One of the core principles of Stoicism is accepting responsibility. Accepting responsibility for how you feel, what you did, and what happened. “Blame yourself or blame no one.” – Mr. Marcus Aurelius is famous for having said.
As someone who over-indexes on self-blame, I have a bone to pick with Mr. Aurelius on this one.
Specifically in how it pertains to feelings.
On the socials, Stoic-popularizer and Superfan Ryan Holiday shared how he became frustrated with something his wife did. When he brought it up with her, she replied by saying, “I cannot make you frustrated.”
This is *technically* right.
Holiday is responsible for his frustration. Each of us is responsible for our own feelings.
You are accountable for how your behavior affects others.
Holiday’s wife’s behavior did result in Holiday’s feelings of frustration. Those feelings are not her responsibility to manage, but they were a result of her actions. She is accountable. Responsible and accountable are different.
Here’s where it gets slippery:
In situations of discrimination, bullying, microaggressions, withholding, manipulation, and stonewalling, – this distinction matters. You do not get to abuse someone and then abdicate accountability for your role in how they respond to your behavior.
If you say something antisemitic to me, and I get upset, you don’t get to say, “I can’t make you feel hurt. I can’t make you angry.”
Technically, it’s true. But it is also abusive.
My hurt feelings and anger, and what I do with them, are my responsibility. But you don’t get to abdicate your role in creating the conditions that led to my response. In the case of bullying, racism, homophobia, antisemitism, sexism, systemic gaslighting, and other abusive ways of being in the world – it is not as simple as “control your emotions” and “you get to choose how you respond.”
That is victim blaming.
You don’t actually have a choice in how you feel. You have a choice in how you behave.
Your feelings are reactions that come up automatically. Your job is not to control them, so much as notice them, not identify with them, and definitely do NOT act on them.
Feelings are data from your insides.
You use the data to decide how to act.
It is true that you are not responsible for the feelings of others (see: Codependent No More), but it’s also true that we are interdependent. What you do affects me. We’re humans, we’re mammals, we’re social animals. None of us lives in a bubble.
Solving your own problems and managing your feelings is your responsibility. But we are accountable for our behavior. And if our behavior is creating conditions that cause people to feel badly, then we cannot blame them for their reactions and abdicate responsibility for our role in affecting them.
We need to look at our behavior and what we’re doing that is provoking that reaction in someone else.
Two things can be true at the same time: My feelings are a response to something you did and I’m responsible for managing them and choosing how I act. You are responsible for your behavior and you are not absolved of accountability for how I feel, even if you’re not responsible for it.
James Baldwin has a phenomenal essay called Notes of a Native Son that expands on this topic. What we’re really contending with here is the question of who is responsible and accountable for our feelings and behavior. It is not so black and white as, “I’m responsible for everything,” and, “Everyone else is to blame.” The truth rests in the middle.
I encourage us to find it.
PS: In case it was not abundantly clear: radical self-blame is unhealthy. Very very unhealthy. As is the opposite extreme: blaming the world for your suffering. Both these extremes are incorrect and inaccurate.
To geek out on this topic, I recommend one of my all-time favorite books, The Choice, by Dr. Edith Eva Eger. Dr. Eger is a Holocaust survivor and psychologist who studied under the OG himself, Viktor Frankel (who you might recognize as the author of Man’s Search For Meaning).
And Codependent No More by Melody Beattie.
If you’re new to this topic, start with Melody Beattie.