The Problem With “Taking Responsibility For Our Own Feelings”

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"Heal." CC image courtesy of Flickr, Steve Snodgrass.
“Heal.” CC image courtesy of Flickr, Steve Snodgrass.

Abuse hurts.

I know from personal experience how it makes your blood run icy-hot through your veins, how it inflames the fog of disassociation, and how crippling it can be to your ability to just get out of bed and make it through the day. 

I also know that sometimes people have compassion for those hurt by abuse. Such people want to help, want to make things be better, or want to “fix” abuse survivors so that they “work” again. One form that such well-meaning efforts takes is the “taking responsibility for your emotions” idea. This idea is usually expressed in kind, gentle, and even inspirational ways — No one can make you feel what you don’t want to feel! You have the power to be happy! You have the right to not let other people make you feel bad! It’s a warm and fuzzy combination of feel-good self-help, pop psychology, and Americanized Buddhism.

But here’s the problem: such well-meaning efforts can actually make things worse for abuse survivors, not better. And if you are wanting to be a good friend and ally to survivors, you might want to rethink this strategy. 

I am reading a book by theologian Janet Pais entitled Suffer the Children: A Theology of Liberation by a Victim of Child Abuse. Pais addresses the “taking responsibility for your emotions” idea and — I think — does a exceptional job explaining why it’s actually problematic. So I’d like to share with you an excerpt here from pages 53-4:

Current popular psychological wisdom makes a great point of saying that we must take responsibility for our own feelings. We are not to say, “You make me angry,” but, “I am angry with you.” According to this view, no one can make us feel any feeling; we rather allow them this power over us. I believe that there is a limit to the usefulness of this type of thinking. It implies that we can choose not to have undesired feelings and thus may lead to further repression.

We do need to own our feelings, but not necessarily to feel responsible for having them.

There are times, in fact, when the feelings of a person, in particular an oppressed person, truly are the responsibility of someone else. It seems appropriate, for example, for a victim of abuse to say to the abuser, “You made me hate you.” The abused person does not necessarily want or choose to hate, and the only way of not allowing the abuser this “power” would be to repress or split off the feeling, which would further injure the abused person. Still, the abused person needs to feel the hate as her or his own feeling to know what aroused it. Then the abused person can feel the feeling and let it go, not allowing it to become entrenched as an attitude.

Saying that we take responsibility for our feelings can be a way of protecting those who have injured us or of denying the reality or the significance of what has happened to us. Telling others to take responsibility for their feelings can be a way of denying that we have an impact on others and on their feelings. It makes more sense to me to speak of accepting our feelings than of taking responsibility for them.

In fact, those who abuse others are the ones who should take responsibility for the reactive feelings of their victims.

Acknowledging and embracing our feelings — and giving them the space to be — is a fundamentally important part of the healing process. This process isn’t easy; it isn’t quick; and there are no magical solutions. Sometimes it gets intense; other times it gets grating. But it does not help to suggest to wounded individuals that they are somehow to blame if other people’s hurtful actions actually cause hurt. Rather, wounded individuals need to have the right to say, “Hey, what you did to me was hurtful. You hurt me and thus it is perfectly normal and rational for me to be in pain.”

Having the power to name abuse as abuse is crucial. We need to give survivors that freedom, not guilt them for the feelings caused by their past.

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Author: R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is the Executive Director of Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out.