We all want the people we care about to be happy. We want our family and friends to have good health, rewarding relationships, and lots of laughs. But the truth is, we have no control over other people’s happiness, including our partners and children.
Often, we realize the futility of trying to make everyone happy. Who hasn’t had the experience of trying to create the perfect experience for everyone, whether it’s a holiday dinner or vacation or trip to the zoo? You try your best to consider everyone’s needs, expectations, sensitivities. You do everything within control to make it all go smoothly. You know who will need a rest or a snack and are prepared. You plan entertainment and foods that consider everyone’s preferences and dietary constraints. And still…someone is disappointed, arguing, complaining. And you are exhausted, feeling like a failure.
So why in the world do we feel this drive to make everyone happy? Why do we feel like other people’s feelings are our responsibility or within our control? There’s a couple reasons behind this worth understanding in order to make real change.
As a culture, we are very uncomfortable with distressing emotions. We have little tolerance with feeling our own upset. We go to great lengths to numb it, escape it, make it go away as quickly as possible. And these efforts to not experience emotional distress lead to even greater problems: excessive drinking, withdrawing, limiting where we go, avoiding conflict, not taking risks, bottling up feelings, excessive sleeping. These unhealthy coping strategies aim to avoid feeling rather than work through it.
We tend to have even less tolerance when our loved ones feel upset. After our efforts to anticipate and prevent emotional distress in our family fails, we quickly transition to fix it mode. We try to clean up all the painful feelings and resolve it as fast as possible. Yet this very effort to make things better for others often makes it worse. It sends the message that it’s not okay to feel sad, angry, distressed. It can feel very dismissive to the person who is upset and perpetuate this message that painful feelings are intolerable or wrong.
We incorrectly take responsibility for the moods of our family and friends. We feel like failures if our kids are sad or disappointed. We feel like it’s our job to fix things when our partners are stressed or angry. Conversely, we feel great joy and satisfaction when the people we care about are happy. But these feelings do not belong to us. Many factors affect our feelings: biological predisposition, illness, self-talk, environment, behaviors, personal history.
Emotions are neither good nor bad. Each feeling has a purpose and is valid. Some emotions certainly feel better than others. Who doesn’t want to feel joy, secure, love? But feelings are by nature variable and always changing. They give us information to understand ourselves and our world. As individuals, we can influence our own feelings by how we choose to cope with them. But we do not have control over anyone else’s feelings.
Once you accept that other people’s feelings are not your responsibility, you can shed a heavy emotional burden. You free yourself and the people in your life to experience and express genuine emotions without judgement or rejection. Being honest and authentic with yourself will guide you in how to respond compassionately to yourself as well as others. Maybe this means going for a walk in the middle of a stressful dinner to calm yourself. Maybe this means letting your kids cry when they’re sad without needing to cheer them up.
This type of self care is the deepest and most powerful. Release yourself from needing others to feel anything in order for you to feel good. When you take good care of your own heart and allow others to be responsible for their feelings, you will naturally do what brings you peace. You may find that you actually already feel okay, even when others are upset.
Breaking Old Patterns
This change can be particularly difficult if you are already in a relationship where the expectation is for you to “fix” or “soothe” feelings when they’re raw. This could be a dynamic that you’ve developed with a parent, spouse, or child. But no matter who the person is who is accustomed to your efforts to resolve uncomfortable feelings, this is really a disservice to him/her. As mentioned above, when we try to make someone else’s painful feelings go away, this sends the message that there’s something wrong with that feeling. And it teaches the person to always need your help when upset because he/she cannot possible handle it independently.
So when you begin to relinquish responsibility for others’ feelings, you may find this this person will naturally pull for you to act in these old ways. When you don’t respond with the typical emotional “fixing” behavior that is part of your old patterns, the other person may feel uneasy and confused. You’ll feel the pressure to resume your familiar roles. And this is when it is most important to practice good self care, calming and centering yourself. Check in with your own feelings. Encourage your loved one to take care of him/her own feelings. Remind yourself that you are only responsible for yourself and your feelings. Be an example of compassionate self-love.
Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for the Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, postpartum issues, wellness, relationships, and parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with Dr. Smith, please contact Lakefront Psychology at 216-870-9816.