Feelings and Responsibility

There is an expression used by optimists and abusers: “You are responsible for your own emotions.” To the optimist this means one can choose to search for the silver lining, to find the good in a bad situation, to focus on what is right in the world. One can chose not to wallow in self pity but instead try to move forward. There is a growing body of evidence that positive people do have greater resilience to minor setbacks, so perhaps for them this responsibility feels natural. 

To the abuser this means, “I am not responsible for how I make you feel, no matter how I berate and demean and assault you. If you feel bad, that’s on you. I won’t be held responsible for your feelings because those are your fault.” It is a further compounding of abuse, denying their victim the right to even hurt from the wounds they inflicted. The two meanings couldn’t be more different. 

It’s important to remember that optimists mean well, and that abusers don’t. The optimist is like Mr. Fred Rogers teaching children to “look for the helpers” to be encouraged and comforted in a crisis. The abuser is a villain.  There is a third, I think less common, almost self defensive use of the phrase. Sometimes “You are responsible for your feelings” means “I cannot be a vessel to contain everything bad within you that you wish to expel, a chamberpot for your emotional effluvia.” 

For me I have taken the philosophy that there is no “should” for my feelings. My feelings are. If they are unpleasant I may desire to change them, but I do not owe changed feelings. My emotions are not a debt to the world. The simply are. My actions must abide by many rules, but my feelings are bound by none. It has been freeing, and guilt comes much less often. 

These same words will mean very different things from different speakers and to different audiences. This phrase is one of countless terms we will use and interpret differently based on our demeanor, our abuse history, and our saturation limits with serving as emotional tampons for others. We try to communicate, but we are hampered by our histories. 

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