(404) 874-8536 johnballew@gmail.com

A reader recently emailed me:

I’ve been reading about emotional incest and emotional unavailability.  It seems psychotherapists often remind us that we are not responsible for “other people’s feelings.”

I am confused. If this is the case then how is it that we can hurt someone’s feelings by an action or a comment? If I have the ability to choose how I want to feel about something, it seems that I would be ignoring or suppressing real feelings of hurt if I don’t react to someone saying something like, “You’re a very ugly person…”

It seems to me that saying “I won’t allow that to hurt me” is not being honest with one’s self.  And on the flip side, if someone says “You’re such a wonderful kind person,” I want to feel warm inside.  Have I really just allowed myself to feel good or feel bad…? Is it wrong to say then that “their comment made me feel so good…”? 

It is possible, of course, to hurt someone’s feelings by actions or by making an unkind comment like “you’re ugly.”  We’ve all had the experience of being on the receiving end of someone’s bullying or thoughtless words, and feeling injured.  It would be antisocial or narcissistic for someone to believe they have no responsibility whatsoever for how their words or actions affect other people.

At the same time, everyone won’t have the same response to a comment or action.  If Joe tells Mary “You are ugly,” Mary may feel deeply wounded by Joe’s words.  If he says the same thing to Susan – or to Mary on a different day – she may shrug it off and think he’s just being an asshole and not give his words a second thought.  How we respond is going to be influenced by what we believe about ourselves, others and how the world works.

In the same way, Ralph might be anxious about his partner Mike’s health and say something like “I wish you would stop smoking.”  Mike might respond by thinking “Ralph’s right.  I ought to stop smoking.  I feel good he’s concerned about me.”  Or he might take offense, thinking to himself, “Who is Ralph to tell me what to do?  I wish he’d get off my back!” Is Ralph responsible for Mike’s emotional reaction?  If he’s been nagging his partner for months without effect, he could certainly anticipate a different reaction than if they are having a heart-to-heart talk about life together when the subject is brought up.

How does all of this fit with the idea of “not being responsible for other people’s feelings?”

  • We aren’t in charge of what goes on inside someone else; they have that responsibility.  However, we have considerable responsibility for how we manage our relationship with that person.  If we make thoughtless, hostile, false or negative remarks, we are going to damage the relationship.
  • The advice to not take responsibility for the emotions of others is typically offered in the context of codependency – situations where one person takes on excessive responsibility for the other person and his or her experiences.  The issue is really one of sorting through boundaries and gaining clarity about how we interact with the other.  When boundaries are clear it is easier to understand where responsibility lays.
  • We all go through life with a certain amount of guardedness around others in order to function in a world of different people.  The level of self-protection we bring to an encounter varies with life experience, personality, mood, etc.  Intimate relationships require us to let our guard down and let the other person in.  When we do that, we’re more vulnerable.  There is no intimacy without vulnerability.  But healthy intimacy also requires safety, and that involves paying attention to what we communicate.
  • Just because someone says something about you doesn’t mean that what they say is true!  It is irrational to uncritically believe things we hear – but we can forget that when we are upset.  We need to test what is said against our own lived experience to assess whether it is valid.  This is not always easy, particularly for people who have been emotionally wounded.
  • Some of us are highly sensitive and prone to over-reaction – as if our internal thermostat was permanently set to a high temperature.  If that’s the case, we’re smart to look for strategies to manage our sensitivity:  to remind ourselves that words are just words and thoughts are just thoughts.  We should be careful not to confuse them with objective reality.  We may need to take up meditation or do some serious personal growth work to reset our equilibrium.  Therapy can help.