Here’s a pop quiz for today:

How easy is it for you to ignore when someone you care about is upset with you?

If your immediate thought was: “What do you mean, who could ignore that, it’s unbearable when someone who matters to me is unhappy with me?”, then you’re going to want to keep reading.

I always teach that the first step in emotional adulthood is not blaming other people for your feelings. Your feelings are created by your thoughts, and other people don’t cause or control them.

But by the same token, you do not create other people’s thoughts.

This seems to be harder to internalize, perhaps because women are so deeply socialized to take the blame and responsibility for how other people feel. But other people’s thoughts come from their brain, not yours.

Have you ever noticed, for instance, that you can say or do the same thing, and the same person reacts differently on two different days? That’s because they are having different thoughts.

Or sometimes you say or do one thing, and two people interpret it two totally different ways. That’s because their thoughts are different.

It doesn’t matter if someone tells you that you create their feelings. If someone had cancer and told you that you created it in their body, you wouldn’t believe them. You don’t control their cell division, and you don’t control their thoughts.

So why are we so hell bent on taking responsibility for other people’s feelings?

Because of what we make it mean about ourselves if we don’t.

After all, we are taught growing up that caring about someone means you make them have good feelings. It’s completely baked into the emotional model we are taught. And we’re even taught that people who don’t change their behavior based on what other people think and feel are bad people.

But, here’s the mind-blowing part: Believing you cause other people’s feelings does not make you a kinder, nicer person.

It makes you way less kind to yourself and others. When you believe you cause someone else’s feelings, that means you can’t feel ok about yourself unless they think and feel the way you want them to. And THAT means you immediately become totally enmeshed in trying to control and manage their feelings. So you start resenting that they are upset with you, and you get invested in them changing those thoughts and feelings so you can stop feeling bad about yourself. It just becomes a shell game, where you’re both trying to change the other so you can feel better.

How is that truly caring about someone else’s feelings? It’s not. You’re caring about your own feelings and trying to manage the other person to change your own emotions. You’re using them to feel better about yourself. That’s the opposite of true kindness.

True kindness is when you can have compassion for someone else’s suffering, even if you know their thoughts are creating it. It’s when you take responsibility for yourself, but not for them, and when you allow them to think and feel however they want, without making it mean anything about yourself.

When you take emotional responsibility for yourself but not for them, you are so much more present and so much kinder. It may not be what they perceive as kindness, but it will feel much more like kindness for you, which is all you can control.