I see this all the time now.
For some reason many of us are raised to believe that we have complete power over other peoples’ emotions. So much so that we feel we must take responsibility for how other people feel, and how they react to us. In today’s Age of Outrage we are constantly facing demands to consider other peoples’ feelings before we speak our minds.
Does this ring a bell? Do you feel obliged to make sure everyone around you constantly experiences “good” emotional states?
There are 3 main aspects to this toxic belief system:
1) We think we can directly control other peoples’ emotions;
2) We think some emotions are better than others, and “bad” emotions should be avoided;
3) We think taking care of our own needs is inconsiderate and selfish if it upsets other people.
This shit used to rule my life. I actually used to believe that my primary purpose on life was to make other people feel good. I see others like this everywhere these days; constantly trying to “help” other people, and moderating themselves in the company of others so as not to offend or upset people.
Let’s take a deeper look at these factors:
BULLSHIT BELIEF #1: WE CONTROL OTHER PEOPLES’ EMOTIONS
Think for a minute: Where do emotions come from? What is the biological process of experiencing emotion?
You do not need to be a psychiatrist to understand this concept. It happens inside you, every second of every day.
There is still debate about whether thoughts lead to emotions or the other way around, or if in fact they are simply the same thing being experienced in different formats. For the sake of this post it’s not important. What we can mostly agree on is that thought and emotions are inextricably linked together.
Thoughts enter our conscious awareness to represent the brain’s processes. Our beliefs, biases and perceptions are represented in our consciousness as coherent (and often incoherent) thoughts. They take the form of sounds, text, images, and intangible understandings that we struggle to explain.
We also know that emotions create physical reactions. Anxiety makes us feel queasy; happiness makes us light-headed; anger increases our temperature; depression slows us down.
There is one common factor to all of these processes and experiences:
They all take place INSIDE you.
This entire process is all contained within your skin. Your beliefs, thoughts, emotions and sensations are all inside you.
So who do you think is responsible for them? Who’s job is it to manage what takes place inside your body?
Let’s look at would be required for you to actually have control over someone else’s emotions: You would have to open up the back of their skull and get stuck into their brain with probes or chemicals. Apart from that, you really cannot have direct access to their emotional process.
Which means you do not control it. You physically can’t control someone else’s emotions!
Your next argument might quite naturally be, “But what about triggering their emotions?” or “What about manipulation? If you say or do something that is followed by a change in mood in the other person, are you not at least partially responsible for their reaction?”
No. You’re not.
You are responsible for your behaviour, because that is under your control. But you cannot claim responsibility for their reaction, because only they can control it.
The trigger for their reaction was there before you arrived. If saying or doing something created an emotional reaction within them, you have simply set off something that already existed. It’s like flicking a match; there needs to already be a pile of dry wood there for a fire to start, otherwise the match has no combustion power. You can’t offend or upset someone unless they are already prepared to get upset.
This does not mean you have the right to go around being mean to everyone, just because it’s their job to manage it. If you want to be authentic you will need to continue living by your values. If being caring is one of your values, then trying to make people feel bad will go against that. Your behaviour is still your responsibility.
But everyone’s emotions are ultimately their responsibility, because no one else has the power to control them completely. They build their own piles of firewood.
BULLSHIT BELIEF #2: SOME EMOTIONS ARE “BAD”
Check out this list of emotions, and after you read each one decide whether it is Good or Bad:
Now I want you to take a second to think about these questions:
How many of these emotions are experienced by all humans? (Excluding psychopaths and those with serious Personality Disorders)
How many of the bad emotions have you experienced in your life?
If bad emotions are natural to all humans, then why do we think of them as “bad?”
You have been raised to believe that some normal human emotions are acceptable, while other normal human emotions are not. Stop and think for a second.
Who decided which emotions are OK and which are not? Was that person right? Who gave them the authority to decide?
We have been led to believe that we should be ashamed of some basic human emotions. This is the logical equivalent of saying that arms are good while legs are bad. It makes no sense, yet we have this ingrained and subjective understanding about some unpleasant feeling emotions are bad, and therefore they are wrong.
This drives us to try and fix people we see “suffering” from bad emotions.
How many of these situations make you want to intervene and change peoples’ emotions?
Someone crying without reason
Two people arguing bitterly
A friend being unusually quiet
A work colleague looking humiliated
At what point did you decide that you have to stop these things from happening? Who anointed you the Master of All Emotion and set you the task of keeping everyone calm and happy?
Ask yourself why you think it’s bad to allow other people to feel emotions that are completely normal, like being sad, angry or afraid.
Why do you get to decide which emotions are OK for others to experience, and which are not? Would you consider this to be arrogance if someone else was trying to decide for you?
If your girlfriend is crying, try just putting your arm around her and letting her cry. If two of your brothers are arguing, try just letting them resolve it themselves. If your husband is depressed, try asking for permission to help before you intervene.
Imagine a world where it’s OK to feel whatever the fuck it is you’re feeling, because to do so is to embrace the rich and meaningful human experience we call Life. Stop trying to “fix” people and stop trying to make them feel ashamed of their emotions.
BULLSHIT BELIEF #3: IT’S SELFISH TO TAKE CARE OF YOUR NEEDS
I’ve previously covered this topic in detail, you can check out my article on selfishness here:
5 Reasons You Need To Be Selfish
Today I want to focus on a specific aspect: We believe its selfish to knowingly upset someone else while pursuing our own needs. This belief causes people to set aside their values, goals and dreams in the fear that they will rock the boat and cause offence.
This is complete bullshit. It’s a lie we tell ourselves to avoid facing the shame that drives this belief:
Our fear of abandonment.
Staff won’t speak their mind at a team meeting because they don’t want to lose their job. Guys won’t tell a girl off for behaving badly because they are trying to sleep with her. Girls will forgive cheating to avoid breaking up.
All of these are examples of someone sacrificing their values to gain approval from someone else.
We have been led to believe that if our desires might hurt someone else, we should put those desires aside. This might make sense if you’re a murderer or rapist. But I’m guessing you’re not.
Somewhere along the line you’ve given yourself the task of keeping everyone else happy, at your own expense. You tell yourself that you’re a good person for doing this, yet it always feels shitty when you sacrifice your values. The warning signs have always been there.
In reality you are just avoiding the feeling of fear. That does not make you a good person; it simply indicates that you do not embrace courage as a value. To put it bluntly, you’re being a fucking coward.
If someone reacts badly to you living by your values, is that their problem or yours? If someone reacts badly to you doing what’s right for you, are they someone worth keeping in your life? If you keep sacrificing your needs because you feel ashamed of them, what kind of life will you create for yourself in the long run?
I can’t answer those questions for you, only you can do that.
Let me end with one final question to wrap it all up:
Considering your goals and values, is it helpful for you to take responsibility for how other people feel?
Great post, Dan. This resonates with me intensely. I have specifically been taking steps in my life to step out of the cycle of approval and managing other people’s emotions. It was such a problem for me and clearly holding me back. I’m in a transition phase now that feels scary and good at the same time. But I’m listening to myself and following my needs, and I think that’s the main start to living the life I want.
That’s awesome man, it’s just one step at a time. Takes a while to break patterns consistently, nice work!
Thank you so much!!
Load off my chest!
Thanks Julia, when I first found out about this I felt the same 🙂
I know this is an old post but thank you so much for finally putting to words the scrambled mess of my mind! I prided myself in being “kind and caring” but now I’m realizing all I was doing was jeopardizing my own health and happiness out of FEAR! Awesome post, thanks again!
The quote below helped me immensely! Thank you for the article!
“The trigger for their reaction was there before you arrived. If saying or doing something created an emotional reaction within them, you have simply set off something that already existed. It’s like flicking a match; there needs to already be a pile of dry wood there for a fire to start, otherwise the match has no combustion power. You can’t offend or upset someone unless they are already prepared to get upset.”
This article is amazing. I’ve been trying to get these things in my head & seeing them expressed so clearly and confidently gives me hope I’ll someday master this and be one of those people who can just let things be. Have bookmarked this and will reread it again!
I get the feeling that whoever wrote this is still trying to make these “fixes” in themselves…
Great post! I think that it generally applies that we are not responsible for someone else’s emotions, but is this always so? Suppose someone in a long term relationship cheats on his/her partner, feels terribly guilty, and confesses it. Are they not at all responsible for the emotional upset that follows?
Good point Gus, I’d say you’re responsible for the cheating but not for their reaction to your cheating – you have to let them have that reaction. If you get into a relationship with someone, they are accepting the risks as much as you are