Taking responsibility for our…

…feelings and the needs behind them.

From Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication:
In the course of developing emotional responsibility, most of us experience three stages:
(1) “emotional slavery” – believing ourselves responsible for the feelings of others,
(2) “the obnoxious stage” – in which we refuse to admit to caring what anyone else feels or needs, and
(3) “emotional liberation” – in which we accept full responsibility for our own feelings but not the feelings of others, while being aware that we can never meet our own needs at the expense of others.

An important point from Nonviolent Communication is that we have to learn to take responsibility for our own feelings, and to NOT take responsibility for the feelings of others. Of course, this is very difficult for people who grew up with parents who didn’t take responsibility for their own feelings (and actions); the patterns get set early. I suspect this is one of the foundations of Al-Anon and other similar organisations: learning how to distinguish between our own feelings and needs and others’, and then figuring out what we’re responsible for and what we can’t control.

The evolution, as Rosenberg describes it, goes through three stages, which could correspond to levels of maturity. To some degree, most of us would like to manage others’ feelings, to make them happy, or assuage their anger or sadness or other difficult emotion. The confusion comes when the desire to placate or please becomes our primary approach to others and we don’t see that how others feel may have very little to do with our actions. This is particularly difficult for people who have family members with mental or emotional dysfunction; it’s very hard to find that shifting line between doing what one can and seeing others as having their own individual karma and responsibility.

It can happen that when we see that we’ve been trying too hard to please, we swing in the opposite direction and see only our own needs and desires. This “obnoxious stage” can be very short, or it can be seen as one of the storms of adolescence, or it can settle in for a long stay. The important thing is to know in which stage we, and those in our immediate circle of care, stand, and to understand that we can train ourselves, and so move towards the third stage.

In the third stage, “emotional liberation”, we understand that we are only responsible for our own feelings and needs, but that we are connected with each other in such a way that the fulfilment of our needs cannot be at the expense of someone else’s. This could be a definition of emotional maturity; it is essentially the opposite of blaming others for whatever we feel is not right.

Most of us have some mix of all three stages. To aspire to “emotional liberation” is not so different from aspiring to spiritual liberation. It’s a goal we can move towards, once we recognise that there’s a path we can take. We can ask ourselves: am I taking responsibility for my feeling and needs, or am I thinking that someone else is responsible for them? Can I see that others have feelings and needs that drive them? Can we find a way to listen to each other and respect each others’ feelings without taking responsibility for needs that are not ours?

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