Sometimes life is just stressful, and there’s nothing you can do about it. In those situations, all we can do is take good care of ourselves and learn good stress management techniques.
But most of us tend to assume there’s nothing we can do about our stress, even when that isn’t the case. I wrote here about identifying your energy drainers and sorting them into one of three categories:
- Things you can change
- Things you can refuse to tolerate, or
- Things you can (or must) choose to accept.
This article is about one of those stressors I hear about over and over in my practice: taking responsibility for other people’s happiness. If you find that you are held captive by someone else’s emotions, the first question to ask yourself is whether the person in question is a safe person, or an emotional vampire. (No, I did not coin that term. But I wish I did.) This helps you to figure out the right approach you need to take in dealing with the situation.
“Safe” Person or Emotional Vampire?
Emotional vampires are those who tend to suck you dry (pun intended): they may criticize, try to control or otherwise manipulate you. Sometimes your relationships with other people will suffer because of your relationship with them. Here is a great article on the various types of emotional vampires and some excellent advice on how to protect yourself if you encounter one of them on a regular basis.
In short, if you feel responsible for the happiness of an emotional vampire, this kind of stressor needs to fall under the category of “things you refuse to tolerate.” Nobody can force you to accept poor treatment, and nobody can emotionally manipulate you without your consent. If the relationship is unavoidable, then drawing firm and appropriate boundaries with that person is absolutely essential. Remember that what you put up with, you end up with. (For more on this, I highly recommend the book “Boundaries” by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.)
Safe people, on the other hand, are accepting, forgiving, kind, honest, and help you to become your best self. They are “for” you. Nobody can be this way 100% of the time, of course, because we’re all human—but if you tend to feel responsible for the emotions of a generally safe individual, then this falls under the category of “things you can change”—about yourself.
Owning Your Emotions, and Letting Others Own Theirs
If you’re a people pleaser, you probably don’t feel right when you think someone is mad at you. That’s normal—nobody likes it when someone is upset with them. And it is important that we strive to live at peace with others, so far as it depends upon us (Romans 12:18). The appropriate way to deal with a legitimate breach in a relationship is to approach the other person directly and have a conversation about it. Safe people will welcome honesty and directness, and most likely this approach will strengthen the relationship.
But if you’re always thinking people are upset with you even when they’re not, or if you find that your emotional well-being is contingent upon someone else’s happiness, that’s called codependency. Codependency is taking responsibility for something that is rightfully another person’s problem, or allowing someone else to take responsibility for something that is rightfully yours.
Remember that control and responsibility go together: if it’s under your control, it’s probably your responsibility. If it’s not under your control, then it would be pretty ridiculous to hold you responsible for it. Specifically, your needs, desires, and feelings are your responsibility, while the needs, desires, and feelings of others are theirs.
One important note here: even if you can give the other person what they want and you think this will make them happy, it is not your responsibility to do so.
If we have the resources to help, and we want to help, then we should help. But that “want to” is key—the whole thing hinges on the concept of choice. In order to say yes from your heart, you first have to have the ability to say no. If you don’t feel like “no” is an option, then a “yes” can only come from compulsion (not from love). If you find yourself frequently saying yes when you want to say no, you are not actually being selfless—you’re being hypocritical.
The Apostle Paul says that we should each give “what