Emotional Management and Responsibility

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Emotional Management and Responsibility

Post by KMR on Sun Jun 25, 2017 6:35 pm

There's a question I've been pondering from time to time, and I'd like to know what others think about it. And I want to frame it in broad, overarching terms rather than trying to apply it to individual situations*, both because I enjoy a more theoretical discussion, and because I think that keeping it broad makes it more applicable to a number of experiences that could resonate with more people.

Let's say that you're someone who is prone to some kind of negative emotions... depression, anxiety, insecurity, jealousy, what-have-you... and there's someone in your life (someone important that you can't/don't want to just cut out of your life or reduce contact with) who unwittingly and unintentionally tends to trigger these emotions by certain things they say or do (or maybe even things they don't say or don't do). To what degree are you responsible for managing your own emotional reactions versus to what extent can you reasonably ask this person to adjust their behavior to help you manage those reactions? Especially when you're fairly aware that the negative thoughts you're having are more in your own head and not necessarily indicative of reality.

On the one end of the spectrum is the idea that we are solely responsible for our own mental states** and should not make it the other person's problem to have to accommodate them in any way. Is this the best way to look at it? The other end of the spectrum--making someone else completely change their behavior in order to manage our own feelings for us--is obviously unfair and controlling. But is there a middle ground somewhere that represents a more ideal solution? How far can one go along that spectrum before it reaches the point of asking too much of someone else?


*At least from the start, when just posing the big question. Specific examples will probably become necessary as the discussion goes on to illustrate one's point.
**And that doesn't mean that we have to resolve our issues entirely by ourselves; one could seek help from a therapist or even just talk it out and seek support from other people that aren't involved in the situation.
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Re: Emotional Management and Responsibility

Post by Werel on Sun Jun 25, 2017 7:56 pm

Hmm, that's a really good question. As a younger person, I felt pretty strongly that managing your own shit was entirely your own responsibility, and it was always unreasonable to ask for concessions from others. This was mostly because I was very self-conscious about my own strong emotional reactions to certain things, and the fact that I sometimes had to leave the room to avoid having embarrassing manifestations of feelings in front of people, which would be disastrous to my tough cynic cred. Asking people for concessions meant admitting I needed something from them, which was totally not so cool.

That mostly had to do with classroom/public settings, though, which is very different than what you're describing with close relationships. At this point, I see management of one's own emotions as primarily one's own responsibility, but with people you're close to, some degree of negotiation should be available (or even expected). When you're close to someone, you probably want your interactions to be as pleasant as possible for both of you, right? And unless what it would take to make them pleasant--as far as avoiding certain topics, phrases, actions-- is a really huge amount of effort, like "don't use words with the letter 'e' in them," it's probably something you'd want to do. Nobody enjoys making their friends/relatives feel bad unnecessarily. So on the one hand, there is a case for "it's a good thing to ask for those accomodations, and probably beneficial to most relationships, since allowing someone to be nice to you can bring you closer."

The point where it becomes "too much" probably varies hugely between people and specifics, though. There are certain accommodations I'd be willing to make immediately and without negotiation. There are others which would make me uncomfortable, e.g. if they came close to restricting something I see as integral to my personality or beliefs, but I'd consider based on the request. There are other accommodations which I'd probably reject outright, though I can't think of many off the top of my head. And the person's reasons for asking me to change my behavior would have different effects on my willingness.

But I wonder if there are any general patterns in where the reasonable/unreasonable line is drawn for different people. For example, I'd be more likely to grant that kind of request if it were based in a trauma or struggle I understood as real and ongoing, including some forms of mental illness, rather than something I perceived as... emotional laziness? That is, if I thought the person had had ample opportunity to manage their reactions to whatever thing, but they had failed/refused to do the work, I'd be more likely to say "fuck off, I'm not going to make accommodations for that."

But that, again, gets into everyone's different levels of empathy and perceptions of how capable others are of doing their own emotional work. Somebody who I think has a low emotional IQ and/or is young, hampered by weird life history, going through major upheavals, etc. will probably get more slack on those fronts than someone who I perceive as emotionally intelligent and otherwise capable of managing their own internal shit.
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Re: Emotional Management and Responsibility

Post by Enail on Sun Jun 25, 2017 10:25 pm

Interesting question! I think it's definitely a middle-ground issue. For one, there isn't a clear set of guidelines for how people are supposed to act with each other to begin with, there's only a loose range of norms and then individual relationships or groups always have some level of (usually implicit) negotiation on how people would like to treat each other and be treated. So I don't really feel there's a hard line of 'this individual's preferences wrt how they'd like others to behave with them are normal and subject to the usual negotiation,' vs. 'this person's extra-sensitive/reactive/etc. and therefore they'd better manage all their feelings about other peoples' behavior themselves without asking for any accommodation from others."

And it also depends on what kind of relationship; a distant acquaintance who you make small-talk at an event with every so often hasn't really signed on to put a lot of extra thought and effort into interacting with you in the way that's most comfortable to you, whereas a close friend is probably a relationship where you both value each other's happiness and are willing to put effort into having your time around each other be enjoyable for both parties, which I'd say means they've signed on to tailor their interactions to you to a much higher (but obviously not unlimited) degree, or at least to listen to and give weight to your preferences and needs (and you to theirs).

The clearest line I can think of what's most likely reaching the point of asking too much of someone else is asking people to change their behavior when not directly interacting with you - eg., "please don't wear purple hats around me" is on the potentially okay side of the line, but "don't wear purple hats ever and I'll be mad at you if I happen to see you on the street and you're wearing one" is probably not okay in most situations. On the potentially okay side of that, there's a whole lot of grey where I'm having a hard time really thinking of clear indicator points.

Personally, my lines depend a lot on the particular relationship I have with the person/group; how the asking is done; whether I feel the person asking would also make adjustments for my happiness or comfort interacting with them; and to some degree, like Werel, on how much I thought it was based on a struggle I understood as real and ongoing and how much I felt they were making efforts to manage their own reactions vs. outsourcing the work to me.
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Re: Emotional Management and Responsibility

Post by Hirundo Bos on Tue Jun 27, 2017 6:55 am

Interesting question. And something I've been thinking a lot about myself... I have a certain number of stimuli that can be weirdly stressful to me, and have been thinking quite a bit about how much I can ask others to adjust to that... and how much I can adjust to the needs of others in return.

I think the middle ground you’re talking about is mostly a question of communication and negotiation. Person A is, in the end, responsible for managing their own emotions, but they can always ask for some amount of accommodation. That's also a tool in your emotion-management box, after all... and then, it's up to person B what to do with that request – agree to try to follow it, or say sorry, I can't do that, or maybe ask if there's some compromise you can work out. If I can't do X or Y for you, then maybe I can do Z instead?

On the other hand... deciding what to do with such requests is a bit of work in itself, and saying no can be hard sometimes. So there are probably limits to how much person A can ask...

Familiarity, comfort level and trust plays into this. It's easier to ask for accommodations from someone you know well and spend a lot of time around. And it's also more relevant, as the emotional triggers in question are likely to happen more often. With a more established relationship, you'll have a greater sense of just how much you can ask... but on the other hand, the temptation to ask too much, dump too many requests on them, can also be greater.

It's easier to be person B, the one who receives such requests, if you know person A will be cool with a "no". As with other kinds of requests, the proven ability to take no for an answer will probably greatly increase the likelihood of getting a yes. Or a let's see if we can work with this.

The type of negative emotion is probably also relevant. With emotions like jealousy and insecurity, things can get difficult, especially if they tend to veer of into "don't wear purple hats ever"-territory. Again, it probably helps with mutual trust about one another's boundaries and preferences, and the ability for person B to say "no" and for person A to be cool with it. With anxieties set off by specific stimuli, it's probably easier to ask, and easier to say yes... like if someone is afraid of spiders, maybe dial down on the spider-talk in their presence. Unless they're like me, that is, and find a whole lot of different stimuli stressful. In my case it’s probably mostly up to me, to draw a sensible line for how much and in which contexts I ask.

In the end, and possibly stating the obvious, I believe the most important thing about the middle ground is that it isn't static – it depends on personal, contextual and relational factors, and develops over time, and working on that development is probably a big part of the work we have to do in any kind of lasting relationship.
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Re: Emotional Management and Responsibility

Post by KMR on Wed Jun 28, 2017 4:35 pm

Thanks for the replies, everyone!

In my own life, I generally tend to lean towards the side of taking more responsibility for my own emotions and rely as little as I can on others. That's just kind of how I've naturally tended to react to dealing with personal issues throughout my life. I've never been the type of person who felt the need to talk things out with other people when something's been bothering me; in part because I haven't always had friends who were immediately available to talk to at a given moment when I might be feeling upset, nor did I have many relationships where the "talk through your feelings" was an established dynamic, so I didn't know how they would react if I did try to bring up certain issues. That said, I can't say I've ever really felt like this was a problem in my life, because I've gotten pretty used to just dealing with my own emotions and not including other people in that process.

However, I do think there are times when asking for accommodations can be appropriate and that there's definitely a middle ground to be found in what's a reasonable ask. At the very least, I think a good minimal step can be to simply make the other person aware of the issue and what they're doing to trigger it. Even if you don't ask for any specific accommodations, the other person might start to think about what they can do to help you out. Then you know that you're not imposing because whatever accommodations that person makes are things they were willing and CHOSE to do, not felt like they were obligated to do it because you asked. And even if nothing really changes, at least they have a better understanding of why you react to certain things in certain ways and can sympathize rather than being confused as to why something might set you off.

When I have found myself asking for specific accommodations from someone, I've generally tried to ask for the minimum of what's required to help me out. For example, I have a mild dog phobia (mostly triggered by a dog jumping on me), but I also have friends and family members who are dog owners, so being able to visit their homes comfortably requires some accommodation. But I don't want to ask for something big like locking the dog away while I'm there, because I know that can be hard for the dog and not all owners will want to go that far, even though it would completely eliminate any possibility of my phobia being triggered. The minimum that I ask for is that the owners keep just a bit of an eye on the dog and if it starts jumping on me, to quickly call it off. Meanwhile, I do some of work on my end to manage some of the anxiety about having a dog walking freely around me that might start jumping at any moment. And I feel like that's been a really good arrangement for everyone, because it doesn't ask very much of the dog owners, and by forcing myself to be around dogs instead of avoiding them, I get a sort of exposure therapy that's helped somewhat reduce the impact of my phobia.

Werel wrote:I'd be more likely to grant that kind of request if it were based in a trauma or struggle I understood as real and ongoing, including some forms of mental illness, rather than something I perceived as... emotional laziness? That is, if I thought the person had had ample opportunity to manage their reactions to whatever thing, but they had failed/refused to do the work, I'd be more likely to say "fuck off, I'm not going to make accommodations for that."

I think this is a very valid distinction to make in cases where it's fairly clear what the underlying causes are, but I feel like it can sometimes be hard to tell when someone really is struggling versus just not doing the work, because you really can't see what's going on inside a person's head. Do you have some particular things you look for that would help you make that distinction?

Another thing that can complicate this issue is that there's a tendency in our culture to incorrectly attribute issues that stem from mental illness with emotional laziness or weakness of character, so some people aren't going to be very sympathetic toward someone asking for accommodations like that. And if you're the person doing the asking and don't really know whether the person you're asking is going to be sympathetic to your situation, it can be scary to even think about bringing it up. Plus, there are some people who don't recognize that their own emotional reactions are based on possible mental illness/issues and thus attribute their own reactions to laziness/personal weakness/lack of self-control, and such people are also going to be far less likely to feel comfortable asking others for help, because they'll just assume the other person will perceive them in the same way.

Enail wrote:The clearest line I can think of what's most likely reaching the point of asking too much of someone else is asking people to change their behavior when not directly interacting with you - eg., "please don't wear purple hats around me" is on the potentially okay side of the line, but "don't wear purple hats ever and I'll be mad at you if I happen to see you on the street and you're wearing one" is probably not okay in most situations.

That's a good point. A request certainly seems to switch from "accommodating" to "controlling" when that line is crossed. But what if the behavior that's triggering a person is by definition something done when not interacting with them? Like a partner asking "don't watch certain kinds of porn" or "don't go out to dinner alone with your ex"? Are requests like this inherently problematic or could there be some validity to them?

Hirundo Bos wrote:On the other hand... deciding what to do with such requests is a bit of work in itself, and saying no can be hard sometimes. So there are probably limits to how much person A can ask...

Familiarity, comfort level and trust plays into this. It's easier to ask for accommodations from someone you know well and spend a lot of time around. And it's also more relevant, as the emotional triggers in question are likely to happen more often. With a more established relationship, you'll have a greater sense of just how much you can ask... but on the other hand, the temptation to ask too much, dump too many requests on them, can also be greater.

That's an interesting point about the interplay between the comfort of asking for accommodations versus the temptation to ask too much in a close relationship. I think it can become an issue of balance, as well. If the other person doesn't have the same kind of emotional issues and therefore doesn't have to ask for much of that sort of accommodation from you, it can feel really one-sided to keep asking for things from them yourself, even if you need them.

Hirundo Bos wrote:In the end, and possibly stating the obvious, I believe the most important thing about the middle ground is that it isn't static – it depends on personal, contextual and relational factors, and develops over time, and working on that development is probably a big part of the work we have to do in any kind of lasting relationship.

Even if it's kind of an obvious statement, I like the way you phrased it and agree with you wholeheartedly. Smile
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Re: Emotional Management and Responsibility

Post by Enail on Wed Jun 28, 2017 5:33 pm

KMR wrote:
Enail wrote:The clearest line I can think of what's most likely reaching the point of asking too much of someone else is asking people to change their behavior when not directly interacting with you - eg., "please don't wear purple hats around me" is on the potentially okay side of the line, but "don't wear purple hats ever and I'll be mad at you if I happen to see you on the street and you're wearing one" is probably not okay in most situations.

That's a good point. A request certainly seems to switch from "accommodating" to "controlling" when that line is crossed. But what if the behavior that's triggering a person is by definition something done when not interacting with them? Like a partner asking "don't watch certain kinds of porn" or "don't go out to dinner alone with your ex"? Are requests like this inherently problematic or could there be some validity to them

Heh, I didn't think about that whole category of things! I guess generally in our culture, we seem to have a set of requests that are considered acceptable in romantic or sexual relationships (eg. 'don't have sex with other people' is very accepted, 'don't go out to dinner alone with your ex' somewhat less so but still I think very much in the general category of things that are often asked for and considered okay to ask for in a relationship), and then a general idea that it's a done thing to ask for accommodations of someone in a romantic/sexual relationship with you that wouldn't generally be considered a thing one typically asks for in other kinds of relationships, I guess based on the overarching principle that a monogamous sexual relationship involves giving the other person some 'voting rights' over one's sex life, and a romantic relationship involving living together, children or joined finances involves giving the other person some 'voting rights' over those aspects of one's life.

As far as I can think of, we don't really have that same semi-official voting rights offered to other kinds of relationships. But I think morally and in terms of healthy interaction, I can't see any reason that that couldn't or shouldn't be the case for them, other than that since it's not the default assumption in other kinds of relationships, both parties haven't necessarily willingly signed up to give the other person 'voting rights' over aspects of their life not directly affecting the relationship in question.

Which leaves it back at 'is this a considerate thing to ask of that person given our relationship,' and 'is this attempting to exert more control than is acceptable or healthy in this relationship.'  Both of which are judgement calls without much in the way of guideposts. I think most people would say "I can't be friends with a serial killer, so I need you not to go around murdering people if we're going to stay friends" is okay, and "I can't be polite acquaintances with people who interact in any way with anyone who likes dogs so you need to cut anyone who likes dogs out of your life before I'll act civilly to you" is probably not, and I agree with both those. Which suggests to me that there are some compass points in terms of how much does that affect the other person's life, how morally/societally acceptable is the issue in question, and what kind of relationship is there to support these requests?  But beyond that, I think all my opinions, at least, would be very much based on gut feel.
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Re: Emotional Management and Responsibility

Post by Werel on Wed Jun 28, 2017 6:16 pm

KMR wrote:I think this is a very valid distinction to make in cases where it's fairly clear what the underlying causes are, but I feel like it can sometimes be hard to tell when someone really is struggling versus just not doing the work, because you really can't see what's going on inside a person's head. Do you have some particular things you look for that would help you make that distinction?
You're right that you can't get into someone else's head in those situations, and I also phrased it pretty uncharitably in the original post (Enail's "efforts to manage their own reactions vs. outsourcing the work to me" is a more humane way of putting what I was going for, can I switch my answer to that? Razz). But as far as what I look for, it's mainly their track record of behavior. If they have a history of trying to pawn off their own responsibilities onto other people, especially their emotional work, I'm less likely to be willing to accommodate them. Similarly, if they have a history of general dishonesty or lies of convenience, I'm probably going to give their requests a more thorough sniff-test (is this a real need? Is asked it in good faith?)

But I think you make an important point with this:
KMR wrote:Another thing that can complicate this issue is that there's a tendency in our culture to incorrectly attribute issues that stem from mental illness with emotional laziness or weakness of character, so some people aren't going to be very sympathetic toward someone asking for accommodations like that. And if you're the person doing the asking and don't really know whether the person you're asking is going to be sympathetic to your situation, it can be scary to even think about bringing it up. Plus, there are some people who don't recognize that their own emotional reactions are based on possible mental illness/issues and thus attribute their own reactions to laziness/personal weakness/lack of self-control, and such people are also going to be far less likely to feel comfortable asking others for help, because they'll just assume the other person will perceive them in the same way.
And here's where I (and maybe lots of people?) grapple with being fair and acknowledging that I don't really know what's going on with other people. It's not that I'm ungenerous to people whose problems I don't understand, which seems like the more common scenario; if I'm being honest, I might be less likely to make accommodations for struggles I've been through myself.

Hypothetically, let's say I've overcome a debilitating fear of mustard through years of therapy. If someone asks me please not to put mustard on my sandwiches, because AAAH!, there is an unpleasant part of me which is inclined to disregard that request with extreme prejudice because I dealt with the mustard phobia, goddamnit, so handle it yourself. It's an unkind and unfair reaction, and I think I've gotten better about it with age, but I think a lot of people have something like that. You may find that people who've struggled with similar issues may be less sympathetic, not more. It's not admirable, but it's a thing.

Like you said, reactions to others' weaknesses are often driven by people's own issues and their feelings towards them, and that's a good thing to take into account when deciding who to ask for what. If someone feels a savage hatred and shame towards one of their own weaknesses, they may have a hard time being generous and careful towards that same weakness in another person. I hate my own laziness [or insert whatever trait here], so I can be savage towards others asking me to accommodate their laziness/whatever else. So, weirdly, I'm more likely to make concessions for struggles which are unfamiliar to me. Like the dog phobia--I can't sympathize at all, I'm the kind of idiot who pets street dogs in developing countries and gets hauled to the hospital when they bite me--since I don't grok it, I'd be willing to put a lot of effort into keeping my dog managed around you, because I don't know what it's like to be afraid in that way.

Does that sort of make sense? I'm not saying everyone is like this, just that it's one thing to consider when gauging who to ask for what. People can be nasty when their own wounds and flaws are mirrored.
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Re: Emotional Management and Responsibility

Post by KMR on Sun Jul 02, 2017 9:01 pm

Enail wrote:As far as I can think of, we don't really have that same semi-official voting rights offered to other kinds of relationships. But I think morally and in terms of healthy interaction, I can't see any reason that that couldn't or shouldn't be the case for them, other than that since it's not the default assumption in other kinds of relationships, both parties haven't necessarily willingly signed up to give the other person 'voting rights' over aspects of their life not directly affecting the relationship in question.

I agree that romantic relationships have some different sets of accepted norms surrounding this stuff than other relationships do, because of the added factors of sex, shared living space, etc. Family relationships are another interesting one (although people have different kinds of dynamics when it comes to their family members and whether they want to maintain good relations with them or just cut ties). Some parents, for instance, feel like they have the right to dictate a number of aspects of their children's lives even into adulthood. And cultural attitudes about how families should relate to one another can differ greatly and are also a big factor.

Werel wrote:If someone feels a savage hatred and shame towards one of their own weaknesses, they may have a hard time being generous and careful towards that same weakness in another person. I hate my own laziness [or insert whatever trait here], so I can be savage towards others asking me to accommodate their laziness/whatever else. So, weirdly, I'm more likely to make concessions for struggles which are unfamiliar to me. Like the dog phobia--I can't sympathize at all, I'm the kind of idiot who pets street dogs in developing countries and gets hauled to the hospital when they bite me--since I don't grok it, I'd be willing to put a lot of effort into keeping my dog managed around you, because I don't know what it's like to be afraid in that way.

I find this really interesting, because it's not what I would expect. In part because that's the opposite of how I tend to react; I'm usually very sympathetic to people who are dealing with the same issues that I am. Although the issues I'm thinking of aren't things that I've overcome like your mustard example (there aren't really many things I've fully overcome, more things I've made progress on but still continue to struggle with), so there's a lot of "yeah, I feel you, 'cause I'm still dealing with it too" sort of empathy there. I also feel like the people who have been dismissive or unwilling to be accommodating of my issues are the people who have been unable to understand them. Like with the dog phobia, some people think that because they know their dogs aren't going to bite/hurt me, that there's no reason for me to be afraid and no reason for them to restrain their dogs in any way. So I lean towards the line of thinking that people will be more likely to accommodate issues they have an understanding of and less likely to accommodate when they don't understand the issue.

That said, I can certainly understand, based on your reasoning, why some people might react the opposite way, even if it seems a little counter-intuitive at first. Another aspect of it might be that people who have dealt with certain issues recognize that these things are surmountable and know how to do it, so they may think that by accommodating someone else with those issues, they're making it less likely that the other person will do as much work to overcome them. So they want to "help" the other person by not helping them, as it were, and instead try to push them to do the kind of work they did, which they know can bring about positive results.
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Re: Emotional Management and Responsibility

Post by Enail on Sun Jul 02, 2017 10:58 pm

Hm, interesting. In theory, I'd expect to be sympathetic to people dealing with similar things from me, and I can think of some actual examples where that's true, but I've also had situations where I'm much harsher on someone with a similar issue. For something I haven't experienced, I can approach it from a neutral, general standpoint, as "yes, this is hard, one should be accommodating and sympathetic," whereas for something I relate to, I might bring in the efforts I've put into dealing with it and my feelings about how I would want to handle it to compare with the other person's handling.
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