Did you grow up being told “not to hurt others’ feelings?” Many of us were taught that we should not say things to hurt other’s feelings. By extension that meant we are responsible for other people’s feelings.
It was a pretty radical discovery for me last year when I learned in more details how thoughts cause chemical cascades in the brain that result in “vibrations” in the body we call feelings. I encountered this concept from podcasts by Brooke Castillo. While I had studied this concept back when I first learned about cognitive and behavioral therapy in college, I had never fully applied it to my life.
I will use an example, because I think this helps make the concept more accessible. Say someone tells me I’m a smart-ass and nobody really cares about what I write. It’s a waste of time and I should stop doing it. I have a choice about how I respond here.
If it this a person I respect, I will probably want to ask some questions and get more feedback. (That’s how I am, researchers want more data and we often get curious.) If my self-esteem is not very strong, perhaps I will take their comment seriously and start criticizing myself: why would I think I have the right to share my thoughts or have a valid point of view?
Since I am fairly confident my opinion is at least as valid as anyone else, and because I write for myself, not for them, my response is likely to be different. I will perhaps speculate on their lack of efficacy and creativity in their life and I will dismiss their opinion. My new favorite way to re-frame this is: it is probably more about them (the reason they said whatever it was) than about me. It is a nice way to gain a little distance from what could have been perceived as a hurtful remark, and realize I still feel confident in my own work and process despite their words.
Granted, when we are actively seeking feedback from a trusted colleague, we sometimes have to be open to things that may not be comfortable to hear. This helps us gain valuable insight that might improve our work. That can be important if we want to hone our craft, or become better managers, or excel in our fields.
When I started taking ownership of my own feelings, and realizing that my thoughts were what created those feelings, it was very liberating. In order to feel different feelings, it is necessary to choose different thoughts. If we are in the habit of thinking certain thoughts, this takes some conscious effort at first, because we are re-structuring those neural pathways in the brain. Some of our old habits may have created deeper “grooves” if we have repeated those habits many times. But they are not fixed, they are flexible, and modifiable.
I am so encouraged by the latest research in brain science, that reveals that neuro-plasticity, or the ability to change our own brains is actually more possible than we used to believe. You know the old adage, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” that we sometimes employ when we do not want to learn something new.
But in fact, you can teach an “old” human new tricks. It takes practice, and it takes commitment. But fortunately it is possible and it is why we humans, using conscious thought and practice, are so remarkably adaptable to so many situations.
I do not encourage you to say things to people that intentionally try to “hurt” their feelings. I also know that my own fear of speaking my truth has decreased. If others are living in emotional childhood and hold me responsible for their feelings, it is unfortunate for them. And when I have feedback to deliver, I try to speak carefully and from a place of caring and concern. If I catch myself reacting out of anger or my own hurt, then I sometimes have to apologize later for saying something I do not truly mean. (We all have our defense mechanisms.)
But I have found this concept of taking responsibility for my own feelings to be game-changing. We are the creators of our own story, in charge of the narratives we bring to our own lives to make sense of them. Why not choose stories that are brave and courageous rather than casting ourselves as a victim?
If you have been through trauma or other difficult experiences which make it difficult to assess and influence your own emotional state, or are suffering depression, having the help of a therapist or counselor can be an amazing resource. I am not ashamed to admit that I have had wonderful therapists to help me during difficult struggles in my life. It is their insight and caring that allowed me to develop a more evolved understanding of myself. To me, there is no better investment.