I’m a member of numerous women’s groups, and one question comes up time and time again: Someone I care about (my mother, my adult child, my husband, my brother) behaves such-and-such a way. What can I do differently to change it?
The best answer is: Nothing. You can’t change how other adults act. You can influence it, but how people behave is their decision, not yours. How they feel is their responsibility, not yours.
Really, truly. Not yours. Even if they tell you that they do what they do because of you. Even if, your whole life, they’ve expected you to take responsibility for their behavior and their emotions. It’s just not your job; it’s theirs.
But in our culture, it is so deeply ingrained in women, especially, to take on this responsibility that we don’t even realize we’re doing it, and we actually mistake other people’s emotions for our own. We think that feeling what other people feel is just part of love, part of caring for others.
Some of it does properly go along with love, and is normal and healthy. We are made to be connected to others, to care for them and to take their suffering seriously. But this sense of connection becomes an unhealthy entanglement when we can’t tell the difference between what someone else is feeling and what we’re feeling ourselves, and when we therefore assume that someone else’s anger or unhappiness is always a sign that we’ve done something wrong.
The truth is, if someone is unhappy or angry, maybe we’re doing something wrong, and maybe we’re not; but it’s very unhealthy when someone else’s sadness, anger, disgust, or distress automatically prompts us to rush around, searching for what we can change in ourselves, so their emotions and behavior will improve or at least make sense.
The problem comes when we set up our lives in such a way that other people are never left to deal with their own emotions and their own behavior, but automatically look to us to take responsibility. This is unfair to everyone concerned. It crushes the one who takes responsibility, and it stunts the one who refuses to take responsibility.
One of the great skills I’m learning in my mid 40’s is the skill of sorting out whose emotion is whose. It’s liberating, but it’s difficult, and a little bit frightening — partly because it’s new and unfamiliar, and partly because it feels a little bit forbidden or impious. When Catholics learn to become more psychologically healthy, we sometimes have the haunting feeling we’re turning our backs on our faith, or that we have to choose between emotional health and holiness…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.