Saturday, November 12, 2011

"I am not responsible for your feelings"

I have recently been thinking a lot about this idea "I am not responsible for your feelings."

While it is true that no one can enter my mind and fiddle with my feelings, we certainly learn to push the buttons of our loved ones. I have noticed, particularity with my children, that upsetting siblings (or other loved ones) is in some way rewarding, and people learn quickly how to do it. It seems to me to then teach them that they are not responsible for the feelings that arise from their words or actions is somewhat immoral. It allows them to commit egregious deeds and then respond without compassion to the feelings that arose in the other person as a result.

But let me take a step back and look at two extremes. The first is the case where someone, in fact, truly did nothing and their friend or relative is having strong feelings about them. I will risk my reputation when I say this has happened to me, that I have become angry or unhappy about a person when, in fact, nothing has actually happened. I expect that I am not alone.

At the other extreme, a person has willfully been hurtful, has spread rumors or spoken cruelly, been physically or emotionally abusive, or stolen from or cheated someone in someway that most of us would see as justifiable reasons for negative feelings.

Having laid out what I think are self-explanatory examples from which you will draw your own conclusions I want to return to the idea of being responsible for feelings. I am going to venture the opinion that no one is responsible for anyone's feelings, even our own. There are a few enlightened beings among us who can control their thoughts and feelings. There are others among us who are at the complete mercy of our thoughts and feelings. The rest of us ride a middle course: attempting to turn our thoughts and feelings to the positive, but certainly not always succeeding. My understanding of Buddhist belief is that thoughts and feelings happen, but it is up to us whether we chose to believe them. This comes close to my own opinion.

My experience is that I can only be somewhat successful in controlling my thoughts and feelings, and that some responsibility for triggering negative thoughts and feelings may sometimes be reasonably applied to an outside source.

As a parent this is an interesting question to me. Take the case where one of my children gets upset and tell me "He made me mad." Sometimes I agree -- one brother may have set up another brother in a way that made him mad in the past and is likely to do the same today. The mad brother, though, has a history of over-reacting -- again this is our subjective opinion. I personally do not see this as a case of not being responsible for the angry brother's feelings. I see it as more like the case where one car rear-ends the car in front of it without much force, but the driver, who was predisposed to injury through pre-existing conditions, suffers traumatic neck injury. In this case the driver of the car causing the accident is legally liable for the injury.

With my kids I want them to look at the upset person, acknowledge that they have acted in a way that contributed to the out of control feelings, and make appropriate amends and, hopefully, refrain from acting the same way again. The angry child has a job too -- to try to tone it down, to recognize that they are very sensitive to getting angry and to begin to get a handle on that. We live in a family, a community, and we cannot live alone. These are the steps I think the involved persons need to take to live in harmony with each other.

I recently had the experience of two people making a decision that negatively impacted my life. One was able to listen to my upset, and validate that she could see why I might feel that way. The other told me that she was not responsible for my feelings. Guess which one I'm now happy to be in community with? The first didn't change what she had done, but she did help me to deal with my own feelings about the event. She didn't "Gaslight" me by telling me in any way that my feelings were invalid, and because of that I was able, on my own, to recognize the ways in which my feelings were out of proportion to the event and it's actual effects on me and my family.

If empathy is foremost then we can in fact say (but only in our heads and never aloud to the upset person) "I am not responsible for your feelings." It may be true, but it is a way of saying "I don't have to care what I did, and I don't have to care about you and your feelings." If we can be with the person, hear them, empathize with their feelings and make reasonable accommodation not to repeat the result will a better community/family.

These are some other interesting discussions of this same topic:

I am not responsible for your feelings



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