One common problem that women, especially the younger, gentler, and less worldly, run into is the problem of being overly responsible for other people feelings. Symptoms of this include being excessively apologetic, saying yes when we mean no, and, worse, being passive-aggressive.
A typical single gal example, and of course I never did this in my younger days (ahem), is continuing to go out with a guy because you feel bad telling him that you don’t like him romantically. You don’t want to “hurt him”. This leads to Stray Puppy Effect* (you keep on going out with him, after all). However, because you’re not being honest with your feelings and with him, you are stuck in a relationship you don’t want to be in with this particular person.
The antidote to this is thinking not about what the other person might feel if we were honest with them, but what would we feel if we were on the receiving end of the treatment. For example, what if you found out someone hung out with you just because he didn’t want to hurt your feelings and for no other reason? You would probably be offended that you weren’t being treated like a person who can handle themselves like a grown-up. It shows respect for another person to be honest with them about your feelings.
It can be hard to know what exactly we are responsible for and what we are not. If you read too many writings of Orthodox monastics and are a highly conscientious person, you can be left with a crushing sense of responsibility for the world’s sins. I like this recent Carolyn Hax article because she brings “commonsense moral reasoning” to explaining what one is responsible for, and what one is not.
Q: You have said a few times something along the lines of “We are not responsible for someone else’s feelings,” and when it comes to the extremes of narcissistic or victim-playing behavior, I get this. But if I do or say something legitimately hurtful, prejudiced, etc., to someone else, whether through malicious forethought or benign error, it’s hard for me not to feel at least a little responsible for the likely distress that person then feels, and I do my best to make amends.
A: Truth is, I think a lot of what I advise and espouse amounts to a system — an emotional word problem, in a way. Therefore, talking about it involves breaking down very emotional things into transactions, which is inherently cold. But that’s just in the mechanics; the result is an emotional exchange, which, if handled with respect and fair concern for all involved, tends to be the opposite of cold. Take the transaction you cite: If you “do or say something legitimately hurtful, prejudiced, etc., to someone else,” you’re still not responsible for the other person’s feelings; it’s his or her place alone to decide what to think about and do with your actions. BUT: You are responsible for you — which means you make a good-faith effort to express your regret and repair or mitigate any damage when you do something you recognize as wrong. Short version: Your actions can cause pain, of course, but you can’t reach in and personally adjust the pain levels. You can only change your actions.It is a cold word problem, but it also shows the path to a happy result where people care about each other while also recognizing the line between what is under your control (the outcome you intend) and isn’t (outcome you get).