Why Do We Feel Responsible for Other People’s Feelings?

You’re about to send an email and you’re re-reading it for the tenth time to make absolutely sure there’s nothing in it that could be misconstrued and cause offence. Then you check it another ten times after you’ve sent it – just in case…

You bump into a friend in the street. As you walk away, you replay the conversation over and over in your head trying to work out if you said anything “wrong”. You’re still rerunning the conversation in your head as you lie in bed that night…

A work colleague seems a bit off with you. You instantly rack your brain to recall your most recent interactions with them. You spend the day desperately trying to work out what you did to upset them so you can apologise and make things right…

Sound familiar?

On the whole, people with emotion-driven overeating issues are a sensitive bunch. We tend to be very empathic and highly attuned to the feelings of others which is fine. Except when we confuse empathy with taking responsibility for other people’s feelings.

The cost of constantly trying to anticipate, understand and placate other people’s feelings is that yours go unnoticed.

Thinking you’re responsible for others’ feelings goes beyond taking into account how something you say or do might be perceived. It’s a terrible burden that means you live your life hypervigilant of saying or doing the wrong thing.

If someone is upset or angry it never occurs to you it might be nothing to do with you. Instead, you immediately assume responsibility and try to make amends.

But where does this come from?

Beliefs such as these usually begin in childhood. Perhaps there was a family member you felt you had to tread on eggshells around. Perhaps they often flew off the handle or gave you the silent treatment, leaving you bewildered as to what you’d done “wrong”.

Likewise, warnings such as “don’t make your father angry” or “don’t upset your mother” send the message that the adult isn’t accountable for their feelings and the child must be cautious not to set them off. Repeated experiences such as these can lead you to believe “other people’s feelings are my responsibility”.

While it’s understandable that you formed this belief in childhood, it doesn’t serve you to hang on to it today. The cost of constantly trying to anticipate, understand and placate other people’s feelings is that yours go unnoticed.

And if your feelings are going unnoticed so are your emotional needs.

You can’t afford for that to happen if you want to resolve your issues with food because understanding your emotional needs is key to understanding emotion-driven overeating.

Let’s say the work colleague I mentioned is still being off with you. It’s triggered the belief you’re responsible for their feelings so you instantly feel guilty. You keep asking them if they’re OK but all they say is “I’m fine” in that passive-aggressive way that means “I’m anything but fine but I’m not going to tell YOU why, thank you very much”.

You spend the day ruminating about what you might have done wrong while simultaneously stuffing sweets from your desk drawer into your mouth. Meanwhile, you’re getting behind with your work which is only adding to your stress. By the time you go home, you’re ordering a large take-away you don’t really want or are stopping off for a drive-through binge.

Let’s rewind and try that again.

Many people whose eating is emotion-driven often dream of living on their own in some remote location – what I call the “Hermit Fantasy”.

You’ve asked your colleague if they’re OK, they reply “I’m fine”, nothing more.  You begin to feel guilty until you remind yourself you’re not responsible for other people’s feelings and you haven’t done anything deliberately to upset them.

Being the empathic person you are, you say to your colleague warmly “I can see you’re not yourself today. I’m happy to listen if you want to talk about what’s bothering you. You know where I am”.

With that, you reassure yourself you’re not to blame, draw a line under it and get on with your work, happy in the knowledge you’ve left a channel open to your colleague if they want to communicate with you. At the end of the day, you go home to prepare a delicious meal you thoroughly enjoy, accompanied by unicorns and fluffy kittens (I got carried away with the last bit, but you get the idea).

There’s another important upside to handling it this way. If you continue to take responsibility for your colleague’s feelings they’ll just keep doing what they’ve always done. They won’t learn to speak up and ask for help if they’re unhappy or struggling. If you stop taking responsibility for their feelings, there’s a chance they might.

The burden of responsibility for other people’s feelings makes human interaction stressful and complicated. I feel it’s one of the reasons why many people whose eating is emotion-driven often dream of living on their own in some remote location – what I call “The Hermit Fantasy”. It’s very understandable you want to withdraw entirely from the human race if your self-esteem collapses every time someone reacts badly to something you said that was perfectly innocuous.

So take a deep breath and repeat several times:

“I am not responsible for other people’s feelings”.

It requires practice but it’s worth it, because if you let others take ownership of their feelings, you can set about the much more important task of understanding and owning your own.

©️ Julie de Rohan 2018.

57 thoughts on “Why Do We Feel Responsible for Other People’s Feelings?

  1. This is such a well written post with such an important message. Owning our own feelings can throw some people without the added pressure of feeling responsible for other people’s feelings from our well meaning words. Thanks for this reminder 🙂

    Liked by 5 people

  2. I love this so much, Julie. I was taught when I was younger these messages and sometimes I still hear from family members “he or she hurt my feelings.” When I started understanding emotional maturity and my own feelings better it gave me SO much more ability to take responsibility for my own life. I really love the examples you gave here and the “rewind” of the conversation – so relatable and a helpful tool for those of us that wonder what to say instead. Thank you!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think we release so much energy when we let go of taking responsibility for other people’s feelings. As you say, not only does it mean we’re able to take responsibility for our own lives, it also means we relate to others on a much more authentic level. I’m so glad this post was useful to you, Cristy, many thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Julie,
    Thank you so much. I needed this right now! Sometimes I get carried away with a situation and think I have to make everyone around me happy. The good news is that once I realize it, I can stop those erroneous thoughts and go on about my day! Thanks for the reminder.
    PS You also pegged me with the hermit fantasy. I never knew what it was called, but I have had it many times in my life! Good work!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hi Merri. It’s so easy to slip back into thinking it’s our job to make everyone else happy, isn’t it? But what a responsibility! I’m glad that the “Hermit Fantasy” chimes with you – it comes up so often with the clients that I work with that I had to give it a name. I’m pleased that this was a timely post for you, many thanks for sharing your experience.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I read this before Julie.
      I am at another stage in my life, (another age too!)
      I’m more reserved with my comebacks but wiser.
      I mentally say “it is what it is”. How much longer can we sugar coat things?
      Those responsible must be accountable for their actions.
      Hard for an empath but some positive, self talking has been helpful.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. People who are empathic do struggle with this sort of thing but, as you say, maintaining a relationship with ourselves by talking positively to ourselves is really helpful. Good to hear your thoughts, Kavita, thank you for your comment.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Julie! Oh gosh, those scenarios really do sound familiar. I’ve struggled so much with taking responsibility for emotions, both my own (trying to blame others for how I’m feeling) as well as other people’s (blaming myself for how they’re feeling). I’ve been pursuing a lot of personal growth this year and one of my big realisations has been that more often than not, people’s negative moods and reactions are a result of their own internal struggles, not my behaviour. I used to just assume it was me, but now I know that if I’m treating the person with kindness and respect at all times, their feelings actually belong to them, not to me. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Lisa. It’s so interesting to hear your experience, thank you so much for sharing it. Wow – that’s a big shift from blaming yourself for other people’s feelings to allowing them to take responsibility for them. I’m wondering how it feels to do that?

      Liked by 2 people

  5. This is such a great post and I can definitely see myself in it. I have a tendency to believe I’m responsible for other people’s feelings and I’m sure I learned this message from my childhood. I’m working hard on not taking responsibility, but old habits are hard to break! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Lisa, thanks so much for your comment. I think that if you pick up the message in childhood that you’re responsible for other people’s feelings it can become such an entrenched habit by the time you reach adulthood – but it’s a habit with a major downside. I agree that it’s hard to break, especially if there’s a part of us the makes us feel guilty when we attempt to separate our feelings from others’. Here’s to persevering!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I know a few people with this challenge. Honestly, it can be stressful and counter productive in the long run. I’ve learnt long ago to always do my best to treat people the right and proper way, and leave the rest. I try to keep my conscience burden free by doing the right things to the best of my ability, knowing that I can’t possibly please everyone.

    This is a very insightful post, Julie. I appreciate it. Do have a fulfilling week ahead.🌷

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. That’s such a good point that we can’t possibly please everyone so we just have to do what we feel is right. Thank you for reading and taking the time to leave a comment, I hope you have a great week.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. OMG! I think you’ve taken up residence in my brain. Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this and thank you to the Britchy One for reblogging it so I could find it. I’ve started following your blog.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I’m here from Britchy’s reblog.
    Interesting post. While I agree with what you said, I wonder if that is really possible. Let me explain.

    I actually couldn’t relate to the beginning of your post. You see, I have always assumed responsibility for MY feelings, and I thought others would do the same. If I do something wrong, or say something offensive knowingly, then I will take responsibility. But If I said something in a non-mean way, and YOU decided to take a, and turn it into b, then it is YOUR problem.

    However, I see that most people aren’t like me. A lot of people DON’T know how to deal with their emotions. They twist everything because they have minimal self-esteem and assume everyone is against them. Why should that be something I need to apologize for? So much time and energy is wasted on that.

    It annoys me, when I ask if someone is OK (I do it twice, because always no one admits to not feeling ok on the first try), and they say “yes”, but then I find out that they weren’t. I did nothing wrong, they perceived it wrong, and then I have to play the guessing game and beg them to tell me what went wrong and THEN apologize?

    Also, if you ask me twice, and I say I’m feeling OK, then leave me alone. Chances are I AM ok. Or I’m not, but it doesn’t pertain to you, so cool off.

    This turned into a bit of a rant, but I would like to end this comment with: “People really need to learn how to handle their emotions better.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A bit of a rant is absolutely fine – it’s good to hear your thoughts. I really get your sense of frustration that people don’t handle their feelings in the same way you do and if you’re good at taking responsibility for your feelings then you won’t relate to the beginning of the post at all.

      Reading the rest of your comment it seems that the post might have struck a chord with you – especially the part about how feel you “have to play the guessing game and beg them to tell me what went wrong”. Also, your example about being asked twice if you’re OK and that if you’re not it doesn’t pertain to the person asking is exactly what I’m talking about. I think your advice in these situations to “leave me alone” is absolutely right, otherwise people can ruminate and worry that they’ve done something wrong which isn’t healthy.

      I really appreciate you taking the time to share you thoughts on this, many thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Nice post dear, I don’t take responsibility for people’s emotions anymore but as a strong inpath I feel it and it affects my mood as well, it’s a hard thing to try and block out others emotions and not shout yours down in the process.

    Thanks to the Britchy one’s reblog I found your post.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m really glad to hear you don’t take responsibility for other people’s feelings anymore. It is difficult sometimes to separate our feelings from others and, as you say, you don’t want to block out your own feelings as well. I think if you’re very empathic there’s something about accepting that you’ll experience things very deeply, it’s just a question of how you look after yourself in that regard. Thank you very much for your comment and sharing your experience.


  10. This is a great post Julie.

    Being on the spectrum a lot of people think l don’t have a lot of empathy for others where as it’s the opposite, l do, so much so at times that l can become stressed by what other’s may think at times. I grew up with a lot of what you wrote of at the start of the post, as in upsetting either one of my parents, walking on eggshells. No longer do l perform this behaviour, l am not responsible for another person’s emotions, l am responsible for my own. But l learned the hard way that it is easier to look out for myself first and foremost, this doesn’t mean that l go around upsetting people, and l always try to be mindful of another. It can be a hard balance at times as many on the spectrum oft assume a guilt that is not their own, and l have been guilty of this in the past.

    Now, l just mind what l say of course, but other people’s emotions and feelings belong to them, and they are not specifically my problem.

    Going to RB this, a good quality read.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Really lovely to hear from you, Rory, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It sounds like you’re very empathic and have learned how to look after yourself emotionally which is great. I’m sorry to hear about your experiences with your parents – sadly, experiences such as these are all too prevalent. You make such an important point that putting yourself first doesn’t mean you stop having empathy for others, it just means you don’t take responsibility for their feelings and have a much better sense of your personal boundaries. Thank you for sharing your experience – it’s so interesting so hear how this topic relates to someone on the spectrum.

      And thank you so much for the reblog, I really appreciate it.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. OMGGGG… this is sooo relatable… I breathed a sigh of relief after reading this… I always have this feeling but could never quite understand it… FAntastic read…!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Reblogged this on and commented:
    I don’t think I could have done a better job articulating such an important topic so here it is from Julie De Rohan instead. Have a gander! Happy Friyay everyone…

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you for your words! I’ve been slowly learning this but it’s really hard. You put my thoughts into better words and even elaborated on what I should do and why. I take on so much responsibility for other’s actions it really makes me unhappy in social gatherings. Especially if my boyfriend (who is extremely sensitive is around) I worry that somebody might say something to offend him the whole time that I don’t even get to enjoy my company. Lately I have been trying to let myself feel how I want to and let him feel how he wants to and let our feelings be two separate components. Because low and behold, every time… there’s something that he’s offended by.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That sounds really challenging for you – it’s sad that you don’t get to enjoy being sociable because you’re worried about other people’s reactions. I’m glad to hear that you’re trying to let yourself feel what you’re feeling and allowing your boyfriend to do the same, I hope that will become easier in time. Thank you for your comment, I appreciate you taking the time to share your experience and I’m pleased the post was helpful.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. *thinks of something embarrassing I said 3 years ago* ahhh! But seriously such a thought provoking post. I mean we are all human, right? Nobody’s perfect.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. This post was very illuminating to me! I’ve started realizing how much of an emphatitic person I am and how this can be a burdain sometimes. I’ve never thought about this aspect and it’s clearly something I should consider from now on. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that, generally, we’re just not aware that we’re taking responsibility for other people’s feelings, and what effect that might be having on us, until something makes us stop and think. If you’re an empathic person I think it’s vital to find that boundary otherwise life can be really challenging. Many thanks for sharing your experience, Flavia, I’m so glad you got something out of this post.


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