How much should we hold people responsible for our emotions? And how responsible should we be for other people’s emotional responses to us? This is a question that is so often relevant in situations of bullying. Bullies often treat their victims as responsible for how the bully feels, and for what they do, while taking no responsibility for how their behaviour impacts on the other person. “You made me do it” is a really problematic thought, an act of victim blaming. Equally I’ve seen memes suggesting that no one else can make us feel anything and how we feel is totally our own responsibility and I find that unhelpful, too.
We all have feelings, and we all respond to what we encounter. We all hold responsibility for ourselves, and some degree of responsibility for how what we do impacts on others. I think the first question to ask here, is whether the person being blamed can choose to do differently. For example, if someone in your household is loud when you need to sleep, they probably don’t need to be loud and it may be fair to expect they can stop being loud. Their loudness isn’t necessary to them, your sleep is necessary to you. At the same time, your need for sleep is not something you have control over, nor is how you feel when sleep deprived.
However, sometimes we may make people responsible for things they have no power over. If I find you very attractive, and I make you responsible for that feeling and act like because of it, you owe me love, or sex, this is not ok. Whether or not you find me attractive in turn is not something you can choose. How your face is, does not make you responsible for how I feel about your face.
It is fair to ask a person to take responsibility for the feelings they cause in some contexts. If you shout abuse at a person, you are responsible for making them feel like shit, for example. It is not usually fair to make someone else responsible for how you behave in response to your feelings. If your feelings lead to violent responses for example, the violence is your responsibility, not caused by the other person. If your feelings leave you needing to act protectively, it’s worth remembering that this is your choice because if you feel like you’re just reacting, that can leave you feeling powerless.
Power and responsibility are very much linked to each other. The person who takes no responsibility will likely feel they have no power in a situation. This may encourage them to keep making other people responsible, and to be angry about how powerless they feel, without having looked at how they are giving power away. Most of the time, most of us have choices about how to respond. If you don’t, then that’s a serious red flag. If you don’t feel safe about responding by changing things so that they would be better for you, look carefully at what’s going on. If you feel so obliged to humour another person that you regularly do so at the cost of not meeting your own most basic needs, there is a problem. Not wanting to choose differently is not the same as not being able to, although we may tell ourselves otherwise.
When it comes to behaviour, you should feel free and able to choose how to react, respond and express yourself. If you feel someone else is ‘making’ you behave in certain ways, look hard at this. If they have that much power over you and you have no scope to choose, you should seek help, because that level of control is abusive. If you’re making someone else responsible for your actions because you feel like it’s their job to take your emotional backlashes and answer your every need, then the problem is you, and you may need help to change.
One way or another, if you cannot control your own behaviour in a situation, seek help, and if you cannot tell if you are the bully or the victim, get professional advice. A belief that you have no power doesn’t always mean that you are the victim. Some of the most bullying people I’ve encountered had stories about how it was other people ‘making’ them act in certain ways. It can be really convenient to cast yourself as powerless if you want to spend time hurting people. It can be an easy way to control well-meaning people, who will try harder to make you feel better every time you tell them they are responsible for what you do. It’s a hard thing to deal with, and no doubt a hard thing to see in yourself and undertake to change.
If you’re seeing this from the outside and cannot tell if a person is a victim or a perpetrator, encourage them to seek professional help – either way, they need it.