- Alexandra Tyler LCSW, CCH
Healthy Poly Relationships Series Part 3: Taking Too Much Responsibility for the Actions and Emotion
In my last article, we looked at an example where Rob was feeling anxious and angry about Julie’s other relationship and we determined that Julie was acting within her rights and Rob was (whether consciously or unconsciously) trying to make Julie responsible for his pain and trying to get her to take action to “fix” his emotions for him.
In our first telling of this story, Julie gently confronts Rob. Rob admits he is asking for something outside of his rights. Julie sticks to her guns and says she doesn’t want to break off her other relationship. And, Rob begins examining his thoughts and feelings and taking responsibility for finding his own emotional peace.
But with many couples, the same scenario would take a different turn, because Julie would never confront Rob with his behavior, or with how hurt or controlled she might feel in response to his demands for accomodation.
In many real life couples, Julie might be a person who “takes too much responsibility for the feelings and emotions of others.”
In Mark Manson’s article, “The Guide to Strong Boundaries,” he says that people with poor boundaries fall into two groups, “those who take too much responsibility for the actions and emotions of others, and those who don’t take enough responsibility for their own actions and emotions.” He says that both groups of people have poor boundaries because they think this is the way to feel loved and appreciated.
I only partly agree with Mark Manson’s conclusions about motivations. I believe the person who doesn’t take responsibility for their own emotions can have many possible motivations. Sometimes they are trying to feel loved and they believe the “proof” is when someone is willing to sacrifice their own emotions, rights and happiness for them. Other times, they are anxious people who only feel comfortable when they are in control. And still other times, they simply feel entitled to be the person in control and when anyone else tries to assert their rights, this is seen as a threat that must be quashed. I will address these behaviors later in the series.
The person who takes too much responsibility for the feelings of others is often motivated by:
believing they have to sacrifice themselves for others in order to think of themselves (or be thought of by others) as a good person,
out of a fear of rejection and fear of losing love if they assert their needs, wants and rights
or, out of a desire to avoid conflict, arguments, or the emotional meltdown of the other person.
There is a strong traditional cultural component for the first two beliefs, especially for women and especially in the South. To be a good wife or mother, women are told they must put their desires, and goals, and needs, absolutely last. Anything else is "selfish." There is also a traditional cultural component for men, but it tends to coalesce around sacrificing what he really wants in order to be a breadwinner, and feeling responsible for financially supporting others.
But, all people can be conditioned to take on the responsibility for other people’s emotions, especially if they have been raised by emotionally unstable or immature adults.
Imagine the child who expresses a normal childhood desire for a new game. If the parent can’t afford the game, a healthy response would be to validate the child’s desire for the game, “That sounds like a great game Todd, I totally understand why you would want that.” And then, “I wish I could afford to get it for you, but I can’t. Let’s talk about ways you can earn the money and buy it for yourself.”
The child may feel disappointed, but we all need the opportunities to learn how to cope with disappointment.
An emotionally unstable or immature parent might feel immediately ashamed or angry that they can’t afford the game and lash out at the child, making the child responsible for the parent’s feelings. “I can’t believe you would ask me for that when you know how little money we have! Are you trying to kill me with your constant wants? It’s like you don’t care how hard I work just to feed you. You are so selfish!”
This response is likely to induce feelings of shame in the child, and teaches children that they will be seen as bad and selfish if they want things. It even teaches that expressing their wants actively hurts their parent.
This child will likely grow up feeling apologetic about expressing their wants, or needs, and they are unlikely to have a clear concept of having personal rights, or of healthy boundaries.
So, let’s imagine Julie is one of these people. When Rob expresses his pain, Julie might feel immediately guilty. She might take responsibility for Rob’s feelings so fast that he doesn’t even have to suggest she break off her relationship with Bill. Julie might quickly volunteer it!
Many people have such a strong, painful emotional response when their partner feels any pain or discomfort that they jump to accommodate in order to relieve their OWN pain!
Others try to stand up for themselves, but find themselves getting quickly confused as their partner justifies and rationalizes why they should be accommodated.
Even after a healthy childhood, a person can be conditioned in adulthood to over accommodate others, if they find themselves for any length of time in a relationship with someone who tends to not take responsibility for their own emotions or is mentally, emotionally or physically abusive.
So, what can a person do to begin identifying their boundaries and defending them?
Just like Rob in the last article, Julie has her own work to do. She needs to take some time to think and explore her thoughts and beliefs. She may ask herself, “When Rob expressed his anxiety and anger, I felt immediately guilty and ashamed. Why?” And she may realize that her next thought was, “It was selfish of me to want something that would make him unhappy.” Or, she might hear cultural messages in her mind saying, “A good wife puts her husband’s needs first.”
Challenging these beliefs can be difficult and the more deeply ingrained they are, the more difficult it is to change them. Also, the amount of resistance from the partner or other person increases the difficulty. Often, professional help is needed. But some tools that can be helpful, even outside of therapy are:
Identify your wants and needs independent of other people’s wants and needs. You may need to imagine that other people will happily accept your wants and needs and give no resistance before you can identify them.
Try imagining the same scenario but replace you and your partner with two other people in you imagination. Reimagine the whole scene using these other people. But all the same dialogue and actions. Often, by doing this, you will have a different emotional response. Something like “She shouldn’t have to put up with that!” Then ask yourself, “Why do I afford this other person more rights, more autonomy, and more humanity, than I allow myself in the same situation?”
If you identify cultural components to your deeply ingrained thoughts, read extensively on the opposite view. For example, both men and women can benefit from reading gender studies material on equality in relationships.
Join support groups and discussion groups of other people with similar struggles.
Journal daily about when you feel you are accommodating others and you don’t want to, and what you might do differently if you felt stronger, braver or more independent.
Start standing up for yourself, maybe in smaller ways at first, and make note of what responses you get, what works, what doesn’t, and how good it feels to succeed, even in small things.
If you are not standing up for yourself because you are avoiding conflict with the other person (or the emotional meltdown) that happens when you do, then your programming and feelings of guilt or anxiety are only part of the problem. The other part is the controlling effect those conflicts and meltdowns have on you (and would probably have on most people.) Giving in to controlling behavior is oppressive and does damage to yourself. Calling the other person on their controlling behavior or no longer giving in to their controlling behavior will be an important part of standing up for yourself. Read about controlling behaviors. This one is about the controlling effect of meltdowns. This one is about the controlling effects of anger. Join support groups in person or online. Or seek professional support.
But, what about healthy compromise? What if you know your rights. The other person is acknowledging your rights. You don’t feel guilty, anxious, or obligated, and out of love, or compassion, you simply WANT to accommodate the other person?
I will address healthy compromise in the next article!
(c) 2018, Alexandra Tyler, All Rights Reserved
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