Other People’s Feelings

When I was younger, everyone thought I was really brave. People thought this, I am told, because I would say things that no one else would. I was unapologetically and uncompromisingly myself almost every minute of every day. I was unafraid to speak out truth even if it would not be well received.

But is it really brave to walk along the edge of a cliff if you don’t know what falling is? Looking back I would say I was just entirely clueless. I mean really, hopelessly clueless. And not in a cute, Alicia Silverstone sort of way (if you weren’t a teenager in the 90s, nevermind about that reference).

A lot of factors contributed to my learning of Other People’s Feelings. First, my senior year of college I lived with three really amazing girls and at some point they kindly, gently, and lovingly pulled me aside and said, “You know, you’re kind of a jerk sometimes.”

I said, “Really?! I had no idea! Can you help me try not to be one?” They tried. I think it worked sometimes. I made a lot of progress that year. Being married has been a HUGE catalyst for change in many ways, but especially in the Other People’s Feelings area. My husband will say things to me like, “When this person makes this face {example expression}, it means you should be careful. And when they make this face {other example expression}, it means you need to stop talking right away.” Seriously, that man deserves a medal. 

Parenting also helped me realize this, but in a less positive way. If/when you have kids (well, maybe not when YOU have kids…maybe you’ll live in a perfect bubble of non-judgment and sleepful nights. Ahem.), lots of people have lots of feelings about what you do with them. And for some reason, a lot of people are really comfortable sharing all of their feelings with you while you are in the very vulnerable space of learning to be utterly responsible for a tiny human. It’s odd, but it’s a thing.

So I get it. Other people have feelings. But now, the question becomes how to deal with it. At this point I have to figure out how much of other people’s stuff belongs to me. And it’s safe to say that some of it does. I spent the first part of my life thinking none of it did, and there are relationships I missed out on because of that.

And yet, I am simply not able to keep my mouth shut and disengage entirely. There are moments when this does seem tempting; as an extrovert I crave positive interaction and in moments full of negativity I do want to hide from everyone because it feels like I’ll never be able to sort out everyone’s emotions. The hardest and most freeing thing about that statement is that it’s entirely true. I’ll never, ever be able to make everything ok for everyone. I’m not God. And I don’t have to be.

The most confusing thing for me right now is when other people tell me that their feelings belong to me. Sometimes this is partially true. If I’ve been a jerk, for instance, I need to earnestly apologize (thank you, college roommates). But it’s not up to me for them to accept my apology. It’s not my job to do whatever will make someone happy instead of mad at me; especially if it pricks my conscience. I already wrote about that another time. You can read that if you want to. It’s confusing, but it’s work worth doing. Because I want to learn to live at peace (shalom, ‘the way it’s really supposed to be’ kind of peace, not just lack of overt conflict) with myself and with others.

To put it in movie terms: The beginning of my life swirled about me in a lovely way, like The Matrix swirled brilliantly around Keanu Reeves even though he is a terrible actor. But after he was supposed to play something other than a dumb-guy-newly-turned-hero, his lack of talent could no longer be overshadowed and the other movies were terrible. I’m trying to avoid that. I’m looking to be Gandalf, not Neo. Hither by Thy help I’m come. And I hope by Thy good pleasure safely to arrive at home.

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