Taking Responsibility For Our Feelings

Street musician in Amsterdam
Street musician in Amsterdam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I dropped a bit of a bomb in my recent post on hurt feelings on the Internet when I wrote, "I am not saying this to be mean, but I am not responsible for how another adult feels." Because some will find this important truth to be counter-intuitive, it deserves elaboration. After explaining what I mean, I'd like to address a couple of the more common objections and then take a brief look at some of the implications this has for how we interact with one another in the online atheist community.

Who is Responsible For How You Feel?

You and you alone are responsible for how you feel. Nobody else can make you feel sad, angry, upset, or anything else without your agreement. I know we sometimes talk as if other people cause our feelings, but this is misleading.

If you insult me, I may experience feelings of sadness. My feelings are based on my understanding of our interaction and are guided by the whole of my personality and life experience. If I care what you think of me, I may feel sad; if I do not, I may not feel much of anything. It is not your insult that leads to my feelings; it is my interpretation of your insult, the meaning I assign to it, and the manner in which I put it in context. That is, how I feel following your insult is far more about me than it is about you.

You have all interacted with rude or disagreeable people. Sometimes you experienced hurt feelings during such an interaction, and other times you did not. The difference lies in the meaning you ascribe to the other party's behavior. When you father tells you that you are stupid, you may experience hurt feelings because you assign great relevance to what he thinks of you. When the homeless person on the street tells you that you are stupid, you probably blow it off easily because you assign little if any relevance to what he or she thinks of you.

Every one of us knows people in our lives who we would describe as overly sensitive. They seem to take offense over virtually everything, and their emotional reactions are disproportionately intense. We all know someone like this. They are not bad people, and there is nothing necessarily wrong with being one. However, heightened interpersonal sensitivity can be a liability at times. Some of these individuals go through their lives battling chronic depression or feeling perpetually dissatisfied in their relationships. They should serve as a potent reminder that strong negative feelings are more about the person experiencing them than others in the person's social environment.

So who is responsible for how you feel? You are. Nobody else can take responsibility for your feelings, and you cannot take responsibility for anyone else's feelings.

Doesn't This Excuse Bad Behavior?

Some will object that taking responsibility for our feelings lets others off the hook, giving them a license to behave badly. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Just as we and we alone are responsible for our feelings, we and we alone are responsible for our behavior. Someone who behaves poorly is responsible for his or her poor behavior. The fact that we are responsible for our feelings in no way reduces the responsibility such an individual has for his or her own behavior.

If I call you a series of juvenile names on the Internet and you experience hurt feelings, you are responsible for how you feel and whether you take offense. But I am responsible for my behavior. Your responsibility for your feelings in no way gives me a pass to behave badly. It is nothing behind which I can hide. How you feel is on you, but how I have behaved is on me and nobody else.

Perhaps you are overly sensitive and have poor distress tolerance. Fine. But if I am being an asshole, your oversensitivity does not make me any less of an asshole.

Isn't This Just Blaming the Victim?

Some will object that my pointing out that we and we alone are responsible for our feelings is a form of victim-blaming. By saying that the target of an insult is responsible for his or her hurt feelings, they say, I am blaming them for their hurt feelings rather than the person delivering the insult. While it is true that the person with the hurt feelings is responsible for how he or she is feeling, this in no way minimizes the responsibility of the person who did the insulting for his or her behavior. The victim is responsible for his or her own emotional reactions but not for the behavior of the person doing the insulting.

What seems to drive at least some of the misplaced concern about victim-blaming is that accepting responsibility for one's feelings can make it more difficult to use claims of hurt feelings as a means of influencing others. What do I mean? If I take responsibility for my feelings, it becomes much harder for me to angrily demand apologies for my hurt feelings. I cannot reasonably insist, "But you hurt my feelings" and expect to be treated differently as a result. So while this is not victim-blaming, it may be resisted by those who have found that offense taking can be a tool for manipulating others.

Implications for the Online Atheist Community

I'll offer the following suggestions with the goal of helping us elevate our level of discourse and avoid the sort of petty squabbles that may do damage when prolonged:

  1. Recognize that we all have different thresholds for experiencing negative feelings. Some people are overly sensitive. This does not make them bad people, but it can be a liability at times.
  2. When we experience the sting of hurt feelings, we should stop and ask ourselves why we are feeling this way. Why do we care so much about what this person thinks of us? What is it about what this person said that we are finding so personally relevant? In short, we must look inward to understand our feelings.
  3. We should be extremely cautious about using our hurt feelings as the sole basis for evaluating someone else's behavior. Strong emotional reactions almost always reveal far more about us than the other party.
  4. If we find ourselves frequently experiencing strong negative feelings when online, we should make a point of taking some time away from the Internet. If we discover that this is a problem for us in other aspects of our lives as well, we might consider professional assistance.
  5. When we encounter bad behavior, we should criticize it using descriptive terms rather than making it about how we feel. Apart from our feelings, what is it about the behavior that is objectionable?
  6. Accusations of [insert noun of your choice here]-shaming are rarely helpful because nobody else has the power to make us feel shame unless we give it to them.
When we use the Internet to read blogs, watch videos, or interact with others, we are making the choice to do so. And in making this choice, we are allocating time away from other "real world" activities to spend time online. If we find that we are spending much of our online lives feeling outraged or offended, it might not hurt to re-evaluate why we are doing this to ourselves and whether there might be better ways of spending our time.