I remember being a little girl and feeling responsible for other people’s feelings. If I just did this or did less of that then they would be happy, and I would have a safe place inside of my family system. I quickly learned which parts of myself to shrink and which parts to grow to appease my attachments so that my needs (survival) could be met. It’s pretty wild how we are designed to protect ourselves, even at the youngest of ages. Fast forward 30 years, and I still find myself apologizing for things that don’t warrant an apology, feeling uncomfortable setting a boundary, and taking on others’ emotions as my own.
The Messages We Send About Feelings
“You hurt my feelings!”
“You make me so mad!”
What do these messages have in common?
Well, to start with, they are likely things we have heard many times before. And, because most of us are wired to say them given our own upbringing, they are likely words we have spoken to our children, too.
I have read that there are two types of guilt. The first m we feel when we don't act in accordance with our values. The second involves someone else’s internal experience - those moments when we set a boundary or give an answer someone doesn’t want to hear or act in a way that displeases another - their discomfort and disappointment are transmuted into our guilt. In this article, we are talking about the latter.
So, why do we do this? Many times, these are adaptations from our childhood. Close your eyes and invite yourself back to being your child-self and take witness to the times were you punished for having wants and desires or for having emotions and not knowing what to do with them or for making a mistake.
When you ...
- Wanted the toy and were told “no” and then were spanked or isolated for your meltdown
- Were told “You’re fine”, “Stop crying”, or “Don’t be sad”
- Were shamed when you acted in a way that was inconvenient for the adults in your life
- Heard the words: “You hurt my feelings” or “You make me so mad”
You may have internalized ...
- My wants and desires are bad.
- It is unsafe to feel or express emotions. My feelings are wrong.
- I better act in the way others want me to so that I fit in.
- My caregivers’ feelings are my responsibility and I better alter how I show up to the world so that they feel good or happy.
When, as children, we are asked to lessen our boundaries to balance our family system to ensure that we keep our attachments close (because we need them for survival), we grow up living these same patterns. Our boundaries become unclear … it becomes uncomfortable to set them … it becomes challenging to keep them. And the space between our feelings and someone else’s becomes narrow, so much so that the line is blurred and there is no real distinction between where one begins and the other ends.
We are children who grow into adults questioning why these things feel hard, wondering what’s wrong ... Why can’t I just say no … Why do I care so much about what others think … Why do I feel the need to be perfect? And while our minds may give us logical answers, our body stores the information from our past and uses what it knows to keep us safe.
But here’s the really cool thing. While our brain is already 75% wired by age three and 90% by age five, our brain is plastic, which means it is changeable and capable of creating new circuits.
The Truth About Feelings
When we say things such as, “You hurt my feelings,” we can pitfall into a victim mindset … that someone did something to us and made us feel, think or act in a certain way. And while these phrases are meant to be a harmless way for parents to share their feelings, they may not effectively communicate our message.
In recognizing some truths about feelings, we reclaim our power.
1. You can’t hurt my feelings and I can’t hurt yours.
I am in charge of my feelings because they belong to me. They are intimate vibrations that live inside. What I feel and think has to do with my own history as it buds up to the current moment. What you feel and think has to do with how your story influences the present moment. When we feel provoked by something, it isn’t necessarily about what is happening externally, but the meaning our internal selves ascribe to it, so, in that way, we don’t cause other people’s feelings, we trigger them. And triggers are an invitation to learn more about ourselves and grow.
2. Everyone is allowed to have their feelings.
When you were a child, if the adults in your life became escalated during your dysregulation or tried to put a stop to it, or their feelings overrode your needs, you may have developed the ideology that feelings are bad, especially the unpleasant ones. But, we all have a wide spectrum of emotions and they are all useful and informative. We don’t have to attempt to control other’s feelings because they aren’t ours to control. We are allowed to set the boundary that feels good to us and the other person is allowed to feel what they feel about it.
3. Empathy and co-dependency are separate things.
For generations, we have had a challenging time differentiating our feelings from another, and this becomes the difference between empathy and co-dependence.
Empathizing with another person is putting yourself in their shoes while also setting a boundary. It says: You are over there with your feelings, and I really care about them, and I am here for you, and your feelings don’t enmesh with mine.
Co-dependency says: You are over there with your feelings, and now your feelings have passed through the boundary and now your feelings are my feelings. And because of this, I will modify the way I behave and feel, and my wants, needs, and desires so that you don’t have that feeling in you.
Bottom line: We can’t be empathetic and co-dependent simultaneously.
Tools For Navigating Feelings
So, how do we re-write the narratives:
1. Re-visit your inner child
The child inside of you who felt responsible for his or her attachment’s feelings is waiting for you to let her off the hook. Let her know that she doesn’t have to feel scared anymore. That he doesn’t have to shrink or grow to “make someone happy.” That she is good even when she messed up. Follow your current day trigger and tell yourself whatever you needed to hear back then. When we do this, we surround all of our guilt and self-blame with compassion and it helps re-wire the circuit.
2. Own your emotions
Humans are not meant to be void of emotions or to stuff them down deep. Emotions are energy in motion and they are meant to move up and through us. As we parent our children, we can give ourselves permission to feel and show our feelings in a healthy and productive way.
Our children don’t feel unsafe or insecure by our emotions because we have them, share them, and process them, but when we 1) pretend we don’t have them, 2) become overwhelmed by our emotions and explode or 3) when we make it our children’s job to regulate us.
Demonstrate in healthy ways noticing and naming your feelings using “I statements”. So,
- Instead of “You make me so mad”, you may say, “I feel really frustrated when the toys aren’t picked up. How can we work on this together?”
- Instead of “You hurt my feelings,” you may choose to say something like, “I feel sad when I am hit. It’s okay to have big feelings. It’s not okay to hurt someone’s body.”
Our role isn’t to be happy or calm 100% of the time. In fact, when we allow ourselves to feel all emotions and model how to acknowledge and own our distress, we make it safe for our kids to do the same.
3. Create new mantras
Like many things in parenting, two things are true and we can create new mantras for ourselves:
I am allowed to feel my emotions and I can change my feelings with my thoughts.
The child within me created protective mechanisms and I no longer have to be responsible for others’ thoughts and feelings.
I am allowed to set a boundary and have wants and needs and the other person is allowed to feel their emotions around that.
My kids will have big emotions and I can help them co-regulate without blame, shame, or pain.
For ourselves and our children, we can replace sentences like “You hurt my feelings” and “You make me so mad” and step into our power, modeling for our children where our power lies, which is in our thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. Not in anyone else’s.