What is emotional responsibility?

Jason Brien.

     If you haven’t already, please read my post/article “Are we responsible for other people’s emotions”? The content of the post explores the extent to which we must understand how our actions and behaviours have the POTENTIAL to INFLUENCE other people’s emotions - empathy. The concluding remarks of the post centred on how we must take a degree of responsibility for how our actions and behaviours could potentially influence others’ emotions however it is important to remember that our actions DO NOT directly make people feel certain emotions.  

     Any given person’s emotional response is determined by how they perceive our actions, intentions, motivations, etc. This is the basis of emotional responsibility and the basis of the current post. We ALONE are responsible for our emotional states. Other people and their actions and behaviours have the potential to influence our emotions but ultimately it is how we perceive their actions, behaviours, intentions, etc which determine our emotional responses.

     This can be a hard concept for people to grasp as it is often easy to blame others for ‘MAKING’ us feel certain ways than it is for us to take responsibility for making OURSELVES feel certain ways based on how we have interpreted any given event/person, etc. Believe it or not, when we accept that we are responsible for our emotional states, we can begin to recognise how much power and control we actually have. When we recognise that we have power and control, that we have emotional responsibility, we can start focusing on changing, modifying, managing and accepting our emotions and emotional responses.  

     This is the basis of distress tolerance and emotional regulation. When we constantly blame others for ‘making’ us feel sad, mad, angry, etc, we disempower ourselves. We hand our power and control over to others and we force ourselves to live emotionally unstable lives because we can never truly predict or control how others will ‘make’ us feel at any given moment on any given day. We also falsely believe that if a certain person ‘made’ us feel this way, then that certain person is also responsible for making us NOT feel this way. This is a truly chaotic way to live and unfortunately, a common response to trauma, abuse and mistreatment and a common theme underlying many mental health conditions and personality disorders.

     It can be hard for people to accept and acknowledge emotional responsibility. People are usually raised to believe that it is what has happened to them which ultimately determines how they feel. This faulty belief then causes people to attach their feelings to the person or event that they believe was responsible for causing their feelings. Let me give you an example. You are an adult and you were raised by an abusive mother or father. You continually blame your mother or father for making you feel ashamed of who you are as a person. You continually blame your mother or father for making you feel worthless.  

     There is a very big problem with this process/cycle that usually causes people significant problems when it comes to healing. When people are stuck in the cycle of blaming their mother or father (or any other person) for how they feel, they are severely limiting the choices they can make to heal themselves. What often happens is (especially when it comes to really abusive or really resistant mothers and fathers) they either try and force the mother or father to admit their wrongs and thus hope that an admission of guilt and remorse removes their negative feelings about themselves or they do the opposite and wait until the mother or father holds themselves accountable and apologises of their own free will (which may never happen).

     These types of people are not emotionally responsible. Yes, abusive parents need to be held accountable for the abuse they inflicted on you, but your current emotional state should not be dependent upon any admissions of guilt, responsibility or remorse. To be emotionally responsible means holding yourself accountable for how you feel/felt AFTER you have interpreted any given event or person.  

     Let me give an example of this. As a child, you remember that it was your 11th birthday and you were so excited about your big day. You woke up in the morning and discovered that your parents had left a present for you on the kitchen table but they had already left for work. You were feeling angry and disappointed because your parents didn’t even wish you a happy birthday before leaving for work. You were angry and disappointed because you were hoping for a hug and a kiss at least. In this example, are your parents responsible for making you feel angry and disappointed?

     Let’s analyse what led you to feel angry and disappointed. Was it your expectation or belief that your parents were going to wake you up with a big surprise party because this is what you had been dreaming about all week? Were you angry and disappointed because your best friend had an amazing 11th birthday party and you were comparing your birthday morning to theirs? Were you angry and disappointed because you wanted some love, recognition and attention?  

     When we experience negative emotions, it is usually the result of core needs being ignored or unfulfilled. Of course, when we feel happy or excited, our core need is being fulfilled hence the happiness and excitement. These needs, and whether we interpret whether these needs have been fulfilled or not, can help us to become emotionally responsible and can help us heal from trauma, abuse, invalidation, etc. So yes, in the 11th birthday example, your parents had a responsibility to meet your needs (love, attention, etc) but they are not responsible for you feeling angry and disappointed when your needs were not met.

     You do not take responsibility for the circumstances people force upon you. You take responsibility for your emotional responses to the circumstances forced upon you AT THAT PARTICULAR POINT IN TIME. Good, bad or neutral. Your emotional responses at any point in time is yours alone to own. Your emotional responses at any given point in time are dependent on your interpretation of events at any given point in time. Your interpretation of events at any particular point in time are dependent on your cognitive abilities at that time. Your education level at that time. Your self-awareness level at that time. Your understanding of other people at that time. Your fear responses at that time.  

     Does this make sense? This is not saying that feeling angry or disappointed because your needs were not met on your 11th birthday is not a valid response, it is saying that you, as an adult, have the power, control and responsibility to choose whether you will continue feeling angry and disappointed about what occurred on your 11th birthday and, if you choose to continue feeling angry and disappointed, will you allow these emotions to consume your life to the point that they cause you significant stress and distress?

     Let me give an example where your interpretation of past events may have been faulty. You are 11 years old. Your parents divorced the year before. You are waiting eagerly for your father/mother to come to your birthday party and you are angry and disappointed that your mother/father didn’t turn up. You hold onto this anger and disappointment and it is not until you are 40 years old, and you have a chance encounter with your mother/father that you realise that your interpretation was faulty. You mother/father had been warned not to come to your birthday. Or they weren’t provided with an address to attend.

     Once you realise that your interpretation of your 11th birthday all those years ago was faulty, what happens? You might become confused because you come to realise that your anger and disappointment was valid, that is how you felt, but the context for the emotions arising is invalid. So, what must you do in the present? You could transfer the blame for the emotions arising to the other parent who prevented your mother/father from attending which would keep you trapped in the past or you can recognise that your emotions were valid up until the point before you knew ‘better’ but you have the power and control now to no longer feel angry and disappointed moving forward. By taking the latter approach, you are taking emotional responsibility in both the past and the present.

     Emotional responsibility shows us that we have the power and control to change and manage our feelings in the NOW. That our emotions and the intensity in which they are experienced are not fixed and rigid. That if you felt a certain way in the past, you MUST continue to feel the same way in the present and the future. It is extremely important to recognise and acknowledge that the past is any point in time which is not NOW. The past for example was three paragraphs ago. The past was one word ago.  

     The point is, just because you felt intense anger 5 minutes ago doesn’t mean that you have to experience intense anger 20 minutes from now. At any point in time, at any given NOW, you have the ability to engage in a behaviour which will impact how you feel now and next. By practicing acceptance, forgiveness, contentment, etc, you are not trying to alter the emotions of the past, you are attempting to alter your emotions in the NOW and the FUTURE. The same goes for cognitive restructuring. You are not necessarily trying to alter interpretations of the past so as to alter the emotions of the past, but to alter your emotional responses NOW and in the FUTURE.