Responsibility for Feelings

The close, temporal relationship between what other people say or do and the feelings that we experience has given rise to the popular notion that people or events cause our feelings. In this article, I present the radical notion that although people and events are a stimulus that triggers our feelings, they are not the cause of our feelings, and that it is best to take responsibility for our feelings.

In Making Happiness, Vancouver Psychologist Dr. Geoffrey Carr discusses responsibility for feelings. He notes that what comes between what another person says or does (the stimulus) and an individual’s feelings is the “self” of the individual. In other words, if someone says or does something in relation to me (the stimulus), and I have big feelings about it, it is important that I realize that what comes between the stimulus and my big feelings is myself, how I interpret the stimulus based on my own trauma feelings and history. Someone else may experience the same stimulus and have very different feelings based on how they interpret the stimulus through the lens of their trauma feelings and history. In this view, although we are entitled to feel whatever we feel (see the article, About Your Feelings), it is best to own and take responsibility for our feelings as belonging to the self rather than blaming others for our feelings.

How do we incorporate responsibility for feelings into every day life? The place to begin is to describe our feelings with “I” statements. Rather than saying, “You piss me off when you don’t text me at work to ask how I’m feeling”, which conveys blame, saying, “I’m angry when you don’t text me at work to ask how I’m feeling“, conveys that we own the feeling as our own. This reduces the listener’s defensiveness. Even more responsible is to say, “I’m upsetting myself when you don’t text me at work..,” which conveys full responsibility for our feelings.

Taking responsibility for our feelings through the language we use helps to reduce people’s defensiveness. As mentioned above, our partner is much more likely to listen with empathy and understanding if we say “I’m upsetting myself when you don’t text me at work…, rather than saying “You piss me off when you don’t text me at work…” In addition, realizing that our partner is responsible for his or her feelings helps us to remain present and calm even when our partner is blaming us for their big feelings. In this situation, it can be helpful to breathe, to remind ourselves that the feelings belong to the partner, and to validate the partner’s experience without feeling responsible for it.

Also, taking responsibility for our feelings through the language we use helps us to understand our feelings more fully. If we say, “I’m upsetting myself when you don’t text me at work”, we are much more likely to be curious about how not receiving a text at work (the stimulus) is triggering intrusive feelings (the conditioned response). Through reflection, we may recall childhood experiences where we felt unattended to – such as being left at home sick because both our parents were working. Also, through reflection we may imagine experiences before we have any memory where we felt neglected – such as when our caregiver was bedridden with post partum depression. With this understanding, we are able to bring our presence to intrusive feelings rather than avoid them through the use of anger (see the article, Avoiding Feelings with Anger).

Expressing our feelings responsibly in everyday life is challenging. The misguided notion that others cause our feelings is so ingrained that it takes ongoing awareness and effort to express ourselves more responsibly.