Something that has been a live issue for me recently – both in my own life and in conversations with friends – is how we relate other people’s feelings.
It seems like many of us have a default way of relating in which we feel responsible for how other people feel. A major alternative to this that has been put forward is the idea of ‘owning’ our emotions. This is the notion that people are only responsible for what they, themselves, feel.
I’m going to argue that both of these ways of seeing the situation are limited. An alternative would be to practice being with our own feelings and those of others (without trying to deny, avoid or escape them, or taking all the responsibility for them). This involves recognising that we are not completely separate selves, but rather that we are intrinsically connected with others.
‘You made me feel…’
It seems that a common taken-for-granted way of understanding feelings is that we cause other people to feel things and that we should take complete responsibility for this. People often say ‘you made me feel angry/scared/good/happy, etc.’ and we rarely question the truth of this.
A common extension of this is that if somebody expresses a feeling in relation to something that we are involved with we feel entirely responsible for them having that feeling. Given that we tend, also, to divide feelings into purely positive and purely negative emotions we may then approach the world in a way which attempts to create only positive feelings in others and no negative feelings. We may feel wonderful if those around us are happy (to the extent that we put pressure on them to be so) and distraught if they are not.
Owning our emotions
Perhaps in response to the problems with this common way of viewing other people’s feelings, several authors on topics like assertiveness, relationships and conflict management put forward the alternative approach that we are not at all responsible for other people’s emotions. The idea of owning our emotions suggests that nobody makes us feel anything except ourselves. We can choose how to make sense of other people’s behaviours, and thus we are in control of any emotional response we have: it belongs to us. An extension of this idea is that we would certainly reject any accusation that we had made anybody feel anything.
I am cautious about this because it feels like a pendulum swing to the other extreme: from the idea that we are entirely responsible for other people’s feelings to the idea that we are not responsible at all.
Either completely responsible or not at all?
There are two problems that I have with this either/or approach: one theoretical and one more pragmatic.
The theoretical point is that both ways of seeing things seem to treat people as if they are entirely separate selves. Feeling responsible for others’ feelings treats people as if we were isolated billiard balls, bashing up against each other and causing effects when we do so. Owning our emotions suggests that we are entirely separate individuals and capable of determining our own feelings regardless of what happens in the world around us.
My view is that we are actually all interconnected and interrelated. I notice that I am quite a different ‘self’ in different relationships (outgoing and jokey with my sister, reflective and serious with my friend). We draw different selves out of each other and, in this way, we are constantly engaged in a mutual process of opening up each other’s possibilities – or limiting and constraining them – in all kinds of ways. Such an approach rejects the idea that we are a separate self that can be entirely responsible for anything, and also that we are separable in such a way that we could have no influence on others.
The pragmatic point is that neither of the two approaches that I outlined before are very useful. When we subscribe to the ‘making people feel things’ view we often become overwhelmed with self-blame and guilt when somebody expresses displeasure with something that we have done, or even when they just express unhappiness in our presence. A great analogy that I have heard for this is that of going to a friend’s house and breaking their favourite vase. If we then become deeply and visibly distressed about what we’ve done, the other person may end up comforting us and pushing aside their own feelings of loss. In a way they have then lost twice over. A real world example of this that we often see, and I have been guilty of myself, is when a white person says or does something that is marginalising or excluding to people of colour. When this is pointed out we often become so overwhelmed by the horror that we might be perceived as racist that others around us end up looking after us rather than the people who have been adversely impacted by our comments or actions.
On the other hand, pragmatically I’m concerned that the ‘owning emotions’ view can easily be used as an excuse for denying other people’s feelings. This is probably because we secretly still hold the ‘making people feel things’ view and are desperately trying to avoid the possibility that we might be responsible in any way for another person’s pain. I notice this in myself when I make changes in my life which are tough on a partner, friend or family member: perhaps meaning that I’m not spending as much time with them or that I’m pulling away some form of support that I used to offer. The temptation is very strong to blame the other person for any tough feelings that they have about the situation, to offer endless excuses and justifications for what I’ve done, to claim that is unreasonable for them to feel how they feel, or even to argue that I haven’t really made a change when – of course – I have. Again this way of behaving is common in those kinds of race conversations I mentioned before: we say that it wasn’t intentional on our part or that the other person is being over-sensitive, dramatic, or derailing.
Another way: Being with feelings
An alternative approach between taking all or none of the responsibility is to recognise our mutuality and interconnectedness with other people in a way which appreciates how we, together, build our realities. Thus what we say and do can open things up, or close things down, for others, and vice versa, in an ongoing process over time.
Something that we need to cultivate for this is the capacity to be with our feelings, and the feelings of other people, even when they are tough. If we have had a role in somebody else’s pain then we may be able to bear the guilt of that rather than becoming overwhelmed and requiring them – and others – to look after us. Part of this is being able to recognise the imperfect and problematic aspects of ourselves, and the limitations in what we can offer, rather than trying to project an image of a perfect person who keeps everyone happy.
Also we can attempt to develop the capacity to be with other people’s feelings without trying to deny them. For example, if we have made a change that alters another person’s life in ways that are painful to them, we can listen to, and respect, their feelings whilst still holding on to the fact it was something we needed to do (instead of dismissing their feelings, or going back on our decision and then resenting them for it). If we have spoken or acted in ways that marginalise or exclude others we can own up to that without beating ourselves up for our (inevitable) limitations and imperfections, and hopefully commit to being more aware next time (rather than becoming so burnt out by the experience that there is no next time).
How do we do this in reality? It is a big ask, and we are bound to fall back into blaming ourselves or others at times. However, I think that we can try to recognise that pendulum swing in ourselves and practice doing something different. For example, when we feel that first rush of guilt or defensive desire to strike out, we can attempt to slow down and notice what is going on in ourselves. We can try to sit with the emotion without acting, perhaps literally by sitting alone and allow ourselves to really feel it.
When we’re more able to do this in ourselves we may also find ourselves more able to listen to other people’s feelings and to stay with those – however difficult they are for us – rather than making the situation about us, or trying to escape it. Perhaps a good practice is to read some of the materials online about privilege and oppression (in relation to sexuality, race, gender, class, disability or whatever dynamics we might find particularly challenging). We can practice allowing ourselves to be with the feelings present in the piece, and any feelings that arise within ourselves.
Perhaps if we can cultivate this ability to be with feelings (in ourselves and others) we might be more able to respond in ways which are compassionate towards all involved (instead of any compassion we have for the other person meaning less compassion for ourselves and vice versa). From such a position we can hopefully act in creative and imaginative ways which recognise our interconnectedness.