How responsible are we for the feelings of others?

October 18, 2018

I’d like to publish more of my writing, and so this post is somewhat shorter and stream-of-consciousness than I’ve written before.

Today I’m discussing what we owe to each other and what we owe to ourselves. In particular, how responsible are we for the feelings of others?

One school of thought is that we are entirely responsible. In this world we are wholly responsible for how our messages are received. Another model is that we are not responsible at all: we are responsible for nothing more than our intent. These are two extremes.

I’ve experienced both of these extremes of responsibility and I think that they can be effective adaptations to toxic situations. For instance, when someone is causing regular pain and not responding to complaints, your responsibility to them must drop if you are to avoid self-blame. But I think these extremes are both toxic.

I’ve concluded that we get to choose. Part of forming and sustaining relationships is bonding and differentiation: deciding what to share and what to differ on. And part of this is deciding in what ways we will care and empathise for the other as much as for ourselves, and in which ways we will care for ourselves most.

For a long time at University I tried to treat others as I would like to be treated. But I found this gradually wore me down: a few people grew used to me being responsible for them because I was so consistent, but as other loads on me increased I struggled more with the burden. Eventually I would drop that responsibility entirely to focus on myself, with a suddenness that naturally hurt their feelings.

Black-and-white thinking is often dangerous, and this topic is no exception. To be entirely responsible for other’s feelings is to be overresponsible, and to start to consider them an extension of yourself. To be solely responsible for your own feelings is to be self-absorbed and isolated. With those friends, I didn’t accept that there are shades-of-grey to these things. I didn’t properly set boundaries, and I didn’t properly accept myself.

What I’ve been trying to do more recently is visualise how responsible I’m willing to be in each interaction, and try to separate that from how accountable I fear I might be. Being mindful of this gives me lots of useful information about what I like and dislike. It also warns me of situations which seem peaceful but where I need to be wary.

I worried when posting this. I felt I hadn’t established at the beginning how much I personally value empathy. But that makes this post an experiment in itself.