How much can you take responsibility for someone else’s emotions?

March 10, 2011 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog, Freedom, Tips

A friend posted on another forum about “feeling weighted” about a few recent relationships in which women felt hurt afterward. Since he had asked for advice, I gave him some, copied below.

Sorry it’s out of context, but that forum is private. Some background: this response came after a couple posts stating and clarifying the issues. Not everything resonated with him, but he said he found the two paragraphs preceding the summary and the summary helpful. Also, re-reading it now after a few weeks, I’d soften it a bit, but I’ll post it verbatim. I hope the perspective is helpful to others.

I’m not sure if I’ve written about my phrase “Don’t look for blame, but take responsibility for making things better to the extent you can,” but this is an example of it.

I agree what I wrote, “Other people’s emotional responses are outside your control,” isn’t that accurate. Your response got me to more fully bake a still half-baked idea. I’ll do my best to convey some ideas I’m still working on. I’m not writing the following to try to be right. It’s to share a perspective that by adopting it has improved my life. I’m more than happy to learn ways to improve it.

First the foundation…

I’m coming from a self-empowering perspective. I’m influenced in this area by Victor Frankl and Man’s Search For Meaning — an extreme case, but one that inspires me. For those who haven’t read it, it tells of his life in Nazi concentration camps. He was in one of the worst environments humans ever created for other humans. Instead of his emotional state being crushed, he found greater reasons to live and observed others doing the same. I’m also influenced by The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, about a guy whose stroke left him with no voluntary muscle control except his left eyelid. Instead of giving up he wrote a book that became an international best seller, with no hint of self-pity.

Their stories inspire me by showing me that whatever situation or environment comes my way, I can be resilient from feeling bad and able to bring about rewarding emotions if I want. When I wrote other people’s emotional responses are outside your control, I was thinking about this perspective, that no matter how much others attempt to influence their emotions, everyone has the potential to control what emotions they feel and act on. Most people never develop the skills, meaning they allow themselves to be influenced and persuaded. If you develop the skills, someone can try to make you angry or whatever, but only you allow yourself to feel it. If someone wants to make me feel joy, calm, satisfaction, or some emotion I want to, I’m happy to accept their influence, but it’s still my choice.

The corollary to my emotions being my choice is that I believe that other people’s emotions are their choices too. I can try to influence them. If they accept my influence i still view them as having chosen to accept it. If they never developed the ability to manage their emotions, they still have the potential.

Now to apply it to your situation…

If you’re dealing with people who can manage their emotions very well, you can do what you want with them and they’ll be fine. For example, you said “Put me one-on-one with someone, and they will feel what I want them to feel.” I doubt you could piss off the Dalai Lama, cause Victor Frankl to feel hopeless if he were still alive, or make Federer fear you would beat him in tennis. They have too much experience building resilience in those areas. So I think you’d agree no matter what you said to Federer about tennis, if you later heard he was depressed about tennis, you wouldn’t feel like you caused his depression.

What about people who never developed the skills? You can influence them, perhaps very strongly or even completely, when you are around, but the same susceptibility permitting your influence permits everyone else’s too, which is why your influence fades with them when you aren’t around.

When you said “So, basically, I’ve been trying to do right by all these gals as best I can, but they keep getting hurt and there’s only so much I can do” I would say: right, there’s only so much you can do and therefore only so much you can take responsibility for. Just because they don’t take responsibility for their emotions doesn’t mean you have to. In fact, I’d suggest the opposite unless you like drama, in cases where things don’t work out, and people clinging to you, in cases of success.

I suspect the following thing you said is the core of your issue, and it lies within you, not in the relationships: “When I started redefining myself in early ’05, my objective was to become the kind of guy that women cried over and pined over and would always look back on and dream they could still be with for the rest of their lives. I think I’ve achieved that, but I’m finding that the cost is substantially higher than I’d realized.” Going out on a limb, I wonder if your values changed and your behavior hasn’t caught up yet. In particular, your ’05 perspective sounded like it was reaction-seeking. You sound like you’ve since lost that motivation, but still behave in ways to get it because you’re good at it. If that’s right, the more you focus on what you emotions you want from a relationship now, the more you’ll get them and women who want to share them with you.

In summary…

If someone behaves according to their values, this perspective says they should never feel bad or responsible about how their interactions affect someone else’s emotional state. If those others are resilient and skilled in managing their emotions, they’ll maintain their responsibility anyway. If they are susceptible and unskilled, then you have to accept that they are being influenced in countless ways you have no knowledge of or control over.

If someone behaves against their values then they have more personal issues, like why are they behaving against their values — is that person unaware of their values, their behavior, the consequences or what? Were they in control or out of control? In those cases I would understand feeling regret, shame, or something similar, but I would recommend before trying to help others for that person to understand themselves.

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