Avoid These 4 Myths: How to Take Responsibility for Your Emotions
Emotional responsibility is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence. Emotionally intelligent people understand their own emotions and emotional experiences, are able to articulate and express them authentically, and manage their responses in an appropriate and accountable way.
How do you know if someone isn’t taking responsibility for their emotions? Consider these phrases:
- “You embarrassed me.”
- “He really made me angry.”
- “That triggered me.”
- “You disappointed us.”
- “That hurt me.”
- “How did that make you feel?”
- “You made us proud.”
The Four Myths That Undermine Emotional Responsibility
All of these statements about feelings contain one of the four Myths, originally discovered by Dr. Taibi Kahler, renowned clinical psychologist and developer of the Process Communication Model. Recognizing the falsehood in these statements can help you take responsibility for your emotions.
I can make you feel good emotionally
You can make me feel good emotionally.
I can make you feel bad emotionally.
You can make me feel bad emotionally.
Myths are unconscious false beliefs that we cling to as survival or defense mechanisms. Myths help us feel justified but they don’t promote healthy, adaptive behavior. Especially when it comes to emotions.
Emotions are a product of how we interpret and make meaning of what happens to us and around us. For example, I might be excited to meet one of my favorite authors at a presentation and book signing. I really admire this author and want to be seen as someone who reads and implements the concepts they write about; a legitimate enthusiast, not just a celebrity fan.
Let’s say I’m in the book signing line with a work friend. When it’s our turn to talk to the author, I freeze with anxiety. I don’t know what to say. I sheepishly hand the author my book, and my friend laughs and says, “Wow, Nate, you’ve been waiting all year for this, just tell him what you’ve been rehearsing with me.” The author kindly smiles and signs my book. I have no words. We leave the table and I can feel my flushed face, burning heat rising up my neck.
Once we are at a safe distance I say to my friend, “I can’t believe you embarrassed me like that!”
The truth is that my friend didn’t embarrass me. This doesn’t mean I’m not embarrassed. Embarrassment is a totally natural and appropriate emotion in a situation like this. But my friend isn’t responsible for it. My embarrassment is a product of the story I told myself about what happened. Sure, my friend’s behavior was inappropriate and insensitive. That’s not OK, and we’ll get to that in a bit. We don’t have personal narrators, you have to be the voice of your story, telling your story is one way to take responsibility for your emotions.
When it comes to emotions, the only story that matters is the story I tell myself. My emotions are a product of everything I bring into a situation, coupled with what happened to me. My emotions are mine. Only mine.
In my response to my friend I failed to take any responsibility for my story. My admiration for this author and my need to be seen as legitimate are all about me. These two things, in the context of my friend’s comments, certainly invited my feelings of embarrassment. A different person or a different story could have led to a very different feeling.
When learning how to take responsibility for your emotions, myths invite us to believe that someone or something else is responsible for our emotions, and therefore, we bear less responsibility for how we respond. This creates perfect conditions for drama. Drama loves to export emotions, blame others for our emotions, or even try to control others’ emotions. That’s because emotions are such strong drivers of behavior.
Myths Are a Powerful Manipulation and Control Tactic
Myths open the door for us to justify irresponsible and hurtful behavior. Do you use myths to place the responsibility for your emotions on someone or something else?
- “I can’t believe you embarrassed me like that!” = My self-esteem is dependent on your behavior.
- “He really made me angry.” = He deserves whatever I do next.
- “That triggered me.” = I’m justified in blaming you for my reaction.
- “You disappointed us.” = Hopefully shame will motivate you to step up.
- “That hurt me.” = I’m only valuable if you accept me.
- “How did that make you feel?” = You aren’t in charge of your own feelings.
- “You made us proud.” = We can love or reject you based on your performance.
Myths are the fuel for drama because it moves us further away from personal responsibility, accountability, and authenticity.
How To Take Responsibility for Your Emotions
Step 1: Develop Emotional Literacy
Taking responsibility for your emotions starts with emotional literacy. Learning to identify, name, and understand your emotions is step one. A great resource for this is Brene Brown’s book, Atlas of the Heart:Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. I highly recommend it as a way to build emotional literacy.
Here’s an example using the previous statements.
- “I can’t believe you embarrassed me like that!” = I’m really embarrassed
- “He really made me angry.” = I feel angry
- “That triggered me.” = I felt really defensive
- “You disappointed us.” = I feel discouraged
- “That hurt me.” = I feel insignificant
- “How did that make you feel?” = How are you feeling right now?
- “You made us proud.” = I feel so proud
Simply owning your feeling by saying, “I feel…” is great first step on how to take responsibility for your emotions. Sometimes it’s hard to identify the feeling, though. Most adults have a very limited emotions vocabulary. We use the same few words every day, and put everything into a few simple categories. This results in a limited and predictable reaction to every situation. This leads to us repeating the same patterns over and over, even if we don’t like the outcome.
Emotional literacy helps you appreciate the nuance of your inner world, expand your emotional vocabulary, and assists in learning how to take responsibility for your emotions.
Even though I’m a clinical psychologist by background, and do this work every day with clients, I was surprised by how much I learned while exploring 87 different human emotions and experiences described in Atlas of the Heart. It helped me remember and understand past experiences in richer detail. It’s helping me appreciate what I’m experiencing each day with more clarity. It’s helping me own my own story.
Step 2: Know and Own Your Story
Your emotions are tied to your story. Everything from your values to your past experiences, your wants and needs to your goals for the future all play into your story. When something happens to you, what story do you tell yourself that leads to the emotion you experience? With the book author example, the story I told myself was, “I need to be seen as legitimate by this author that I admire, so therefore I must say the right thing in front of him.”
Here are some possible stories that go with the previous examples.
- “I can’t believe you embarrassed me like that!” = I’m really embarrassed. I wanted to be seen as legitimate by the author and I’m worried he thought I was a mess.
- “He really made me angry.” = I feel angry. I wanted to be included in the brainstorming session because I had some ideas I was really excited about.
- “That triggered me.” = I felt really defensive. I interpreted your comments to mean that I’m stupid and I want to defend myself.
- “You disappointed us.” = I feel discouraged. I was so excited to go to the concert and assumed you had purchased the tickets.
- “That hurt me.” = I feel insignificant. I wanted so much to be accepted by our new friends.
- “You made us proud.” = I feel so proud. We’ve all invested so much and I get great joy in seeing you succeed.
What’s your story? Most of us have a fundamental story that connects us to our most authentic self. Among these six emotional motives for authenticity, which one hits closest to home for you? How do you normally respond? How could you take responsibility for your emotions going forward?
Step 3: Separate the emotion from the behavior, but don’t ignore it
Let me be crystal clear. Behavior matters, and some behaviors are simply not OK and should be addressed. Rejecting myths about emotions doesn’t mean I let the behavior slide. In fact, when you know how to take responsibility for your emotions, you know how to take accountability for behavior, yours and theirs.
I owe it to myself and my friend to confront the behavior. If I want a different outcome next time, I can change my story, work with my friend to change his behavior, or both. If I cling to my myth, nothing will change. Part of taking responsibility for your emotions is understanding that nothing can change until you decide to take charge of your narrative.
If you take responsibility for your emotions, then you must also take responsibility for your behavior. Here’s how it might look.
- “I can’t believe you embarrassed me like that!” = I’m really embarrassed. I wanted to be seen as legitimate by the author and I’m worried he thought I was a mess. I didn’t appreciate your comments when I froze earlier. I would have preferred support, or at least not calling me out in front of him.
- “He really made me angry.” = I feel angry. I wanted to be included in the brainstorming session because I had some ideas I was really excited about. Is there a reason you didn’t include me? Can we talk about that?
- “That triggered me.” = I felt really defensive. I interpreted your comments to mean that I’m stupid. Was that your intention? It’s important that my ideas are taken seriously, even if you don’t agree.
- “You disappointed us.” = I feel discouraged. I was so excited to go to the concert and assumed you had purchased the tickets. Where did things break down and how can we fix it?
- “That hurt me.” = I feel insignificant. I wanted so much to be accepted by our new friends. In the future will you please refrain from sharing personal things like that without talking to me first?
- “You made us proud.” = I feel so proud. We’ve all invested so much and I get great joy in seeing you succeed. What’s next for you?
Can you relate to any of these examples? How do you feel when you anticipate trying these three steps on how to take responsibility for your emotions? Do you feel anxious? Afraid? Hopeful? Worried? Vulnerable?
That’s OK. In almost every example I’ve shared, when taking responsibility for your emotions, conflict is involved. This is often scary and vulnerable. That’s OK too. Positive conflict is one of the most important ingredients in any thriving relationship. Want to learn how to take responsibility for your emotions? Try these three steps on your journey to taking responsibility for your emotions and watch things change for the better.
Copyright Next Element Consulting LLC, 2022
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