Emotional Responsibility 201
A while back, I wrote this article that then became this zine about understanding emotional responsibility, beyond the concepts of fault and duty. “Emotional responsibility” is the term given to the practice of believing that only the experiencer of an emotion can really change that emotion. It is both true, and complete and utter bullshit, for a variety of reasons:
- First of all, no one can force you to feel anything, and you cannot force anyone to feel anything. This is true.
- Beyond that, emotional responsibility is an utter and complete cop-out from accountability and understanding the impact of one’s actions.
- If we want to get all spiritual about it, literally everything is just you, so it doesn’t matter if the change seems to come from “you” or from “someone else,” it still comes from you. Therefore, the whole concept of “who should take responsibility” is moot.
Here’s the truth that preachers of emotional responsibility don’t want you to know: responsibility is not cut and dry. Responsibility is just response-ability, ability to respond. We are all able to respond to ourselves, and to others, in different ways. In every situation, we have the ability to both respond to our own emotions, and respond to others’ emotions. There is no definitive golden rule for who “has responsibility” or “should take responsibility” for what.
We all have the ability to respond in different ways, and to different degrees, to every situation. In fact, we never lose the ability to respond, and absolutely any action we take in response to a situation is, well, a response. All that really happens is that we decide how we’re going to respond.
For example, Bob says something mean to Mary, and as a response to that, Mary gets angry and yells at Bob. Bob says, “You need to take responsibility for your own emotions here; I can’t change what you feel.” Perhaps Mary feels such deep anger because it triggers memories of her critical mother. Perhaps she feel angry just because Bob was mean. Usually, it’s both. Either way, Bob could respond to her feelings by simply being nice to her instead. It may not be enough to keep her from ever getting angry at meanness again, but it would likely change her emotions in this situation.
When someone says to you, “You need to take more responsibility for your own emotions,” what they really mean is: “I don’t want to change my actions to treat you in ways that cause you to feel good.” This is not “a bad thing;” sometimes, it’s a deeply necessary boundary to set in a dynamic that is otherwise toxic. Other times, it’s hurtful, immature, and a cop-out from admitting that they just don’t want to treat you differently.
The act of “taking responsibility for someone else’s emotions” is an act of shifting one’s own behavior to draw the other person in closer. This can be loving, and it can be harmful. The act of “not taking responsibility for someone else’s emotions” is an act of refusing to shift one’s behavior, and drawing a boundary. This too can be both loving, and harmful.
In the dimension of full-on Divine Zen-Yoga-Spiritual Truth, your emotions are always your own responsibility, and also so are everyone else’s, because everything in this world is just you and all experiences are a mirror and the perception of separation is just an illusion. But if we’re not going to go that deep, then the idea that only you have the ability to respond to what you feel is complete and utter bullshit.
If we really want to be more emotionally responsible in our relationships, then we need to stop using “emotional responsibility” as a veil to hide our true meaning behind: that we just don’t want to change our actions to make someone else feel better. This is sometimes healthy, and sometimes unhealthy. It all depends on perspective, and where you’re trying to head.
My advice: if you tend to shrug off accountability and responsibility, and act innocently perplexed when people get upset at you, it might be good for you to try taking more responsibility for others’ feelings. If you tend to bend over backwards for other people at the expense of your own happiness, it might be good for you to try setting a boundary and not taking responsibility for others’ feelings.
There is no golden rule. There is no map. There is only a compass, and that compass is your experience itself.