Are we responsible for other people’s emotions?


Jason Brien.

This is a tricky question which confuses a lot of people. The short answer is both yes and no. We are not directly responsible for other people’s emotions in the same way that we are not directly responsible for another person’s breathing, walking or eating. We do not have the power to directly enter another person’s mind and switch their fear emotion on or off. Or switch their happiness emotion on or off. So, in this regard we are not responsible for other people’s emotions. 

But… and this is a very big but, we are responsible for our actions, and we are responsible for recognising and taking responsibility for how our actions can potentially INFLUENCE the emotional states of others. This is the basis of empathy. Let me put it this way. If you start running, I am not responsible for powering your legs or choosing the direction you run in. I can however be potentially responsible for triggering your motivation to run if I was approaching you aggressively or stating that I was going to hurt you for example. 

So, to flat out say that we are not responsible for others emotions is not entirely correct. If we were completely free of that responsibility then we should be able to walk down the street with an axe in one hand and a gun in the other hand. If people fear us or become traumatised, who cares. I’m not responsible for your emotions and I should suffer no consequences for invoking your fear. 

This is not how society works though. To flat out refuse to accept responsibility for how our actions can potentially contribute to the emotional states of others is the hallmark of a lack of empathy, lack of guilt and a lack of remorse. When we don’t (or we are unable to) recognise other people’s emotional states, and recognise that we may have been responsible for acting in a way which potentially invoked that emotional state, we do not experience the emotional pain characteristic of guilt, empathy and remorse and we do not recognise when the way we act might need to change. 

I want to stress though..., we are not responsible for how people perceive us or our actions. We are only responsible for how our actions can POTENTIALLY be perceived by others and how our actions can POTENTIALLY cause emotional shifts in others of which we can then, if necessary, take responsibility. The responsibility we take must be justified though. If we are casually walking down the street minding our own business, and a person starts running away from us in fear, do we take responsibility for invoking that fear? 

Let’s examine this further. If it was broad daylight and you were walking along a busy street behind a complete stranger and they look at you, become visibly overcome with fear and then run away, how responsible are you for invoking their fear? In this scenario, probably nil to none. It could just be that you resemble a person that this stranger fears. You may have violated their personal space but if the busy street leaves you no options, what can you do? 

Alternatively, what if you were walking behind a person at 4am in the morning down a secluded alley way. If you are walking directly behind this person for a long period of time, and then they suddenly turn around, look fearful and start running, do you have a degree of responsibility for invoking the fear? To an extent yes. We are responsible for maintaining people’s personal space regardless of whether the person expressly communicates their personal space limits. 

If we are walking within one to two footsteps of a person down a secluded alley way at 4am in the morning then we are probably not respecting that person’s personal space nor are we likely helping that person to feel safe. It doesn’t mean that we take 100% responsibility for the stranger running away in fear. The stranger needs to assess their own emotional state and why they chose to run away in fear. We just take responsibility for how our actions were potentially perceived by this stranger and how our actions potentially influenced the stranger’s emotional state. 

When we recognise and accept responsibility for potentially influencing other people’s emotional states, we can improve our theory of mind and in turn modify our behaviour so that we function more appropriately within society. We don’t say “I made that person feel fear” we say “I can see how my actions potentially influenced or motivated that person to feel fear”. 

We also don’t modify our behaviours in such a way, or to such a degree that we become people pleasers or we become inauthentic. The aim is not to control other people’s emotions. Our aim is to be mindful of our own behaviours and modify those behaviours if necessary. Modify for our sake and for our comfort and peace of mind. Not modify for the other persons sake or peace of mind. 

We don’t even necessarily have to modify our behaviours if we are not concerned with social cohesion and social responsibility. We can choose to walk directly behind a stranger down a secluded alley way at 4am in the morning knowing that we can potentially invoke fear in this person. Some people enjoy that sensation and enjoy the notoriety. Some people enjoy knowing that they can unduly influence other people’s emotional states.