No One Can MAKE You Feel That Way…. Really?

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise….

~From “If” by Rudyard Kipling

Never being one to shy away from difficult, paradoxical or even controversial subjects, I thought today I would dive into the neuroscience around whether or not we “make” other people feel things. I hope someone has my rope……. This one is complex.

There is an important tenet of therapy and many (if not most) personal growth models that no one really makes you feel anything. And even though we aren’t therapists, as coaches we often need to help our clients understand this. We help them understand that:

  1. things happen
  2. they react, and yet
  3. they actually have some choice around their reaction.

This distinction (if not already understood) is incredibly helpful and empowering. It takes them out of the land of victimhood and powerlessness, and opens the way for them to be at the helm of their own lives. And I want to add that it’s becoming more and more clear to me in my neuroscience studies that many of our coaching techniques are ways we help people learn this. Through coaching we help them manage their automatic stress reactions so that they can be calmer and more effective in life, choosing to respond rather than react. Helping them find their own power by letting go of blame and looking to see both what they did to create negative situations and what they can do to shift them (for more on this, see my December 2011 post on Stress Reduction Through Coaching).

Ok, yes, I’m sure we all agree that it is important to understand that we must be responsible for our own reactions, learn to calm our fight or flight responses, and therefor — no one really makes you feel anything, right? Well this is, of course, where it gets complex.

For further understanding, it may be that we need to consider what the mind is, not just the brain. And for that, my money right now is on Daniel Siegel, author of Mindsight and head of the Mindsight Institute. He defines the mind as “an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.” An embodied — that is, we get information and input not just from the brains in our head, but from our entire body, and relational process — energy and information flow between and among people, and are monitored and changed in this shared exchange.

If your client is in a relationship where they are continually ignored or treated badly, it’s not fair to say that their reactions are only happening in their own mind. We are relational beings, interconnected and designed to feel each other. As I pointed out in my post on Level One Listening, we use the same part of our brains to think about others as we do to think about ourselves. It is impossible to totally pull apart the me from the you. Our brains are designed to be impacted by the actions and emotions of others. This is not only how we survive, but how we thrive.

There is a grove of quaking aspen in Oregon that biologists say is the largest living organism. The roots interconnect and the trees all send information to each other continually. Each individual tree just looks separate. They really aren’t.

The more I learn about the brain, the more I wonder about us……..

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5 responses

  1. I totally agree. Thanks for articulating this Anne!

    We are all connected, by many ways of thinking. And, BTW, acting like we aren’t is a very individualistic cultural view that simply wouldn’t fly in a communitarian culture.

    Also, I think there IS such a thing as abuse, even though the term is something used much too lightly, and sometimes insisting someone is responsible for their own reactions can turn into that. (I run over your foot with my car. You scream and cry and yell. I say “you are responsible for your own reactions”. That’s blaming the victim, and I have met far too many people who subscribe to that way of engaging with – or even coaching – others.)

    What a relief to hear you sharing your thoughts on this!

    BTW, I think the responsibility thing might historically in part be a response (or is it a reaction? ;-)) to some kinds of therapy, which can imply some version of your childhood made you how you are. Focusing on responsibility can be a way to help people shift from that sort of sense of powerlessness over their lives.

    But when a coach holds a client accountable for “personal responsibility” in a way that lacks empathy, lacks compassion, lacks recognition of the other’s experience, and is a way of avoiding responsibility for how *we impact others*, I think it has gone to a dangerous other extreme.

    Warm regards,

    Ariel

  2. Thank you for tackling and articulating the complexity of our emotions, reactions, responses, connections! With your example of the trees I can feel a pulsation of energy — a back and forth of being connected to all and then connected to one!

    As a coach, I love that coaching creates that safe place to really look at and experience that pulsation.

    Keep noodling, teaching and wondering.
    Warmly, Mary

  3. Great post, Ann. And I love the comparison to the aspen grove. Maybe we should view a situation when someone “makes” us feel a certain way as an invitation to choose how we do want to feel and then act accordingly. Not be stuck in victimhood but also not pretend to be impervious to their impact. I love how you keep pointing us to look at our assumptions about things in new ways!

  4. As I was growing up, we used to study the poetry in the beginning of the article. I studied it at school, and studied it at university,and I felt it was good, too idealistic perhaps, but good… I have forgotten it since. Now, as I read it, I felt goose bumps all over me..because I feel it.. and I feel all what you have written.

    You have so well explained it, and I totally agree… Enjoy your deep dives into neuroscience..

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