How To Take Responsibility For Your Emotions

Posted on March 2, 2022 by Nate Regier / 2 comments
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If you support empowerment, ownership, authenticity, and transparency, then it’s time to stop perpetuating the myth that other people or things can cause our feelings. Taking full responsibility starts with 1) distinguishing affect from emotion, 2) recognizing ways we blame others for our feelings, 3) avoiding myth-based emotional labels, and 4) implementing five steps for emotional responsibility.

Imagine you are in the drive-through of your local coffee shop on your way to work. The line is pretty long and it’s going really slow today. Today you have a meeting in a few minutes and are making an important presentation to your team. You overhear an elderly person in front of you asking a lot of questions about the menu, trying to figure out the difference between an iced coffee and a cold brew. It takes them quite a while to make up their mind. How do you feel?

Imagine you are in that same drive-through, but on your way to a camping trip with your daughter. She’s with you and you are chatting about the fun you will have when you get to the lake. You have no real time frame, the whole weekend ahead of you, and you are with one of your favorite people. You overhear an elderly person in front of you asking a lot of questions about the menu, trying to figure out the difference between an iced coffee and a cold brew, It takes them quite a while to make up their mind. How do you feel?

Consider your emotions in both scenarios, and answer this question; where did your emotions come from? Why did you have that emotion? Who is responsible for how you feel in that moment?

Affect Vs. Emotion

To accurately answer this question, we must first distinguish between affect and emotion.

Affects are the forces that precede, produce, and inform our experiences. Affect is pre-personal and pre-subjective; it’s the result of forces acting on us. In the scenarios above, affect is the pre-subjective experience we have as a result of the situational factors; e.g. long line, slow order ahead of you, clock ticking, your daughter sitting next to you. Affect isn’t what you feel, so much as it is what forces you to feel. Affect usually involves a pre-conscious physiological response, like increased heart rate or butterflies in your stomach.

Emotions are personal experiences or states, like anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise: these are the six basic emotions cataloged by the psychologist Paul Ekman in his 2012 book, Emotions Revealed. Emotions are a result of your own interpretation of affect, the meaning you ascribe to it, how you label it.

According to Lisa Feldman Berrett, emotion researcher at Northeastern University and pioneer of the Constructed Theory of Emotions, we construct emotions as cognitive constructs early in life. We build a database associating words with affective states. In other words, we learn how to give meaning to affect. 

Your emotions are a unique result of how YOU interact with what’s going on around you and inside of you. They are a result of your unique experience. Two people experiencing the very same external situation could have the same affect, but express different emotions, as illustrated by the scenarios above. No one and nothing can make you feel a certain way.

Avoiding Your Emotional Responsibility

So why do people so frequently blame others for their emotions?

“She made me mad.”

“You really hurt my feelings.”

“That triggered me.”

Similarly, why do we invite others to avoid their own emotional responsibility?

“How did that make you feel?”

“I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”

Even our revered sages perpetuate the myth that we aren’t responsible for our feelings. Remember Maya Angelou’s famous quote?

Myth-Based Emotional Labels

And then there are all the emotion words that imply we aren’t responsible for our feelings.

Disrespected, hurt, put-upon, triggered, fazed, bothered by, humiliated, patronized, hooked.

Life happens. People do stuff. These things can definitely cause affective states and push our buttons. But your feelings belong to you. Only you. Your emotions are a result of how you interpret and interact with what happens to you and around you.

Five Steps for Emotional Responsibility

  1. It’s OK to identify how you feel, give it a name, and express it in an authentic way.
  2. Instead of looking outward for someone or something to blame, look inward and take responsibility for how you arrived at your emotion.
  3. It’s OK to confront unwanted behavior, but stop blaming others for your feelings.
  4. Eliminate myth-base emotional labels from your vocabulary.
  5. Remember, no matter what happened to you, you are 100% responsible for what you do next.

Example in scenario 1 above: “I feel anxious and worried that I will be late to the meeting today. I really want to do a good job and impress my team. What is the best next choice I can make?”

Example in scenario 2 above: “I feel relaxed and happy. I am with one of my favorite people and I’m not in a hurry. I will continue to enjoy our conversation while I wait.”

Benefits of Taking Responsibility for Your Emotions

  • Others get less defensive and are more likely to support you if you don’t blame them.
  • It helps you separate the person from the behavior, which is especially important during conflict. Trying to confront someone about behavior is hard enough already.
  • It demonstrates that you are willing to share responsibility instead of pointing fingers.
  • This is a foundational first step for developing emotional intelligence.
Copyright Next Element Consulting, LLC 2022

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Photo of Lindsey
Posted on July 24, 2023

I’m trying really hard to get behind this and it absolutely makes sense to me on paper, but in (hypothetical) practice I’m struggling to actually apply it.

For instance, and this is an extreme example but it displays the problem most succinctly, let’s say someone hits your vehicle drunk driving and your child is killed (I cautioned the example was extreme!). I think an obvious emotional response to that loss is devastating pain and intense anger. I’m really struggling to accept that I’m responsible for causing those feelings in myself.

Unless you’re a sociopath with no love for your child, I’m fairly certain there’s no way NOT to feel those emotions. The drunk driver has no responsibility for causing the pain you feel? How are your history, experience, beliefs, values etc to blame for feeling sad that some horrifically careless person has unfairly robbed someone of their life?

I realize there’s a difference between responsibility for your actions vs your emotions and that not trying to make them responsible for emotions doesn’t mean you’re absolving them from the responsibility of their actions. I understand that they will still be accountable for what they’ve done, so I’m not entangling the two, but I still just really struggle with the instincts to blame them for the emotions that have resulted. Any advice for how I can reframe this for myself?

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Nate Regier
Posted on July 25, 2023

Lindsey, I really appreciate you sharing your struggle here and posting a very thoughtful and important comment. Regarding your “extreme” example, I can’t even imagine how difficult this would be, and I know people who have been through similar tragedies.

Strong emotional responses are absolutely normal and OK. I remember feeling agony when I learned that my brother in-law, Craig, had passed away from cancer. I knew to identify the feeling as agony after reading Brene Brown’s wonderful book, Atlas of the Heart.

The drunk driver is responsible for his behaviors and the damage it caused. Cancer was responsible for taking Craig’s life. And we are responsible for our feelings. Our feelings are a combination of how we make meaning of what happens to us, much of which is out of our control. Cancer didn’t cause my agony. It was a product of how much I loved my brother in-law, all the memories I made with him, and my empathy for what this meant for his family. Hypothetically, if I had been estranged from my brother in-law, hadn’t talked to him for years, and hated how he treated his family (none of this is actually true), my response would have been much different.

Perhaps it’s more helpful in these really intense situations to recognize that while you weren’t responsible for the behaviors of the other person, you are responsible for what the story you tell yourself and what you do next. And the reality is that the strong emotions mean you care deeply. The problem with blaming others for our feelings is that it reinforces a sense of powerlessness, and it can prevent us from exploring our own stories and interpretations. It also is a backward-facing attitude, which makes it hard to build new, more healthy narratives going forward.

I hope this helps, Lindsey. And thanks again for engaging with this post.

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Marina Nocera
Posted on October 10, 2023

If you stab me I won’t take responsibility for my pain to avoid you being held accountable and the possible reactive defensiveness that it may cause.
When being disrespected, hurt, or mistreated, unless you’re clinically diagnosed with paranoia, the responsibility stands and must be held by the perpetrator of said behaviours. We will all be such in turn, so rather than pointing out how “YOU are responsible” for your own feelings, the focus should be shifted to WE don’t exist in isolation and WE are responsible for what we say and do as much as for how we react to what is said and done to us.
By pointing out hurtful behaviour you give a chance for clarification, and lay the groundwork to a deeper emotional connection that allows the other to freely express their thoughts and frustrations, as well as the opportunity to apologise when needed.

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Nate Regier
Posted on October 10, 2023

Thank you, Marina, for your contribution to this conversation. It’s so important that we don’t lose sight of behaviors as well as emotions. Owning our emotions allows us to hold others accountable for their behaviors in appropriate ways, as you outline so elegantly in the last sentence.

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