Other people’s feelings do not fall entirely on your shoulders. Here’s how to become more emotionally responsible.
Have you ever been in a really bad fight, maybe with a partner, and had them tell you that you’re making them “miserable”? Or have you ever felt guilty or blamed for how someone else is feeling sometimes?
If you have, you’re not alone. This is a common occurrence in unhealthy relationships or “codependent” relationships.
But here’s the thing: you are not responsible for other people’s feelings, just like they are not responsible for yours. The only feelings you have full control over are your own. This is called emotional responsibility.
In essence, being responsible for your feelings (and only yours) is about switching a pattern of belief.
If you or someone else tries to blame or guilt-trip someone else for how you’re feeling right now, that is called “emotional projection.”
You are projecting something you don’t like about yourself (such as an impulse to anger) or an uncomfortable feeling (such as shame) onto someone else as a way of not feeling bad about yourself and your behavior.
In other words, instead of saying, “I am responsible for how I’m feeling right now,” you’re deflecting and saying “you are responsible for how I feel.” This can lead to guilt-tripping, gaslighting, and some pretty heated arguments.
But if you project your emotions onto someone else, you can cause real harm to yourself and others — something you probably already know if you’ve been on the receiving end of someone saying “you make me miserable” in a fight.
It can lead to some pretty unhealthy relationship patterns, including insecure attachment patterns, allowing resentment, bitterness, or bullying to develop in a relationship. It can also take a toll on your mental health because, subconsciously, you may begin to view your world as filled with people you blame for your feelings.
It’s natural to not want to feel bad about yourself or like everything is your fault. That’s why emotional projection is considered a “defense mechanism” — you might not even be fully aware you’re doing it but, subconsciously, your mind is looking for anyone else to blame but yourself.
And it’s a defense mechanism
But if you want to change your circumstances and build healthier relationships, becoming more emotionally responsible can go a long way. Here are some tips for getting better at it:
Recognize that you can’t really change other people
Think about the last time you tried to change someone else’s opinion about something, like their political beliefs. Did it work?
At the end of the day, we have very limited control over other people’s behavior, feelings, and beliefs. And when you try to change someone else, you’ll likely end up frustrated or in an argument. So if you want to become more emotionally responsible, try to spend less time focused on others or changing how others feel.
This can help you stop blaming yourself or feeling guilty when your partner is in a bad mood—and help you disengage from an argument.
Make “I” Statements
It’s OK to tell your partner what you need or that certain things they do upset you. But if you’re being emotionally responsible, you will state your feelings in a non-blaming way.
And what’s the easiest way to not blame? Try using “I” statements, such as “I feel sad when you’re late.”
State your needs
No one is a mind-reader, so expecting other people in our life to “know” what we need is a sure way to set ourselves up for disappointment. It’s a common way misunderstandings happen in relationships.
Instead, tell your partner or friend what you need from them. For example, if your partner is going on a work trip and tends not to call you often while they’re away, you could say, “I worry about you when you’re traveling. Would you send me a text or give me a call when your plane lands and check in from time to time?”
Focus on your own actions
Of course, what we do and say can affect or hurt others. So rather than try to change someone else, focus on your own behavior.
In other words, if you’re upset with your partner because they forgot to do the dishes, it’s OK to tell them how you’re feeling, but try not to use this as an excuse to attack them for everything or say that the dirty dishes are the sole reason you’re unhappy.
And while you can’t make your partner excited to do the dishes, if you, for instance, show up for them in other ways by helping out when they’re busy, maybe you’ll lead by example, and they’ll want to be a more considerate partner to you.
Challenge your own thoughts
People can upset us with their actions. For example, if your friend is late to your lunch appointment, you’re not in the wrong about being frustrated.
But if you find yourself thinking, “this is why I’m always having a bad day: no one is reliable,” or blaming all your feelings on this one event, ask yourself: “Is that really true?“ and “Am I being fair?”
In other words, consider whether your reaction to a situation is in proportion to reality and whether someone truly deserves as much blame for your negative emotions as you may be casting. Try to be as objective as possible when assessing a situation and your feelings, so you don’t allow your emotions to become even more heated.
Take responsibility if you harm someone else
If you mess up, take responsibility for it. For example, if you forget a friend’s birthday or snap at a loved one when you’re feeling stressed, don’t deflect with a bunch of excuses.
Instead, try to take a minute to stop and apologize. If you need to take a few deep breaths or a walk around the block to calm down, that’s OK too.
But when you accept responsibility for your behavior, it becomes easier to take responsibility for your feelings too. As a result, you can develop better coping skills for your emotions through emotional regulation.
Focus on self-care
Emotional projection is often a coping mechanism that we use when we’re feeling stressed, lonely, or overwhelmed. So if you want to get better at becoming emotionally responsible, a good step in the right direction is taking care of yourself.
This means making sure you’re eating regularly, getting a little exercise—like a walk through the park—and taking care of your basic needs. But it also means taking the time to do things that bring you joy, such as making time for a hobby you love or making plans to do something fun.
Distance yourself from harmful people
As we noted, it’s hard to change other people, especially if they don’t want to or don’t think they are doing something wrong. This means that if someone is always blaming you for their feelings, in all likelihood, you won’t be able to stop them from doing so, even if you become more emotionally responsible yourself.
This type of behavior can also be a form of emotional abuse.
If you’re finding it hard not to feel blamed or responsible for someone else’s feelings, therefore, consider taking a break from that person or putting some distance between you and them. This can help you protect yourself and focus on your own well-being.
Remember it’s okay to ask for help
If you’re struggling to break cycles and become more emotionally responsible, remember that you don’t have to go through this alone. A therapist might be able to help you identify when you’re being defensive, deflecting blame, or not being emotionally responsible. They can then help guide you to work to change those perceptions.
A therapist can also work with you to help you become more comfortable with your feelings, which, in turn, can help make it easier for you not to blame others.
If you need help finding a therapist, check out our guide to finding mental health care.
You’re not responsible for other people’s feelings, only your own. Of course, it’s natural to empathize with others who are sad or upset. In fact, it’s a good thing. However, try to remember that someone else’s feelings are not always yours to take care of, just like it’s not someone else’s sole responsibility to manage your strong emotions.
You can do things to become more emotionally responsive, so if you notice yourself deflecting blame, you might want to consider practicing this change in mentality. But remember, if you’re struggling or don’t know where to begin, a therapist might be able to help too.