Taking Responsibility for your Emotions

When I see friends, couples in relationships, or parents and children fighting, I rarely witness any honesty or vulnerability. When someone does talk about how they feel, this is usually under the thinly veiled guise of an attack, violating one of the first rules of Nonviolent Communication.

A common example might be, “You made me feel angry because you said _______”.

Jumping to conclusions and placing the responsibility for your feelings on someone else is a quick and effective way of shutting down any kind of honest communication. It’s entirely possible that the feelings are coming from a past traumatic situation that is being triggered, but when blame comes into the conversation, the person being blamed feels anger and gets defensive, and a conversation that has the potential for curiosity and exploration quickly deteriorates into a fight.

A much more honest and productive approach would be to say,

“I feel angry and I’m not sure why.”

Blame and defensiveness is immediately supplanted with curiosity, assuming the other person cares enough to ask.

When it comes to parents who place the responsibility for their emotions with their children, this is a particularly scary predicament for the child. To a child, a parent needs to be a guide and someone who is in control of the situation. When a child is told that they are now responsible for the parent’s behavior and emotional state, this is terrifying.

To paraphrase Molyneux, it’s like telling an untrained passenger on a jet that both the pilots are gone and that they must now stabilize and land the plane themselves. For a child, this kind of pressure is simply too much, and incredibly irresponsible of the parents.

An example

Upon seeing his wife come home drunk, Alex might respond with curiosity and ask her what happened and why she was drinking. Yet when Ben’s wife returns home drunk, he might feel scared and anxious after being triggered for feelings and memories of his mother drinking and turning violent.

In both situations, the stimulus is the same. Yet it’s quite clear that two husbands may react very differently to the same situation depending on their past traumatic experiences, and also on whether they’ve processed and resolved the emotions or chosen to bury them deep inside.

Connection and intimacy in relationships requires honesty and vulnerability, and that means not blaming the other person for your emotional response, and being open and curious about why you felt the way you did.

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