The Power of Owning Your Feelings (And No-One Else's)

Every once in a while I read a book that literally changes my life. Usually the feeling as I'm burning through the chapters is "Of course!! why didn't anybody tell me this before?!?!". Profound truth seems obvious in hindsight.

Last week I finished one such life-changing book: Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg.  Rosenberg is an intense dude, and he's devoted his life to changing the words we humans use to communicate.  An hour spent watching him on YouTube is an hour well spent.

One life-changing idea I love from the book is that we alone are responsible for our feelings. This means:

  • Any feelings I have are my responsibility, and
  • Any feelings anybody else has are their responsibility.

I've been playing with this idea for the last few years, but Rosenberg's book really hammered it home. The "Aha" moment was to realize that while people experience feelings following a stimulus, the stimulus does not cause the feelings.

To see this idea in action, imagine the following: I'm in a room with the Dalai Lama, President Obama, and Lance Armstrong. Depending on what I say, all three are likely to experience wildly divergent feelings. If I call all three of them cheaters for doping at the Tour de France, Lance might feel angry, while the Dalai Lama and President are likely to be unphased. Similarly, If I start badmouthing Obamacare, the president is likely to get riled, while Lance and the Dalai Lama will be unphased. In each case the external stimulus is the same, but the emotional result inside each person is different.

Another variant is to think about how you might react to badly stubbing your toe on a sidewalk after a great day where everything went perfectly, and alternatively after a horrible day where everything went terribly. In the former case I'd probably shrug off the toe-stubbing without another thought, but in the latter case I'd probably get really angry, yell at the sidewalk, then fume for a couple hours. Identical external stimulus yet wildly divergent feelings.

Thought experiments like these make it clear that it's impossible to "make" anyone feel a certain way. Feelings come from within.

This idea is so deliciously obvious in hindsight, and it's also exactly the opposite of what I was taught. For most of my life I've been told that

  • I could blame my feelings on other people, and
  • My actions could "make" other people feel things.

Throughout my life I've believed that my girlfriends could make me feel happy, angry or sad with their words. I believed that my family could make me feel guilty for not calling them. I believed that my teachers and bosses could make me feel happy or sad with their feedback. And worst of all, I believed that anger, sadness or frustration in others could be my fault. Looking back, these beliefs are a bunch of baloney! they limit personal responsibility, personal growth and self-expression.

And yet these beliefs prevail in our culture: that it's possible for people to cause emotions in other people.

How many times have we all heard ourselves or other people say:

  • "..when you said that it made me feel ..." or
  • "...I'm mad because you.." or
  • " makes mommy sad when you..." or
  • " really hurt me when you...". 

Sentences like these are all over TV and popular culture. We hear them all the time.

What Rosenberg points out is that our violent world is largely a result of people blaming their feelings on others. And he says that taking responsibility for our feelings will produce a world conducive to human happiness. Here's why I agree with him:

  1. Feelings are a phenomenon I experience based on my values and in response to external stimuli. Since my values are internal to me alone, my feelings are valuable signposts that tell me how to live in harmony with my values. People living in harmony with their values are happy and peaceful (think Dalai Lama, Gandhi). People unaware of their values are confused and often violent (think George W. Bush). This is a powerful reason to get interested in my feelings rather than blame them on someone else.
  2. If my feelings exist to guide me towards happiness, placing the blame for my feelings on someone else robs me of the opportunity to learn from them.
  3. Placing blame for unpleasant feelings outside myself is a way to justify punishment of others for what I'm feeling. This is scary since it is the mechanism that results in war, murder, rape, abuse and everything else wrong with how humans treat each other.
  4. Placing credit for pleasant feelings outside myself makes me dependent on other people to be happy. Not a good place to be.

So given this, I've decided to own my feelings and my feelings alone! I'm excited about this because:

i) Now when I'm in a disagreement I can focus on what I'm feeling and what it might mean for my life instead of focusing on blaming other people for my feelings. I've found this SOOO much more productive and useful than blaming other people for what I'm feeling.

Example: Right now Kati is mad and doesn't wand to hang out with me. Instead of blaming her for being mad at me ("why can't you let go of your anger?! it makes me feel bad when you're angry at me!"), which would have gotten me exactly nowhere, I'm instead looking inside myself at what I'm feeling. I discovered that I'm feeling sad because I was hoping to spend a nice Sunday with her. So instead of being mad, I'm just owning my sadness and being authentic about missing Kati's company, and giving Kati time to deal with what she's feeling. Much better than being in a dramatic fight!

ii) Once I stop blaming my feelings on another person, it gives me all kinds of space to get curious about what the other person is feeling, and have compassion and empathy for what they are going through. So instead of blaming Kati, I can empathize with her which feels much better.

iii) I've spent too much valuable time and energy feeling guilty for how I "made" someone else feel. I'm no longer going to let myself feel guilty for what other people are feeling. This is going to free up a TON of valuable brain dollars that I can devote to things that bring me joy.  I'll still be mindful and considerate of other people's feelings, but I'm not going to blame myself and feel guilty anymore for the internal reactions of other people. Whew! what a relief.

iv) Since myself and myself alone is responsible for my happiness, taking responsibility for my feelings helps me get intimately in touch with what I can do that will make ME happy. It's been an intense couple days as I delve into how I feel about each part of my life.

v) Taking responsibility for my feelings has made me much more interested in them! Where before there was anger and blame, now I have unexplored territory. Fun!

So I'd like to thank you Marshall Rosenberg, I feel happy and excited about the new possibilities your book has opened up for me in my life :)

More about feelings and non-violent communication: How To Use The Words "I Feel" To Create Beauty Or Destruction

Inner GameWill Sacks