Craig Metz, M.S.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Taking ResponsibilityWho is Responsible for Our Feelings?

Let me tell you about a difficult lesson that took me a long time to learn. I sometimes get overwhelmed in large social situations. One way I used to deal with this was to lean on whoever I was dating to help me by either spending one-on-one time with me or leaving with me. Well, as these things go, we sometimes get what we need in life (even if it is not what we want) and I ended up dating a women who did not fully buy into this way of dealing with my social anxiety.

We would be at some social gathering and I would get overwhelmed and I would let it be known to her that I was upset. Sometimes she would pull herself away from a conversation and spend some time with me and we might even leave, but sometimes she would do neither, or would only after she was ready. At those times, when she would not meet my needs when I wanted them met, I would direct some of my discomfort into anger towards her. I saw her actions as a sign that she did not care or even as a betrayal. If we care for someone, we are there for them, right? This was a test that I unconsciously put my lovers through.

As it turns out, this sort of “test” that I put my partners through does not really make for a healthy relationship. It was never my partner’s job to manage my feelings. I am sad to say that it took the loss of this relationship, in part from how I handled these social situations, for me to learn the lesson that this wise women was trying to teach me all along: I am responsible for my own feelings.

Being an Adult

That we are responsible for our feelings can be a tough lesson in life and one that, when we have learned it, is a sign that we have achieved some maturity, regardless of our age. We are responsible for how we feel and, more importantly, for how we act. Others can be there to support us when we are struggling with painful feelings and it can be a beautiful thing when they are, but it is not their job. It is, perhaps, a parent’s job to be there for their children to help then handle and work through their thoughts and emotions. However, we are adults now and it is our job to be here for ourselves, however difficult that is and ill prepared we might believe we are.

We Create Our Feelings

Although this can be a challenging concept to grasp at first, it is important to understand that no one and nothing can make us feel a certain way. People say things, things happen and we react. Notice that it is not that, “people say things, things happen and we feel a certain way.” We react, it is an active thing that we do. The world is neutral. Events do not come with emotional meaning built into them, however much it feels as if they do. Events occur and we give them meaning and we react to that. Take, for example, an earthquake. I lived through a large one in Santa Cruz in 1989 while I was at University there. For me, it was a fun event. Classes were canceled and I met my neighbors, many of whom I had not met until that point, and we shared what we had and barbecued together in the street. One of those neighbors I met that day is still a close friend of mine. Other people, many of whom did not go through anything any more harrowing than me, had a lot less fun. Some of them were traumatized.

We Are Responsible

We are responsible for our own feelings and this is true even if we do not seem to have control over how we react and feel, as is often the case. How you feel might not be your fault and it probably is not fair, but we are still responsible for dealing with how we feel (and how we act based upon how we feel). Think about the way that a drunk person is still responsible for everything they do. Yes, alcohol changes our behavior and we do things while drinking that we might not do sober. Yes, someone with alcohol issues might have serious trauma from their childhood and not have leaned the tools to handle difficult emotions that others learned growing up. Nevertheless, when you hit someone while driving drunk, it is no one else’s fault.

Living from this understanding is not easy. That is why it is so often avoided and why it can be such a challenging lesson to learn. It is easier to blame others or to be upset when others will not meet our emotional needs. At the very least, getting this lesson means that sometimes we just have to be with our uncomfortable feelings which, by definition, is uncomfortable. In my own life, I still can have a difficult time being at a large social situation. Maybe folks at some gathering could have been friendlier or done something better, but it is not their fault that I am having a bad time and, believe it or not, it is not really my fault either. It is just hard. It is up to me what I do with that.

We Always Have a Choice

I will let you in on a little secret: just as when we are having a bad time it is not anyone else’s fault, no one can stop us from having a good time either. Not unless we give that power away, which we only do when we do not take responsibility for ourselves. We can have our feelings and not put then on anyone else, but we can go a step further too. We can work on how we perceive, feel and react to others and events. We can practice new behaviors and new ways of being.

It is a more powerful way to live when we believe and act as if we always have choice and responsibility. In truth, we always do have choices, even if it is only in how we choose to view what is happening. We can choose to do what will help us grow and thrive or we can choose not to. Hopefully, we will take responsibility for the results of either choice.