Understanding Emotional Responsibility
Spoiler alert: responsibility means “ability to respond.”
Emotional responsibility is like so in right now. It’s the hot new craze in… emotions. Everyone who’s anyone (who thinks too much about feelings and communication) is talking about it. The miracle drug, the cure-all, healing everyone from the horrors of emotional projection… but also causing horrors of its own.
The emotional responsibility “movement,” so to speak, emerged as a remedy to a pattern of behavior that plagues so many interpersonal relationships, that of emotional projection. Projection is the pattern of believing, You are responsible for how I feel, or alternately, I am responsible for how you feel.
The behaviors that typically emerge out of emotional projection include blame, bulldozing, control, demanding, unhealthy attachment, unhealthy dependence, trying too hard to please, guilt tripping, and self-blame.
Emotional responsibility’s answer to this pattern is for individuals to step back and step up, saying, I take responsibility for how I feel. Rather than saying, “You make me miserable,” the emotionally responsible thing to say is, “I feel misery as a result of this situation.” What a wonderful trick, right?
Sometimes… sure. But not so fast. Like emotional projection, emotional responsibility has a helpful side and a harmful side.
At its best: You punch me in the face and I say, “Stop hitting me.”
At its worst: I grab your hand, punch myself in the face with it and say, “Stop hitting me.”
- I am responsible for how you feel.
Helpful: I care about you. Your happiness matters to me. I will take actions that make you happy.
Harmful: It is my job to constantly make you happy and alleviate your pain. I will do this even at the expense of my own needs. Everything you feel is my fault. I do not believe you are capable of meeting your needs yourself.
- You are responsible for how I feel.
Helpful: I understand how your actions impact me, and will be open and honest with you about what I need and how I want to be treated.
Harmful: My happiness is your job and you are the only person who can alleviate my pain. Meet my needs before your own. Everything I feel is your fault. I am not capable of meeting my needs myself.
At its best: I punch myself in the face and you say, “Stop hitting yourself.”
At its worst: You grab my hand, punch me in the face with it and say, “Stop hitting yourself.”
- I am responsible for how I feel.
Helpful: I understand that my feelings come from all kinds of sources, not just your actions. I have the agency to change my own feelings.
Harmful: No one can help me to feel happy or alleviate pain. I don’t need anyone, and no one will be there for me. Everything I feel is my fault. If I can’t meet all of my needs, my needs will never be met.
- You are responsible for how you feel.
Helpful: Not everything you feel is something I can change. You have the agency to meet your own needs, and I am not at fault for every single thing you feel.
Harmful: Making you happy or alleviating your pain is not my problem. I can do whatever I want, and whatever you feel about that your problem. My actions aren’t responsible for your pain. Everything you feel is your fault.
A reaction to dependence
Emotional responsibility is really just a belief in emotional independence: my emotions are wholly independent of your actions. Emotional projection is really just a belief in emotional dependence: my emotions are wholly dependent on your actions.
When looked at from this view, it becomes obvious both of these models are sometimes true and both are sometimes false.
It is frightening to me that we’ve started to dub emotional independence as emotional responsibility. This is so indicative of our time: ours is the era of individuality and figuring out your identity. Ours is also the era of atomization and isolation.
Independence is an understandable and necessary step towards growth from total dependence, but it is a step. It is a movement in the direction of a healthy equilibrium. Healthy balance is the goal.
If you blame others too much, or you take blame for others too much, the helpful side of emotional independence can help you. If you feel isolated and alienated and alone, the helpful side emotional dependence can help you.
Ultimately, independence is no more responsible than dependence, and actual emotional responsibility is interdependent — sometimes independent, sometimes dependent, and almost always a mix of both.
Actual emotional responsibility comes from understanding two things: emotions, and responsibility.
What are emotions?
Emotions are feelings. We typically think of them as distinct from physical feelings, but they are feelings all the same. Feelings arise due to unmet needs. Needs arise due to feelings. The two arise together.
Example A: I feel cold; I need warmth. I feel cold because I do not feel warm enough. I need to be warmer because I feel too cold.
Example B: I feel shame; I need acceptance. I feel ashamed of myself because I do not feel accepted. I need to feel accepted because I feel shame.
When we talk about emotional feelings, we’re talking about emotional needs. The two are inseparable. Needs are only ever feelings or states of being.
“Desires” are tools we use to meet our needs. We often confuse desires and needs. Desires can be interchangeable; needs cannot.
Example A: I feel cold. I need warmth. I desire a blanket.
Interchangeability: A campfire could also work.
Example B: I feel shame. I need acceptance. I desire being told I’m accepted.
Interchangeability: A comforting smile of approval could also work.
Emotions are feelings. Feelings arise from needs. Needs arise from feelings. You cannot just stop needing something you need. You cannot stop feeling a feeling without meeting the unmet need. You can usually find multiple methods of meeting your need.
Some needs are easier to meet for yourself than others. Some of us know better than others how to meet our needs for ourselves. Some of us know better than others how to get our needs met by other people. No, none of it is “fair.”
What is responsibility?
We usually use responsibility as a synonym for fault. When we say “You’re responsible for this,” we tend to mean, “You did this. You caused this. Only you can fix it.”
Fault doesn’t really exist. Everything is interdependent. Everything comes from everything. Everything is influenced by everything. Simplistic cause-and-effect relationships are never the whole truth. Fault is a myth we made up to justify a world of punishment and reward. Punishment and reward are only useful as far as they change behavior going forward. You cannot undo the past. That isn’t how time works. Ultimately, fault is a fantasy.
Responsibility is not the same as fault. Responsibility actually just means “ability to respond.”
A thing happened. I cannot make the thing unhappen. That isn’t how time works. Now, in this moment, what ability do I have to respond to the thing?
Have you heard the phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility?” It is not that with great power comes being at fault for more stuff. What comes with great power is a heightened ability to respond to things.
True emotional responsibility is about relinquishing questions of fault and looking only at ability to respond to feelings and needs.
Who has the ability to respond?
As a general rule, we usually have a greater ability to respond to our own needs than we do the needs of others. We usually have a greater ability to respond to our own needs than others do to our needs. However, this heuristic is broken by two things: power imbalance, and lack of conscious power.
If I have power over you in some way, I may well have a greater ability to respond (responsibility) to your needs than you do. For example, parents and children — a parent has a greater ability to respond to their baby’s needs than the baby does.
Lack of Conscious Power
In cases where my ability to make conscious decisions is inhibited, you may have a greater ability to respond (responsibility) to my needs than I do. For example, in the case of addiction — by definition, an addict is someone who does something to the point of their own detriment with no ability to stop themselves from doing it. Other examples include phobias and trauma triggers.
But it’s not always this obvious. Sometimes, situations that keep us from being able to respond to our needs are very subtle. For example:
Subtle Power Imbalance
John is confident. He’s handsome, charming, smart, funny. Everyone seems to like him, women fawn over him, and he’s never had any problem finding a loving girlfriend. Jane is kind of insecure. She’s great in a lot of ways, but she’s dated a lot of assholes, felt used by a lot of men, and she doesn’t feel confident in her ability to find a loving boyfriend.
John and Jane start dating. Instantly, there’s a kind of power imbalance. If Jane breaks up with him, John believes he’ll find love again, no problem. If John breaks up with her, Jane believes she’ll never find love again. Jane’s insecurity is a problem for John. John’s insensitivity is a problem for Jane. Who has the responsibility for (read: ability to respond to) which emotions and needs? To what extent?
Subtle Lack of Conscious Power
John’s mother was emotionally abusive to him growing up. She repeatedly made him feel unloved, guilty and ashamed of himself, and it always started by her sighing and shaking her head at him. Oh yeah, John’s mother was abused by her parents too, by the way.
John is now dating Jane. Jane explains something to John, but he’s not getting it. Jane sighs and shakes her head, then begins explaining again. John instantly reacts with anger and fear and snaps at her. Jane gets upset, and now the two are in a big fight. Who has the responsibility for (read: ability to respond to) which emotions and needs? To what extent?
…Not so simple, is it?
How to actually be emotionally responsible
There is no consistent right answer. There is no map. There is only ever a compass, and that compass is Your Feelings.
Ultimately, you are responsible for deciding what you are responsible for. Only you can know what you are able to respond to.
But even your ability to respond to the question, “What am I able to respond to?” may well be limited by power imbalances and/or lack of conscious power. You may be conditioned to think that things are “not your problem” when you very well could help. You may be conditioned to think that you “have to do something” when you very well can’t help. There is no consistent right answer. There is no map. There is only ever a compass, and that compass is Your Feelings.
What we need to understand from “emotional responsibility” is that we feel things because of situations, not just because of other people’s actions. What we need to understand from “emotional projection” is that people’s actions are integral to creating situations, and a change in actions going forward can lead to a change in the situation. There is no consistent right answer. There is no map. There is only ever a compass, and that compass is Your Feelings.
Actual emotional responsibility looks like this:
- Accept that a situation happened, and now you feel something. Accept what you feel. Accept that you feel it. Accept that you are allowed to feel that way.
- Ask yourself what you can do to change the situation going forward. What ability do you have to respond? Ask others for ideas if you need help.
- Ask others what they can do to change the situation going forward. What ability do they have to respond? Give them ideas if they need help.
- Do the work of working on it.
Yes, this is complicated and difficult. Coming up with simplistic ideas for how emotions work won’t make them any less complicated and difficult. There is no consistent right answer. There is no map. There is only ever a compass, and that compass is Your Feelings.
“Emotional responsibility” is not a miracle cure for pain and interpersonal conflict. You will always come across pain. You will always come across tension. You will always come across conflict. Stop trying to avoid them by taking on blame or casting off blame. Blame lives in the Fault paradigm; it is not based in reality. There is no consistent right answer. There is no map. There is only ever a compass, and that compass is Your Feelings.
No one is at fault. Fault doesn’t exist. What ability to respond does each person have? There is no consistent right answer. There is no map. There is only ever a compass, and that compass is Your Feelings.
The past cannot be changed. Nothing can be undone. Focus on Now to build the future. Moments of pain, tension and conflict can become a chance to understand yourself and others better. Do the work of working on it.
Oh, and in case I forgot to mention: There is no consistent right answer. There is no map. There is only ever a compass, and that compass is Your Feelings.