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Simcha Fisher: Learn to tolerate other people’s discomfort

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Best friends having time out after arguing. Girlfriends have headache after heated argument. Problems and conflict in relationships between close friends, siblings have personal differences concept.

I’m a member of numerous women’s groups, and one question comes up time and time again: Someone I care about (my mother, my adult child, my husband, my brother) behaves such-and-such a way. What can I do differently to change it?

The best answer is: Nothing. You can’t change how other adults act. You can influence it, but how people behave is their decision, not yours. How they feel is their responsibility, not yours.

Really, truly. Not yours. Even if they tell you that they do what they do because of you. Even if, your whole life, they’ve expected you to take responsibility for their behaviour and their emotions. It’s just not your job; it’s theirs.

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But in our culture, it is so deeply ingrained in women, especially, to take on this responsibility that we don’t even realise we’re doing it, and we actually mistake other people’s emotions for our own. We think that feeling what other people feel is just part of love, part of caring for others.

Some of it does properly go along with love, and is normal and healthy. We are made to be connected to others, to care for them and to take their suffering seriously. But this sense of connection becomes an unhealthy entanglement when we can’t tell the difference between what someone else is feeling and what we’re feeling ourselves, and when we therefore assume that someone else’s anger or unhappiness is always a sign that we’ve done something wrong.

The truth is, if someone is unhappy or angry, maybe we’re doing something wrong, and maybe we’re not; but it’s very unhealthy when someone else’s sadness, anger, disgust, or distress automatically prompts us to rush around, searching for what we can change in ourselves, so their emotions and behavior will improve or at least make sense.

The problem comes when we set up our lives in such a way that other people are never left to deal with their own emotions and their own behaviour, but automatically look to us to take responsibility. This is unfair to everyone concerned. It crushes the one who takes responsibility, and it stunts the one who refuses to take responsibility.

One of the great skills I’m learning in my mid 40’s is the skill of sorting out whose emotion is whose. It’s liberating, but it’s difficult, and a little bit frightening — partly because it’s new and unfamiliar, and partly because it feels a little bit forbidden or impious. When Catholics learn to become more psychologically healthy, we sometimes have the haunting feeling we’re turning our backs on our faith, or that we have to choose between emotional health and holiness.

But taking ownership only of one’s own emotions and behavior is perfectly in line with Catholic thought. Treating yourself with dignity is utterly compatible with holiness.

Yes, we are called to love radically. We are called to care for each other and to sacrifice ourselves for the good of each other. But nowhere in Catholic doctrine does it say that we’re responsible for making other people feel a certain way.

On the contrary, the gospels are full of people doing what they think is the right thing and humbly accepting that other people may respond with anger, fear, or distress — not because they don’t care about other people suffering, but because we only have free will over ourselves, not over other people.

Look at the saints, especially the martyrs. So many of them did wildly unpopular things. So many of them were surrounded by people, including their own spouses and parents, pressuring them to do the thing that would make other people more comfortable. The saints don’t go out of their way to make people angry or upset just for the heck of it, but they didn’t allow other people’s anger, sadness, discomfort, or emotional distress to dissuade them from doing what they knew to be right.

They were willing to tolerate other people’s unpleasant emotions, and they didn’t take those emotions as a sign that they were doing something wrong or needed to change their own behaviour.

Heck, look at the cross. Among other things, it’s a public testament to the fact that good deeds — even the very best deed ever accomplished in the history of the universe — are not always received well. You could say that Christ is the model of being willing to live with other people’s discomfort. His willingness to disappoint is a radical testament to their free will. What he did was unfathomably right, no matter how many people felt that it was wrong.

But let’s say you’re not doing something dramatic, like being crucified or being dragged away from your family to a dungeon for refusing to worship a pagan god. Let’s say that, instead, someone has accused you unjustly, so you defend yourself simply and plainly, and you do not make excuses for the accuser or search for some way in which the accusation is partially true. Let’s say someone makes a promise to you, and you hold them to that promise, and you don’t behave as if you’re being unreasonable or demanding, and you don’t flatter them into thinking they’ve done something heroic by following through.

Let’s say you make someone realise they’ve done something wrong, and they feel terrible guilt and shame, but you resist the urge to walk your objection back or minimise it to lessen their discomfort.

Let’s say you make a choice about something that’s yours to choose, and when someone mocks you or tries to make you feel guilty, you don’t defend yourself, because their opinion simply isn’t relevant to you. Let’s say someone threatens you with some outrageous behaviour, and you let them know you realise you can’t stop them, but you also have no intention of cleaning up after the mess they make.

These are good, wholesome, healthy, even holy things to do. You’re not responsible for the emotions or behaviour of other adults; you’re only responsible for your own. You’re treating yourself with the dignity you’re entitled to as a child of God; and you’re treating the other person with more dignity, too — like a child of God blessed with free will and responsibility, should he or she choose to use it. You don’t have to feel cold or disdainful toward people who are feeling strong emotions, but you also don’t have to claim them as your own.

I’m not going to shine you on: I’ve seen people step away from responsibility for other people’s emotions, and those people absolutely lose their minds. Rotten marriages collapse; fragile relationships cave in. A little courageous emotional disentanglement can reveal how shaky the structure was all along.

But I’ve also seen people remove themselves from inappropriately messy entanglements, and it’s like taking training wheels off. Things are wobbly at first, but eventually people can learn a new balance and confidence, and away they go.

So if you decide to stop taking responsibility for other people’s emotions and behaviour, do it for your own well-being, and not because you think it will force other people to change their behaviour. Maybe it will and maybe it won’t; but either way, it will be good for you. And it gets easier with practice. It doesn’t always feel like martyrdom. After a while, it stops feeling strange and wrong, and it just feels like being unentangled. It frees you up to do the things you were made to do.

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