Where do You Draw the Line? When are You Taking on Too Much Responsibility For Other People’s Emotions

This is a loaded topic, and one I’ve recently had to come to terms with. It’s difficult enough in the day to day, sorting and responding to our emotions. But when you add a layer of taking on the responsibility of absorbing somebody else’s emotional state, it can be overwhelming. This is a skill that I definitely learned late in life, and one I’m still grappling with today, as I try to sort out my emotions from the unhealthy lessons and emotional baggage of my caretakers. This aspect of handling emotions in our daily lives is so important, I’m surprised that we don’t have a curriculum for it to help those who are navigating this in their early teens. Another topic for another post for sure.

What started me thinking about about the idea for this post was something I said in last weeks post on dealing with unreasonably high standards. I grew up in a family where my caregivers would often say, “you made me do this”, or “you made me feel this way.” These were powerful statements to hear, especially at such a young age. This was the foundation of me taking responsibility for not only my own emotions, but also those of my caregivers and just about everybody else in my life that I had an emotional bond with.

After hearing one of these statements, usually after a fight or some form of an argument, I would then take what was said personally. As though the entire argument we had just had, and all the hurt feelings and disappointment that was the result of the argument, was my fault. My caregivers almost always had an air of something being offensive to them. As though whatever was happening was not only personally being done to them, but there was also a sense of indignant righteousness. That they knew better than whom ever was offending them, and they (the offenders) were inherently bad for doing, thinking or being a way that was not to their liking.

And how could I not take responsibility for all the components of our relationship. With standards like my caregivers’, and coming directly from those who were supposed to teach me how to navigate life and my emotional world, I just assumed that they were in control, knew what was supposed to happen and that I just never added up.

So these were the broken and unsustainable lessons I then tried to navigate my world with. I held a sense of indignant righteousness and judgemental attitude in almost all of my relationships. I was unforgiving, of others and myself, when we didn’t add up to my unreasonably high standards, and I was mean. In just about all aspects of my personality.

From my harsh judgements of others, to the cutting and snide remarks I would make when I saw someone not meeting my standard. Or just when I thought they were showing some “weakness” that I didn’t approve of. I remember very distinctly, picking out one individual who I worked with, who I would pick on relentlessly. And the only reason I chose him to receive the brunt of my hostility was because he was kind and considerate without the egotism I thought men should display, by virtue of being a man. Toxic masculinity at its worst.

But picking on someone for showing kindness and consideration, traits I viewed as “weaknesses”, was really a way to stay loyal to the lessons I received from my caregivers. These were really there views, their reactions to their emotional landscapes and the lessons they were taught. And in order to feel belonging, I assimilated them as my own. I became the person that was expected of me by my caregivers by absorbing their attributes and taking them on as my own.

This, however, lead to me not understanding how to be, or what intimacy in a relationship was. This left me feeling that most of my relationships were very superficial and without feelings of connection. This was a very lonely place to be.

As well as not being able to develop and foster intimate relationships, I was also actively afraid of the people that reminded me of my caregivers. The ones who had taught me how to be in, and seek out these unhealthy relationships to begin with. So when I met a new co-worker, or was around someone who resembled my caregivers to some degree, i.e. being highly critical of others with a sense of malice for the sake of sport, there’s a sense of fear that comes on, with a feeling of, “this is my fault, the reason their being so mean is because of who I am.” Even if they are talking about somebody else, I was always in the position of feeling as though it was only a matter of time before their attention was directed towards me. That I was somehow always a moment away from displeasing and totally disappointing whomever was talking because I was always disapproved of by my caregivers.

This is a pattern that still plays out to this day. I feel as though I’m finally on the mend from a life’s time worth of feeling like a disappointment, but it’s taken some considerable effort to break free from the cycle of my caregivers lessons. The first step was recognizing how I was feeling while I was interacting with someone I have a relationship with.

This started for me while I was interacting with a co-worker of mine. Everything seemed fine at first, but later I noticed he would get really quiet around me when it was just us two. And the more I heard him in conversation with others, the more I came to know his personality. He would say things like, “I live to gaslight people”, which was something I would expect to hear from one of my caregivers. If you’re not familiar with the term gaslighting, it means, to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.” (Google Dictionary).

How I felt while I was around this particular co-worker, was as though I had done something wrong, but I had no idea what it was that I was doing. I felt the fear in my belly and groin, as though something were about to happen to me. This must be where the expresion, “gird your loins” comes from, because I definitely felt my fight or flight response kick in while I was around them, viscerally. I knew that I was uncomfortable around them, and as though something bad would imanantly happen, and that it was my fault.

But even this aspect, learning to trust my emotions was a difficult process. As I’ve said above, when you are surrounded by people who are constantly telling you that you are making them feel a certain way, and avoiding responsibility for their own emotions and reactions to them, it becomes more than a little fuzzy on how you feel, and if what you are feeling is actually your feeling. some of the questions may be, is somebody else making me feel this way? Is this my emotion, or the other person’s that I’m feeling?

This may seem elementary to most people, and I hope that is the case, but for those of us who were taught poor, or no emotional boundaries, this is a very confusing place to be. So building those boundaries became paramount to me being able to navigate how I feel in situations. One boundary being, knowing that no matter what, what I’m feeling is my own feeling, and therefore my responsibility, was an important one to learn. This allowed me to see how I am feeling, in real time, in reaction to a situation that is happening currently. I can then see the feeling, then see all the thoughts that I’ve learned to associate with that feeling, and work to separate them from one another, and deal with the present situation and emotions accordingly.

So in the example above, with the co-worker who “lives to gaslight”, I can hear the comment, feel the fear in my body, recognize that the emotion and the feelings are coming up because of the abuses I’ve received in the past at the hands of my caregivers. Then recognize that I am in a different situation, with different people, that I am in control of keeping myself safe, and that these are only feelings that are telling me that this person may not be a safe bet to trust with my emotional wellbeing.

Another example, I was in the middle of batch cooking for the week ahead, and cleaning out the cabinets and taking stock of what I need to use up before it goes bad. The counters were covered with food stuffs, and I had been in the kitchen for hours at this point. Someone I live with walks into the kitchen and asks, “what are you up to?” I was a little tired, but the question seemed kind of ridiculous to me. They had been sitting in the next room over for the entire time I had been in the kitchen cooking. And anyone who walked into the kitchen could clearly see what it was that I was up to. I did respond in a short tone with, “really?” But I wasn’t angry, it was more to point out how ridiculous the question was. They then became defensive and indignant, saying “it’s not ok to ask a question? Are you in one of your moods?”

What bothered me about this interaction was, the assumption was made that I was being mean on purpose, when I really thought the question was funny, I was just tired. I later apologized for being short, because it was rude of me. But these were the types of interactions that had laid the foundation of all of the communication efforts with my caregivers growing up, sans the apologies. This was also the source of a lot of hurt feelings and perceived abuses, when all we really needed to do was to not take everything that someone was saying so personally.

And this is no easy task. From my experience, if you have a foundation of misperceived comments and what feel like personal attacks based in malicious intent, then there is a lot of armoring that you pick up along the way to feel safe. Especially if you have to live with the people who are attacking you, and the attacks are more commonplace than loving gestures. From this perspective, being in relationship, with anyone, is a scary proposition.

So if clear communication takes a healthy dose of trusting one another, and not taking things so personally, how do we begin to loosen the armoring that comes with the distrust and thinking it’s all directed towards us? For me, not taking things so personally was a gradual process. I first had to let go of my own indignation. To have a little faith that not everybody had some ulterior motive to their actions. And as I’ve said above, when you absorb disappointment from your caregivers growing up, this is tough to break free from when you see it in others.

For me, in my affirmation I say during my daily meditation, “I’m strong enough to be who I am, while allowing others to be who they are”, has done so much for me to establish some much needed boundaries in my personal life. This was the foothold for me to be able to begin to trust others. Because if I knew I was strong enough to feel my emotions, and know that my emotions are my own, then I can begin to understand how to draw the line between feeling like a disappointment, and recognizing others displaying disappointment in me.

Once you start to own your emotions, it’s easier to see how others are feeling. For example, in the interaction with the person I live with above, when I shifted my focus on the anger and indignation they were displaying, it was easy to see that they were hurt by my short remark, which I said because I was tired from cooking and cleaning all day. Not because I was angry at them.

And this takes patients. With ourselves and with others as well. But also knowing when someone else may not change. This is a difficult one for most people. Learning to accept where people are. It’d be great if everyone could just immediately understand where we are coming from whenever we have a new thought or perspective. But the reality of relationships are, this just isn’t the case.

For me, I need to accept that there are some relationships that are just not going to change. For example, when I tried to explain how I wasn’t angry even though my response was short, with the situation above, it only caused more frustration and misunderstanding. In this case, I need to accept that I will be misunderstood, and not take it personal that they don’t understand where I’m coming from. This is just where we are in our relationship.

And that’s not to say that either person isn’t capable of changing, or coming to an understanding. Only that it can’t be forced on someone before their ready for it.

And in some cases, I’ve had to let relationships I’ve had with friends and family members go. There was just too many hurt feelings and unresolved issues for me to stay in relationship with them. This was no easy task, and not one I’m suggesting to do or think about lightly. For me, knowing that I had to draw a hard line on where I feel safe or comfortable with the relationship ending helps me to feel as though I’m taking care of myself. That I know I have my back, and my best interests at heart.

And that’s not to say that I’ve written these people off, or burned any bridges. I heard somewhere once, “never write a person off.” I’m not sure why, but this piece of wisdom has always felt right to me. That’s not to say I’m leaving the door wide open for them to come back in whenever they like. And relive some of the abuses of boundaries that I’ve lived through in the past. It means that I’m not giving up on their ability to change.

If they come back into my life, it will be a fresh start, and one I embark on very cautiously. Setting some strict boundaries around our relationship until I can feel confident in who they are now and how they’ve changed from the ways they used to be. And again, this isn’t easy. But for me, it’s worth it if you can salvage a friendship, because they are definitely worth the effort.

There is also a fair amount of vulnerability that comes with being in relationship as well. This can be difficult to manage on top of the other emotions that we are already trying to sort out. It can feel like at times trying to untangle a bunch of live wires! Trusting that others will not project their emotions onto you, while already dealing with your emotional perspective of the relationship can feel like you’re being overloaded.

These are the times where it’s best to find some time to resource. A little self care goes a long way when we’re feeling like we are being overwhelmed with emotions. Ours and/or somebody else’s. Don’t be afraid to take the time you need to sort through what your feeling. Alone or with a trusted friend, knowing how you’re feeling while trying to untangle your emotions from another’s is important to clearly communicate what your needs are and understanding what the other person is asking of you.

And take your time. Don’t feel as though you have to rush to a conclusion. You will get there eventually, and if you take your time, you’ll probably get a better picture of what it is that you are trying to understand along the way.

I hope this has been of some help. Emotions can be tricky, especially when we’re not sure whose emotions are whoms. Just remember to be kind to yourself and the other while your trying to sort it all out. And forgiving too, when you come up short on the kindness front! As always, peace : ) and thanks for reading.

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