Who Cares? The Necessity of Accountability in Recovery

It's important to have someone to keep you honest — and sober — but accountability is also about partnership, community and mutual support. Recovery shouldn't be lonely

February 1, 2023
Two friends shaking hands

One of the great illusory appeals of substance use is that you’re accountable to no one. You can stay out late, postpone your obligations, break the law. It feels good to escape.

If substance use progresses to addiction, you can ignore life consequences (or try to), dismiss the hurt and alarm of family and friends, and neglect to show up for others — and yourself. There’s some irony that you might feel independence through chemical dependence, but addiction doesn’t usually make a lot of sense.

So introducing accountability to your recovery can be hard to swallow. Sometimes it’s because it feels anathema to us, but sometimes we simply don’t have confidence we can make the changes we need to. The great 19th-century American philosopher and psychologist William James said, “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.” But that feels daunting, because it is!

Sometimes in recovery, we cannot alter our attitudes ourselves. We need help and accountability.

We may go into recovery thinking we are the only ones who can determine if we succeed or fail. While it is indeed ultimately up to us, having a support system that holds us accountable can be awfully helpful in the process.

Accountability Is Key to Recovery. Why?

Here’s William James again: “It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome.” You have taken the challenging step of seeking help for a substance use problem. It is necessary to take the next step to make the difficult first one worthwhile.

Taking accountability for our actions is one thing, but recognizing those actions is another thing altogether. For many, addiction has completely altered their thinking, and it takes time to get their “reasonable” thought processes back. That’s part of why accepting accountability from others is so important (and tough).

An outside perspective is often needed to recognize our old toxic behaviors. The sooner these behaviors are understood, the sooner they can be worked on.

This isn’t about self-punishment, and partners in accountability are valuable allies. There will be times of struggle in recovery. The same network you have established to keep you accountable can also lift you up when you feel like you are falling down or behind.

Where Can I Get Myself Some Accountability?

William James also tells us, “The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.” And as it happens, there are vibrant, welcoming communities of people who have faced addiction who now consider it a primary purpose in life to help others who are struggling.

Many online sources (like All Sober) can help you find these communities of like-minded people. Your search may lead you to 12-step meetingstreatment centers or even sober living houses, if that is what you need.

Remember, communities thrive on participation. As James said, the community goes stale without the spark of the individual. So if you go to a 12-step meeting, raise your hand and share your story. Or, if you go to group therapy, be present and entirely honest about what is going on in your life, both good and bad. If you find yourself in a sober living situation, try to engage with everyone, not just the people you relate to right away.

In recovery, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by which folks you unexpectedly jibe with.

How Do I Know if Someone Will Keep Me Accountable?

“Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.” The old man (it’s William James) was on to something here: Your support system should have your best interests at heart and feel fundamentally optimistic for you.

It is crucial to find people who will truly hold you accountable, and that almost always means someone who’s going to annoy or upset you at times. Don’t forget you are advocating for your life in recovery — and so are they.

Yes, it’s always unpleasant to take criticism. That’s not an addiction thing; it is a human one. But if you’re unwilling or unable to accept and reflect on criticism, that can lead to relapse or at least slow your progress toward clarity and happiness.

Here are a few core values and qualities to look for in someone to hold you accountable. It’s worth noting that a lack of some of these qualities does not mean someone is incapable of being a good sober partner. These are merely suggestions.

Some qualities to look for include:

  • They have struggled with the same form or forms of substance use as you.
  • They have more time in recovery than you do.
  • They have an active life in a recovery community or project.
  • They are not overwhelmed with other aspects of life, such as a new child or a hectic traveling job.
  • They answer the phone when you call and are reliable.
  • They are willing to be the bad guy when necessary and call you out on any BS you might try to pull.

While these are not requirements for an accountability partner or partners, some of them are good to keep in mind as you continue your recovery journey. You’re accountable to yourself as well, after all. Don’t sell yourself short by trading long-term success for short-term comfort.

It’s a Two-Way Street

W.J. says, “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” In recovery, when you ask for help from someone else, you are also helping them, believe it or not.

When you reach out to your accountability partner with a problem, they can stop thinking about their own issues for a moment. The same goes for when they reach out to you. It can be a deep and even lifesaving bond that you make with each other.

So, what’s with all of the William James stuff? Well, William James is one of the very few people directly referenced in the official text of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), an early attempt at a recovery guide that’s still widely read today. AA may not be your thing, but the “Big Book” of AA and James’ works are worthwhile reads in recovery that’ll give you plenty to chew on.

The anonymous Big Book authors observe that “most of our experiences [in recovery] are what the psychologist William James calls the ‘educational variety’ because they develop slowly over some time.” And that’s certainly something you should keep in mind as you formulate a program of accountability. Recovery takes time, sometimes a long time, but you want to be held accountable to ensure that it lasts even longer.

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