PQ 7.8 — Does my communication show that I take responsibility for my actions and emotions?

A pie chart. Above the pie chart, it reads "Who is responsible?" The two choices are "Them" and "us." "Them" takes up the vast majority of the pie chart. "Us" is only a small sliver.
Image by Sean MacEntee / CC BY

PQ 7.8 — Does my communication show that I take responsibility for my actions and emotions?

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When Someone “Makes” Us Feel Something

It’s very common to hear people say that someone “made” them feel something.

“She made me feel bad.”

“You make me so unhappy.”

“He makes me so frustrated.”

While there’s definite utility to these kinds of statements since they help us identify what emotion we’re feeling (a great start in figuring out what to do about it), there’s a big problem with them.

When we say that someone “makes” us feel something, we’re also implying that they’re responsible for our emotional state. But that’s not how feeling things works. We’re not passive bystanders in our interactions with others. Instead, there is an interplay between us and the rest of the world, in which we actively take in information, run it through our filters, come to conclusions, and manifest it as an emotional response.

Climbing the Ladder of Inference:

  • When we’re speaking with someone else, there’s simply too much data to pay attention to everything. Therefore, we pick which of their statements and behavior to focus on.  What we select is shaped by our personal biases and past life experiences.
  • We interpret what those statements and that behavior mean, again guided by our biases and previous experiences. If we have relevant social scripts (expectations of how people normally behave in certain situations), those are conjured up, and we may even begin to anticipate what will happen next by assuming those scripts will be followed.
  • We attribute motives to the person.
  • We have an emotional response reacting to our perception of the interaction.

So it’s not like anyone made us feel that way. We took in a situation, made meaning from it, and that meaning made us feel that way. We are complicit in that process.

True Ownership, Not Just a Show of Ownership

It would be tempting at this point to segue into language that conveys personal responsibility. Tools to communicate to another person that we take responsibility for our actions and emotions. Proper sender language.

But I’ve come to know something: All the good sender language in the world won’t help you if you don’t actually take responsibility for your action and emotions. People see right through good sender form if the feelings behind it aren’t authentic. People will see through a “show.”

And further, I’ve known people whose sender form was sloppy that still managed to demonstrate ownership of their actions and emotions.

The key difference was: Locus of Control.

Locus of Control: Who’s Driving This Thing?

When we talk about a person’s locus of control, we’re talking about whether or not they feel like they have the ability to influence the events of their own life. People with an internal locus of control feel like they can and therefore feel a responsibility to take actions to shape the outcomes they’d like to achieve. And because of this, they are accountable for the outcomes of those actions.

A person with a very external locus of control, on the other hand, never believes anything is their fault. Things just happen to them.

Like many binaries, most people fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Here’s a test that’ll give you a good snapshot if you’re curious where you naturally fall.

As one would expect, people with a more internal locus of control tend to default to taking responsibility for many things, including the focus of today’s question: One’s own actions and emotions.

An internal locus of control is considered generally more advantageous since it makes it more likely that you will take steps to improve your life circumstances. However, even internal LOC has a dark side: If a person doesn’t deal well with failure, setbacks can be demoralizing since you feel personally responsible.

Still, it beats careening through your life helplessly strapped into the passenger’s seat. External locus of control is sometimes also known as “victim mentality.”

Taking Responsibility with Sender Form: Ownership Language

In the most general sense, ownership language is all being clear about the source of the information we’re sharing. When we use ownership language, we identify for our listener where what we’re saying comes from.

Examples of ownership language that identify source:

  • “In my opinion…”
  • “What I have been taught is…”
  • “A friend of mine taught me that…”

When we exercise emotional ownership, we identify the source of our feelings (i.e., us) and what they were in response to:

  • “I feel frustrated when I hear that…”
  • “I feel worried when I see that…”
  • “I felt sad when I learned that…”

As one would expect, simply using the “I feel frustrated when I see you doing XYZ” construction isn’t a magic bullet. It’s a good start. And it sure beats blurting out “You made me so frustrated!”

But if you have a locus of control that’s external as a matter of course? Even ownership sender language is likely to read as manipulative and not diplomatic.

So make sure you’re taking responsibility for your life. That’s the hard part. The sender skills are easy.

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This post is part of a series in which I answer each of the chapter-end questions in More than Two with an essay. For the entire list of questions & answers, please see this indexed list.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Hmm. I have critiques about internal Locus of Control being a pure virtue. In my experience, human social behaviour is shaped by a mix of agency and structure. Structure (or systems of privilege) are forces that affect people’s ability to succeed and thrive – like how a sighted white cis man would have fewer barriers to hiring than a visually impaired black trans woman. It’s not entirely about being a hard worker with a “good personality”. When you study the impact of trauma (which disproportionately affects marginalized people), you see permanent changes to the way your brain and body respond to stress, change and potential threats. Also, most goals are largely interpersonal. The more social capital or community or support networks we have to work with, the more likely we are to weather difficulty and to able to stretch to benefit from opportunities. Success is rarely due to one person acting alone. We can try to foster those connections but the locus of control in “community” is always going to be diffused. That doesn’t mean that agency isn’t important. It absolutely is. We can own our feelings and actions but also recognize that people do impact each other’s feelings and wellbeing, and not feel guilty or judgmental about the feelings themselves.

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