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You Are Not Responsible For Your Feelings

3 minute read

Have any of the following ever happened to you?

You discover that the supposedly happy and successful couple you like and have always looked up to actually have problems in their relationship, just as you have issues in yours — and instead of feeling sad for them, you feel secretly happy. And then you feel like you must be a bad person for being so unsympathetic to your friends.

Someone tries to help you with a problem and at the end of the conversation you find yourself feeling angry at that person. You know they were just trying to be helpful, and you start to think you’re a bad person because you were angry instead of grateful.

Something good happens to a friend or relative — a promotion, marriage, academic success, fame or fortune — and instead of feeling thrilled for them, you are envious. You decide you must be a terribly selfish person for feeling that way.

Despite your best efforts to feel otherwise, you find yourself sexually attracted to someone you shouldn’t be attracted to, or excited by a sexual practice that your conscious mind tells you is socially unacceptable. You decide you must be a sexual weirdo, sick and perverted.

You find yourself calculating the benefits you’re getting in your relationships — whether you’re giving more than you’re getting (and you usually are). You don’t want to think this way, but you can’t stop, and you wonder what’s wrong with you that you can’t be a naturally generous and giving person.

Many — and perhaps all — of us are troubled by feelings and thoughts that we wish we didn’t have. And our response is to judge ourselves, to punish ourselves, to believe that we are bad, sick, ungrateful and mean spirited. We mentally yell at ourselves, determined to drive those unwanted feelings out of ourselves. Sadly, all that judgment, mental yelling and self punishment doesn’t work, and so we resign ourselves to the fact that we have some pretty unpleasant flaws.

It doesn’t have to be so.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when faced with those ‘unpleasant flaws’, things that enable us to take a fresh, and far less critical look at ourselves.

Your feelings are a lot more common than you think. It’s entirely normal for us to feel pleasure at the sight of other people’s troubles — so normal that there’s even a word for it in German: “schadenfreude”. (And a song about it too.) Sexual desires that are outside the narrow bounds of what society deems normal and acceptable are also common. And the success of others automatically triggers competitive feelings in most people.

These feelings are a part of being human, but displaying them tends to disrupt social relationships. So we all hide them, which is a good thing — but we then think we’re the only ones who feel that way, which makes us bad people, which is most definitely not a good thing.

There may be more going on that meets the eye. Just because your feelings may seem inappropriately negative and damaging doesn’t mean they are. For example, several of my clients have described their angry, frantic and almost bizarre reactions to their romantic partners. “This just shows how awful and crazy I am” is the general refrain. However, when those relationships are fully explained, it becomes clear that my clients were responding rationally to unusual behavior from their partners. A husband “lovingly” and very subtly criticizes his wife, and when she becomes angry he tells her that she clearly has Borderline Personality Disorder, causing her to become depressed and hopeless, clinging more tightly to her destructive husband. Or a girlfriend plays on her boyfriend’s fear of abandonment, telling him one moment that she’s the only one to truly love him, and the next flirting subtly with other men — causing the boyfriend to explode with rage, and then wonder why he was so out of control.

Even if it turns out that you are having feelings that are out of proportion, that doesn’t mean you’re bad or sick. It just means that you’re responding to something in your past, or feeling trapped and desperate, possibly without even knowing it. Your feelings and behavior have an explanation, and if you don’t know what that explanation is, it just means you have to look harder (perhaps with the help of a therapist).

You’re not responsible for your feelings, only your behavior. If you take away only one thing from this article, this would be it. We really and truly can’t help what we feel. We can push it away, repress it, deny it and not think about it, but the feeling is still there, just below the surface. If you’re human, at various points in your life you will feel envious, angry, jealous, racist, competitive, critical and much more. You will feel like doing things that you know will hurt others. And it’s OK to feel that way. It’s beyond your ability, or the ability of any human, to stop yourself from having that feeling. What you do with that feeling is another matter entirely. You might choose to simply tolerate it. Or to understand what’s making you feel that way. Or share that feeling with others to see if they have any insight into what’s going on. Perhaps you might even enjoy it — there’s nothing wrong with a nice revenge fantasy, or wallowing in a bit of schadenfreude.

But while your feelings can’t hurt other people and can’t (with the proper mindset) even make you feel bad about yourself, actions are an entirely different matter. If you’re finding that your negative feelings are translating into negative actions more than occasionally, then for your own sake as well as the sake of those around you, it’s time to seek out counselling.


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