When I started working at Lessonly, I believed I was responsible for my teammate’s feelings. This belief was born out of my internal struggles. I worried I wasn’t good enough. I feared I would let everyone down. So I put pressure on myself to make sure the people around me were happy. When they weren’t, I wasn’t either. It was exhausting, especially as the company grew. By the time we hit 15 or 20 people, it was inevitable that someone would be upset or struggling with something. Because I didn’t know any better, I took on those feelings as if they were my own. I told myself it was my duty.
By 2017, we had 50+ people, and I was at a breaking point. I remember thinking, “We have to stop hiring because I cannot handle any more feelings. Please, please, please—no more feelings.” I wondered how anyone ran a sizable organization without completely cordoning themselves off from other people. So I tried that. I shied away from any feeling that drained me. I tried a “deal with it” mentality. That route was a struggle for me too. I still felt pain when others felt pain, even if I pretended I didn’t.
For months, I fluctuated between these two states. If I had the energy, I assumed other people’s feelings as my own. If I didn’t, I distanced myself from them. Around the same time, we hired Megan Jarvis, our director of talent. Megan became the new point person when a teammate needed help, which gave me intermittent relief but still didn’t solve the problem. Because the problem had nothing to do with anybody else. The problem was in me.
Since then, I’ve learned I don’t have to choose between emotional slavery and disavowing other people’s feelings. There is a third option: emotional liberation. When I behave in an emotionally liberated way, I take responsibility for my feelings, intentions, and actions, but not the feelings of others. Emotional liberation encourages me to show compassion for—and learn from—other people’s feelings, but not to carry them as my own.
On her blog, licensed counselor Jacey Tramutt does a great job summarizing these three stages and their differences. For clarity, I added the italic descriptors:
Stage 1, emotional slavery: We are responsible for the feelings of others, and we must constantly strive to keep everyone happy. This can easily lead us to see the very people we are closest to as burdens.
Stage 2, disavowing other’s emotions: We no longer want to be responsible for others’ feelings. We feel angry at how little we have responded to the call of our own soul. We have yet to learn how to be responsible to others in a way that is not emotionally enslaving.
Stage 3, emotional liberation: We respond to the needs of others out of compassion, never out of fear, guilt, or shame. We accept full responsibility for our own intentions and actions, but not the feelings of others.
If you’ve been a weekly note subscriber for awhile or read Do Better Work, you won’t be surprised to hear that Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication is a great guide for navigating these stages (see pages 57–61). If you relate to any of this, I urge you to pick his book up and start on your journey toward emotional liberation. You deserve it. We all deserve it.
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