torture. (The adult who carried that out was conversely extremely sensitive about their own behaviour being challenged.) As an adult, I still punish myself mentally for getting things wrong, and struggle to separate healthy remorse from emotional self-harm; I have a hard time letting people in as a result, and it’s something I’m working on. In the process, one thing I’ve learnt is that maintaining self-respect is an important part of treating other people fairly. Just as my abuser feared confrontation, the abuse I received for any wrongdoing meant that for a long time, I was afraid of the idea I might be at fault. I know what an effective form of self-defence fragility can be, and I think being present and emotionally secure enough to be called out is something we owe to people we’ve hurt. For most of us, and especially people with backgrounds like mine, the most natural response is to feel terrible—but in the past, indulging in intense shame and panic only made me less attentive to other people’s needs, causing chains of bad decision making. When social justice advocates talk about callouts and apologies, we warn each other against self-pity—don’t make it about you and your feelings, we say—but denying ourselves any right to feel okay is just another way of doing it.

I think the most difficult part of this is learning to set and maintain boundaries with the people we’ve hurt. Discussions of how to respond to someone’s statement that we upset them tend to focus on the validity of their needs and feelings (anger especially). In my opinion—particularly for those of us who already lean too far in that direction—we need to balance this by talking more about how to practise self-care on being called out. Sticking up for ourselves can be hardest when we’re the person in the wrong, but if we want to maintain enough self-respect to remain functional in that context—or if we want to stamp out abuse in social justice communities, or if we think someone victimised initially can become the aggressor—we need to accept that someone having reason to be upset with us doesn’t make it okay for them to treat us however they like.

There are a lot of maxims about how not to behave on being called out, and about what you don’t get to demand from a person you’ve hurt. They’re important. I want to add that you do get to be treated as a person, and to talk about some of the ways they don’t get to behave toward you. (These are things people do who are habitual abusers, but also things that other people do without thinking.)

Someone you’ve hurt doesn’t get to keep attacking you after you’ve apologised. They don’t get to bully you into apologising continually. They don’t get to hold whatever you did against you forever and still have a relationship with you. They don’t get to move the goalposts after you’ve done what they asked you to do to make amends. They don’t get to guilt you into doing things you don’t want to do. They don’t get to tell you how to feel. They don’t get to make threats. They don’t get to be aggressive, whether with their body or with their voice. They don’t get to blitz you with interrogation questions and not let you answer. They don’t get to respond to one misguided thing you did by listing everything about you they dislike. They don’t get to misrepresent events. They don’t get to do things to upset you. They don’t get to target your vulnerabilities (either your personal history or how you’re marginalised socially—your gender, your sexuality, your background). They don’t get to violate boundaries.

This is behaviour I grew up around. I’m still coming to terms with its impact on me, but I know the signs well enough to spot them a mile off, and I’m trying not to give anyone a pass—even people who I know I’ve behaved badly around. I’d like the communities I’m part of to get better at recognising it, and to talk more about how valuing our own wellbeing when we’re least inclined to is part of doing that.