I try to understand people. I think doing so improves my relationships with them and my understanding of myself.
I find feeling compassion for others helps me improve my relationships with them too.
Same with empathy.
I find taking responsibility for my emotions helps me improve my life and keeps me from blaming others. I see taking that responsibility as improving my life as much as anything.
Taking responsibility for someone else’s emotions, on the other hand, I see helping no one.
Did I just contradict myself? Why do I value compassion, empathy, and responsibility for my emotions but not responsibility for someone else’s?
“Josh,” you ask, “aren’t you undermining your compassion and empathy? Are you saying that if you saw a child lost and crying you wouldn’t try to help it?”
Not at all. I’m not talking about my behavior. I’m talking about responsibility.
What’s the distinction?
Compassion and empathy describe how I feel. I can control my feelings, at least indirectly, through my environments, beliefs, and behavior, which I can control directly.
I can’t control someone else’s feelings. I’m only part of their environment. I don’t know nor can I control their beliefs, so I don’t know how they will perceive my behavior.
We all know that sometimes we try to help someone, it backfires, and they get annoyed. We’ve all had someone try to help us only to make things worse. We’ve probably had times when we tried to hurt someone else and ended up helping them instead. We’ve likely had someone try to hurt us and end up benefiting.
How someone perceives you and your behavior is outside your control and always will be. It is an essential input to their emotional state. Taking responsibility for something outside your control will get you nowhere.
Since you can’t control anyone else’s beliefs you have limited influence on their emotions, and therefore limited influence or understanding of what they value. You don’t know what they consider good or bad.
What to do instead of taking responsibility
If I see someone I think I can help, like anyone I’ll try. If it works I’m glad. If not, I recognize my limitations as a separate person from another independent being and stop.
You can try to influence someone, but only they determine how much you influence them.
The best I can do, as far as I can tell, is to live by my values as best I can and let others do the same. When I interact with another I try to collaborate and help, but I recognize I can’t ensure they’ll see my behavior as helpful, let alone succeed at helping them.
To believe you can control someone else’s emotions seems to me to imply they can’t, or that you can better than they can. Maybe parents and guardians can do so with kids, but for adults, this belief seems disrespectful and condescending. It implies the other person has no agency, or less than you do.
Presuming other adults have control over their beliefs and emotions seems respectful to me. I don’t mean this in some cruel-to-be-kind or compassionate-conservative way. I mean it like I don’t get mad at gravity for making me fall when I trip and I don’t get mad at someone else if I can’t control their emotions. As best I can tell, that’s how nature works.
If someone blames me for how they feel emotionally, I still feel the same way. At most I influenced their feelings, but ultimately they have final say over how they feel. I feel compassion for them and try to help to the extent I can but I don’t take responsibility for their emotions.
Likewise, this perspective increases my self-respect and decreases my tendency to blame others. If I feel bad, I take responsibility for my feelings. I may enlist others, but I don’t give them responsibility to improve my feelings. Abdicating responsibility only risks sinking a relationship if they can’t help with something outside their control.
Taking responsibility leads to greater self-awareness and skills to do something about it.
Does all this talk about responsibility sound heavy?
I don’t usually spell it out like this. I just came to conclude things worked like this and accepted it. Then I learned to celebrate it.
Now the perspective enables me to enjoy life more and I think people enjoy their time with me more than they would otherwise.
Like Buddhists talking about death and suffering all the time, I understand the boundaries to find ways to enjoy life more fully all the time.
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