Dealing with challenging feelings: who is responsible for the way you feel?

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,
I knew that if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind,
I would still be in prison”
Nelson Mandela
1918 – 2013

I have been super busy in the last four weeks with a trip to Munich for one client followed by a three-week intensive project to assess the graduates of a High Potential programme for another.  I completed the first draft of the last report and sent it off for peer review just hours before my sister-in-law, Judy, arrived from South Korea for the start of her Christmas tour of family and friends.  Today, I am pausing for breath.

During this period, we heard of the death of Nelson Mandela, on Thursday, December 5th, 2013.  Mandela’s death was not unexpected and still, it touched me deeply – he was truly an elder statesman of our age.

It is not surprising that, as well as giving news of Mandela’s death, of his funeral service and of his final burial at his home town of Qunu, journalists have been reflecting on Mandela’s life.  I have repeatedly seen extracts from the speech he made in 1964 at the dock, in what became known as the Rivonia Trial.  These words have been widely quoted:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.  I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

It happened that, at much the same time, I received a question from a client who was struggling to come to terms with his feelings about an experience he had had.  He wrote:

“I’ve been telling myself that other people are not responsible for the way I feel.  Yes, the things my manager did triggered a lot of anger, but only because of the thoughts I had at the time… I felt really concerned about staying in my job under such a manager and also afraid to leave my job in this difficult economy.  One of my colleagues has told me forcefully that my manager is responsible for my feelings – what he did was completely unacceptable.  I don’t know which way to turn…”

His next question made me think of Mandela:

“I’ve been wondering, is the whole business trying to ensure we don’t take a definite stance on where change comes from?  In other words, it’s not me or my boss who has to change… instead, let’s work out a way.  And when I attribute responsibility for my feelings to someone else, I’m at risk of taking the oomph out of my own effort?”

In the midst of grappling with this question, I have particularly been struck by the number of times journalists have reported that Mandela was “without bitterness” at the end of his 26 years of imprisonment.

Are you struggling to know who’s responsible for your feelings?
This posting is for you if you, too, are grappling with difficult feelings and don’t quite know who is responsible – or how to respond.

Perhaps someone has done something that has had significant – and negative – implications for you.  At work, for example, the failure of a colleague to deliver on his commitments means that you’ve let down a key client.  You can tell your manager that it was not your fault but even that puts you in difficulty – you don’t want to be someone who points the finger and besides, you know that your manager will hear no ill of this particular colleague.  This is, of course, just one example of experiences that might be stimulating pain, anger, frustration or anxiety at work.

It happens that I’m writing this posting in the final sprint towards Christmas when many people are grappling with issues within their family.  Maybe you find it difficult to spend time with your mother, father or sibling because they still do the thing you found so difficult as a child – be it the explosive temper, the lack of empathy, the competition with you or the coldness between them… whatever it is, as you come closer to spending time with them you feel the mounting anxiety, the anger, the frustration… who says they’re not responsible for the way you feel, given everything that’s happened over the years?

Without bitterness:  the ones who forgave
Mandela chose deliberately to let go of his feelings of bitterness and hatred.  He is not the only one.

Recently, I met a man whose daughter had been murdered and yet was entirely at peace with his loss.  When he spoke of his daughter it was with gratitude for the years they had had together rather than with any sense of anger towards his daughter’s murderer.

This was all the more striking because so many parents of murdered children are quoted in the media as saying how the loss of their child has ruined their lives for ever.  Their message is clear, “This person did something which has ruined my life.”  Again and again, the implication is that this enduring sense of loss, anger and bitterness is the only option available to the bereaved.  The message is also, clearly, “you did that to me.”

And who can blame them?

At the same time, Mandela knew, when he finally left prison in 1990 that any feelings of bitterness and hatred he took with him would, in themselves, constitute a prison.  For this reason, he decided to leave them behind.
When we take responsibility for our feelings, then what?
Often, when people consider the option of taking responsibility for their own feelings, they have two main concerns.  Firstly, they have concerns about the other person – will they get away with it?  Will they do the same thing again and with a similar impact on other people?  At root, they’re concerned that taking responsibility for their own feelings lets the other person or people off the hook.  Secondly, clients can be concerned that when they let go of the idea that someone else is responsible for the way they feel, they let go of their power.
These two concerns are closely related …and entirely without foundation.
Let’s take the second concern first.  If you’re feeling anxious or frustrated at the prospect of spending time with your family at Christmas, it’s a sure sign that you don’t feel confident that your needs – whatever those needs might be – will be met.  Perhaps you know that you don’t find it easy to be around your mother-in-law when she seems to resent all the work that goes in to hosting a family gathering.  You may even have strong feelings about the fact that she chooses to host a family gathering at Christmas given that she finds it so stressful and given that you’ve repeatedly offered to host lunch yourself.
As long as you hold your mother-in-law responsible for your feelings, you’re thinking that it’s your mother-in-law who needs to make changes.
You may also be struggling to give due weight to your own needs… are you willing to say, “my needs matter” and to make choices that reflect this belief?  This is often an area of great struggle, because it comes with all sorts of fears.  In particular, there’s a fear that can come when we realise that taking responsibility for own feelings means making choices that other people may not support…
…the choice to say no to an invitation from a relative to join them for Christmas, knowing family members will struggle to accept your choice…
…the choice to share your concerns about your manager with, well, your manager – even though you have no way of knowing how he or she will respond…
…the choice to move away from grief and towards joy after the loss of a child, even though society at large finds it hard to accept that grief and joy can exist side by side…
…the choice to hurt someone’s feelings (because if they’re responsible for your feelings you must be responsible for theirs, right?) or – more challenging still – to act, knowing that someone will struggle with your actions, and knowing that whatever they believe, it is what they think about your choices and not your choices themselves, which causes such pain…
When we make these and other choices with a sincere desire to meet our own needs and a willingness to support others in meeting theirs we do, increasingly, feel the power that comes with owning our feelings.  Instead of “yes, I feel angry that you…” we start to own that “yes, I feel angry that I…”  “I feel angry that I said yes to the job he offered me, even though I knew he was unreliable”.  From this place we can learn to do something different next time.
But what about that other concern?  The concern that someone may do the same thing again and with a similar impact on other people?
The truth is they might.
…the Christmas hostess may still want to be hostess and still feel resentment about all the work involved…
…the manager, whatever his or her weaknesses, may do the same thing again and again, without learning…
. .the criminal may repeat an act of crime…
Over the years I have found that, when we have concerns about the acts of others, it’s because we care deeply for people’s well-being.
…We care deeply about our own well-being…
…We care about the well-being of people who do things that hurt themselves, or others…
…We care deeply about other people who may be treated in the way we were…
In each case, we can take action.  To do so is to stand in our own power.
We are not, though, some omnipotent god and we cannot guarantee any particular response.
Our power lies in recognising that yes, this did not (or does not) work for me.  My needs are not met.  I accept that this person did the best they know how.  I accept that, given the way I see things, I am bound to feel what I feel.  I accept it is for me to decide what I will do now.  I accept that I cannot guarantee any particular response.
And you?  What’s next for you?
From Mandela, through work, to Christmas and our loved ones, I have given examples of some of the things that challenge us most.  I wonder what’s next for you.
If you’re struggling with difficult emotions, here’s my invitation to you… notice them, welcome them, own them.  What’s the emotion?  What’s stimulating that emotion in you?  What need are you yearning to meet?
And insofar as you know that it’s for you (and for nobody else) to honour your need and to do what you can to meet it, what one thing would you like to do next?
Perhaps there’s something you can easily do that will give you much greater ease as the year draws to a close.  Perhaps this line of questions opens up something much bigger for you.
Either way, lovingly, gently, I leave the responsibility for your feelings with you.

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