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  • Dr. Amanda Hannon

You can't clean up anyone else's emotional mess.

You are only responsible for your own emotions- no one else’s. Likewise, each other individual is responsible for their own emotions (yes, I’m using a plural pronoun here but it’s to be inclusive). Anyone who tells you otherwise is greatly mistaken, and in my opinion, doing potential harm in creating unrealistic expectations and not taking ownership of their own stuff.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not giving anyone carte blanche to behave like a complete jerk or disregard the feelings of others. I am referring to the fact that you cannot magically control another person's feelings, no more so than you can control another person's behaviors. You will be disappointed if you are operating from a mindset wherein you expect people to behave in a certain way just because this is the way that you would behave or because you believe it is simply the right thing to do. What is right for you may not be right for another person.

It may help to remember these three things about why people behave how they behave- 1) people do what they think is best (for themselves), 2) people do what they know, and 3) people do what is easy if all else fails. I have found that emotions operate in much the same way, at least in the case of number 2 and 3, people feel what they know or are comfortable with feeling and this, in turn, is what's easiest for them.

If I could start a movement, it would be to make people start taking ownership of their own emotional experiences and not to start pointing fingers, proclaiming, "You did this! You make me so _____!" {Insert whatever emotional expletive you want here}. To elaborate- You did not make me angry, I became angry through a series of conscious and unconscious decisions and historical influences deep within my psyche. Likewise, I do not make anyone feel any certain way. Each person is engaging in various psychological processes that will determine how they in turn will feel about a given situation or remark. This is based on cognition, history, association, and other factors aligning to determine an individual’s emotional experiences which are usually complex and context dependent. We author our own emotions, and all of the life happening in between provides the mechanics for why one person may become upset at an event while another individual may be able to simply shrug things off and move forward without much distress.

By having a person take responsibility for their emotional experiences I believe that two amazing things can happen: 1) the person can begin to appreciate that change and healing of emotional trauma is possible and 2) people can quit trying to blame others for their emotional spillage, a practice that I see happen far too often in family and romantic relationships. This lack of ownership is what results in shame and codependency in these close relationships, as one party tries to clean up the mess that the other party has spilled and will continue to spill because let's face it, no one is holding him or her accountable for their mess. It's the equivalent of a cat knocking over a houseplant. You know the bastard's gonna do it again. Or similar to a toddler looking right at you as he goes to push his bowl of cereal off of his high chair table. You see the grin, and he seems to know exactly what he is doing.

If you keep cleaning up these messes with the adults around you, what do you think the message received is? That they are not responsible for their own emotions; in fact, YOU are. But this is simply not the case. So stop doing all the work. Stop cleaning things up that aren't yours to clean up. Stop taking responsibility for things that aren't yours to take on. Because you aren't doing yourself or anyone else any favors. People need to be able to take ownership of their own stuff- emotions included. And I promise you have enough on your plate just dealing with your own emotions, because when was the last time these same people helped you clean up your mess?


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