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 our day to day to sort and respond to our emotions. But when you add the layer of taking responsibility of, and 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 baggage of my caretakers. This aspect of handling our emotions is so important that I’m surprised we don’t have a curriculum for it. Especially helping those who are navigating them in their early teens. Another topic for another post for sure.

Why Responsibility is Important

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 as well. And just about everybody else’s in my life that I had an emotional bond with.

After hearing one of these statements, during a fight or some kind of argument, I would take responsibility for what was said. As though the entire argument we just had, and all the hurt feelings and disappointment that resulted from it, was my fault. My responsibility. My caregivers almost always carried an air of something being offensive to them in their body language. As though whatever was happening was not only personal, but there was also a sense of indignant self-righteousness. The sense that they knew better than whomever was offending them. And they (the offenders) were inherently bad for doing, thinking or being a way that they did not approve of.

And how could I not take responsibility for all the emotions of our relationship. With standards like my caregivers’ and learning how to handle emotions directly from those who were supposed to teach me how to navigate life and my emotional world with balance and ease, I just assumed that they were in control. That they knew how to handle emotions fairly and that I was just never added up.

Results of Not Taking Responsibility for Our Emotions

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

From my harsh judgements of others to the cutting and snide remarks I would make when someone didn’t meet my standard. Or when I thought they were showing some “weakness”, aka emotions other than anger. For example, I remember picking out an individual who I worked with, who I picked on relentlessly. And the reason I chose him to receive the brunt of my hostility? Because he was kind and considerate, without the ego 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 for me to stay loyal to the lessons I received from my caregivers. These were their views, their reactions to their emotional landscapes. And in order to feel belonging, I assimilated their views as my own. I became the person I was expected to be by my caregivers. By absorbing their views and taking them on as my own.

Lonely in Relationship Through Lack of Boundaries

This, however, lead to me not understanding how to be in, or what intimacy was, in relationship. This left me feeling that most of my relationships were superficial and without feelings of connection. In short, 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. So when I met someone new who reminded me of them, or was around someone who resembled my caregivers, there was a sense of fear that came on. I felt that, “this is my fault, the reason their being so mean is because of who I am.” Even if they were talking about somebody else, I was always in the position of feeling as though it was only a matter of time before their hurtful actions were directed towards me. That I was somehow always a moment away from displeasing and totally disappointing whomever I was with.

Recognizing the Patterns

And this pattern still plays out from time to time. The one where I feel as though I’m feeling like a disappointment. But I’ve learned to break free from this pattern. This has taken some considerable effort though. The first step was to recognize how I was feeling while I was with someone and how it effected our relationship.

I first began to understand my relationship dynamics while I was interacting with a co-worker. Everything seemed fine at first, but later I noticed he would get quiet around me when it was just the two of us. But the more I heard him in conversation with others, the more I came to know his personality a little better. He would say things like, “I live to gaslight people”. This was something I would expect to hear from one of my caregivers. If you’re not familiar with the term gaslighting, it means, to “ psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts…” (Merriam & Webster).

How I felt while I was around him was, as though I had done something wrong. But I had no idea what it was that I was doing to explain this feeling. I felt the fear in my belly and groin, as though something were about to happen to me. This must be where the expression, “gird your loins” comes from. Because I definitely felt my fight or flight response kick in while I was around them. What I knew was that I felt uncomfortable around them. As though something bad would imminently happen and that it would be my fault.

Learning to Trust Your Emotions

This made learning to trust my emotions 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, 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 truly hope that is the case. But for those of us who were taught poor or no emotional boundaries, emotions can be confusing. 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. This allows me to see how I’m feeling, in real time, in reaction to a situation that is current. I can then know the feeling and thoughts that I’ve learned to associate with that feeling. Then work to separate them from one another and deal with the present situation and emotions accordingly.

Trust in Practice

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 my past at the hands of those who acted like the co-worker. 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 reminding me that this person may not be safe to trust with my wellbeing.

Trust and Miscommunication

Another example is, I was in the middle of batch cooking for the weeks ahead one day. I was 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 at that point I had been in the kitchen for hours. Then, someone I live with walked into the kitchen and asked, “what are you up to?” I was tired, but the question struck me as ridiculous. They had been sitting in the room over from me the entire time I was cooking. And anyone who walked into the kitchen could clearly see what it was that I was up to. I responded 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 and I responded the way I did due to being 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 our communications, without 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 by taking responsibility for their emotions.

Feeling Defensive Comes from Communication Built on Distrustful Relationships

And this is no easy task. From my experience, if the foundation of your relationships are built on misperceived comments and what feel like personal attacks based in malicious intent, then there is a lot of armoring you take on 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 or responsibility for other’s emotions, how do we begin to loosen the armoring that comes with the distrust? For me, not taking responsibility and 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.

Building Boundaries to Gain Trust in Ourselves & in Others

For me, there is something I say in my affirmation, during my meditation, “I’m strong enough to be who I am, while allowing others to be who they are”. This 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, I could take responsibility for my emotions. 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 take responsibility for 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 to 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.

You Can’t Change Another

Taking responsibility takes patience. With ourselves and with others as well. But also knowing when someone else may not change. This is a difficult one for most people, including me. 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 is, this just isn’t the case.

For me, I need to accept that there are some relationships that are not going to change. For example, when I tried to explain how I wasn’t angry even though my response was short, it only caused more frustration and misunderstanding. In this case, I need to accept that I will be misunderstood. Also not take responsibility for them not understanding me. And accepting that this is just where we are in our relationship.

But People Can Change

And that’s not to say that people aren’t capable of changing. Or coming to an understanding. Only that it can’t be forced on someone before they’re ready for it.

And in some cases, I’ve had to let relationships go. There were 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 how 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 to, “never write a person off.” Because people change. And that’s not to say that I’m leaving the door wide open for them to come back in whenever they like. It means that I’m not giving up on their ability to change.

But Don’t Forget Your Boundaries

If they come back into my life, it will be a fresh start. And one I’ll embark on very cautiously. Setting some strict boundaries around our relationship, until I can feel confident. Confident in who they are now and how they’ve changed from the ways they used to be and can take responsibility for their emotions. And again, this isn’t easy. But for me, it’s worth it if you can salvage a friendship. Because people 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 at times, like trying to untangle a bunch of live wires! Trusting that others will not project their emotions onto you while you’re untangling your own emotional knot can feel like you’re being overloaded.

Finding Resources

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 or somebody else’s. Don’t be afraid to take the time you need to sort through what your feeling and putting responsibility where it belongs. 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 understand what the other person is feeling.

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.

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

Updated: 9/29/22

Author: nolabelsliving

Social worker by day, blogger by night. I have a lot of lived experience which is why I started my blog. I was not given any direction when I started out on my journey, but have been blessed with some amazing support and guidance along the way. Just want to give back a little of what I've received : )

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

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: