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Are we responsible for other people's emotions?
Finding balance with what we can and cannot control.
All my life, I have felt like I am responsible for other people’s feelings.
I can recall that when I was at a young age, so young I cannot remember, I was indoctrinated into a system where being liked by other people was the equivalent of being a good person. If people liked you, you were good. If people didn’t like you, you were worthless. Your actions had the power to either make people happy or sad. Something or nothing.
There are lots of ways to tease out how this was gendered, but I think it is safe to say, that as a cis-gendered woman, all people that I encountered had to like me and feel happy and good. In turn, when other people either don’t like me, or my actions “made” them unhappy, an intense existential sense of panic sets in.
Because of this, in raising my daughter, her compliance to the wills of adults around her dictates if she is in fact a good person, not some inherent worth. We are teaching her to attune to our emotions, her own thoughts and will and desires, and feelings come, in a way, second to what the will is of the people around her. Which in my opinion is really fucked up.
Over the past weekend, I noticed a profound shift in how I thought about other’s feelings and emotions with the question, “If I can only control my reactions, do I really have to be responsible for other people’s feelings?”
Yes and no. So I am not saying that we should be really mean and do hurtful things and then say, “Well, I am not responsible for how you feel. It’s just the way I am feeling.” I have to believe that people don’t want to hurt other people and that the original source of pain is somewhere in a context that we don’t have access to. I think that while hurt people hurt other people, they are still deserving of love, attention, and care just like the rest of us. Even though it might be hard to give it to someone as they hurt you.
The situation I’m alluding to: I got into a fight with my partner over childcare. I upset him because I assumed when I asked him if I could get my nails done that that also was asking if he could watch our daughter during that time. Ok, easy enough. At the time, I thought, how could he not know that that was what I was asking? He was pissed. I was driving away with my mother and sister from a man who was fuming with me.
In the past, I knew this would ruin my day. Who here stews about things like if their partner is mad at them? When in reality, you really thought you didn’t do anything wrong? Swap in any person in this situation, if I feel like you are pissed off, I take it personally. It is, after all, what I have been trained to do.
In her 1995 hit song, artist Monica told us all “It's just one of them days, don't take it personal,” but it’s hard not to. Most of the time.
It probably has nothing to do with you. Unless it does…
This weekend, something inside me shifted. I thought, Josh is a grown man. I am sorry that I did a shit job of communicating, but I told him that. However, I cannot control how he feels. And I let it go. I felt so proud of myself. There was nothing else I could do in the moment, I could just be a better communicator in the future.
What had I been afraid of all these years? That something or someone would leave me over this? That someone would stop loving me? And so I would tell them sorry over and over again, until they would tell me, “It’s okay. I love you.”
But Josh is just not that kinda guy. So I would sit there waiting while spiraling like a person on drugs having a panic attack (maybe this is just me, and it is also why I don’t do drugs…). Once I thought about killing myself because I cut someone off while I was driving. I felt so bad that I had perhaps put their lives in danger. Over time, I decided that no one intentionally cuts people off while driving. They just don’t mean to. Or are about to give birth in the backseat. It’s not personal, probably.
So I am in the process of accepting that I cannot control other’s emotions. And that they in turn are responsible for controlling their emotions. Somehow this feels like a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. I am not waiting for the words I long to hear, because I know they probably won’t come. The verbal reassurance that everything is ok. I hope you can let go of something that is weighing you down. To contextualize it in ways that feel healthy, rational, and kind.
You are doing your best. There is so much pain in the world right now, let go of what you can.
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