Main Home | Lighthouse | CatMom | Other Stuff | Messages

Feelings and Responsibility

by Marina Michaels

One of the biggest lies people will ever tell you is that you have "made" them feel angry—or sad, or hopeless, or some other feeling.

The trap this puts you in, if you believe it, is that you don't—you can't—know how you "made" people feel that way, let alone how to "make" them feel differently.

Like many others, I believed for a long time that I was responsible for the way others were feeling. Ultimately, I came to realize that we are not—can not be—responsible for the feelings of others. There is no way we can "make" someone else feel something toward us, neither love nor hate; it is their choice how they choose to feel in response to us or something we've done, and it is their choice how they choose to deal with those feelings.

What I mean by that is that we don't have control over how another person thinks, or over their emotions. I, at least, cannot climb inside another person and fiddle with their thoughts and feelings. And even if I could, I wouldn't, since that would be a huge violation of their integrity and free will.

So none of us can "make" other people mad. If someone responds with anger to something we said, that is their response, and it is their choice to respond that way. The same goes for all other emotions.

This isn't to say that emotions themselves are invalid, for they are not. Emotions are an essential part of us, and of our souls. And it can often seem that our emotional response to something is not a choice but something other, some visceral, perhaps even irrational response arising from somewhere else in us than the rational mind. But even so, it is not only unfair but wrong to blame someone else for our emotions, and to say that they "made" use mad or sad, or that they "hurt" our feelings. It is a fairer and more true thing for us to say to someone that when they say whatever it is, we feel sad. That gives both the other person and ourselves some space and honor, and shows that we are accepting responsibility for our own feelings. It is a much more grown-up way to communicate than blame.

However, on the flip side, given a choice between two ways of carrying out an action (either by deeds or words), one of which will have a greater positive effect, the other of which will have a greater negative effect, we are responsible for choosing the way that will impact others less negatively.

For instance, if I am angry at something a friend is doing, it is my responsibility to first ask myself whether I want to choose to respond with some other emotion. If the answer is "no," then I need to ask myself whether my anger itself is justified. For instance, I can ask myself, "Am I really angry at something or someone else, and am I only allowing it to come out toward my friend?" (The "wrong target" check.)

If the answer is that I am angry at something or someone else, then I need to examine those feelings and not let them spill over onto my friend.

If I pass the wrong target check (that is, if I am angry at my friend), then I can let my friend know that I am angry, but I still have a choice. I can choose to yell, or I can choose to be gentle in letting the friend know that I don't like what s/he is doing, and to tell my friend what action I want to see instead.

If I choose to yell, it is indeed a choice. I know I have another choice. I know I am not doing the best I can. I know that I am responsible for the yelling. And if my friend bursts into tears, then I am equally responsible, not for the tears, but for making amends for my poor choice of action.

If I were to tell my friend that s/he chose to feel sad, but that I do not accept responsibility for my part in creating a situation in which sadness was even a viable choice, then I would invalidate my friend and do him/her more harm than the yelling in the first place. Even so, knowing that I am not responsible for his/her sadness in the most direct way, and yet also knowing that I truly did do the best I could, I still worry over any damage done, and there is where I can learn to trust more that whatever seemingly wrong-headed thing I did will still end up with good results.

This can seem a tough-minded thing to do to those who are used to thinking that they are somehow responsible for the feelings of others, and I admit it is a fine line to walk between an empathetic feeling for the other person, and a hard-nosed knowledge that ultimately whatever they are feeling is their choice. If I choose also to exercise compassion, then I can allow myself to feel for my friend, and to then offer whatever help my heart prompts me to offer, without having to feel either obligated or guilty.

This also frees me from being overly concerned with what the results of my friend's choices are. If that friend chooses a downhill path (from my perspective), then I know that it is his/her choice, not mine, and his/her doing, not mine. I can release the friend to his/her choices, instead of agonizing over the pain I might see them experiencing.

In the end, it is vital to remember that none of us are victims of others. If someone tries to victimize you by claiming that you have victimized them by "making" them sad or angry or whatever, recognize what is happening, and put a stop to it. Be honest with yourself, though, and do acknowledge any part you may have had, examine your intentions and motives to make sure you were acting with loving intentions, and make any amends you feel are called for due to any less-than-loving intentions on your part.

Copyright © 1996, 1999; revised 2006 by Marina Michaels. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, please see my contact information page.

Main Home | Lighthouse | CatMom | Other Stuff | Messages