One of the biggest concerns people have when it comes to communicating assertively is the fear that they will hurt other people’s feelings. This is not surprising because from a very young age we are told that it is our responsibility to be good girls and boys and therefore avoid hurting the feelings of those around us. On the surface, this seems like a perfectly reasonable principle since we ourselves are often affected by the words of other people. It is natural to feel like you can have a big impact on the moods and feelings of others and this is true to some degree. However, we tend to overestimate our ability to cause other people’s feelings.

Feelings come from our interpretation of events around us 

To see whether we can truly cause the feelings of others, we first need to understand where emotions come from. Emotions occur when we think of a particular thought. It is impossible to feel an emotion, be it joy, anger, or boredom or anything else when our minds are completely blank. If you are not entirely sold on this idea, I dare you to try to feel ecstatic joy while refraining from recalling joyful events or thinking joyful thoughts. The idea that our thoughts are the birthplace of emotions informs Cognitive-behavioral Therapy which seeks to change people’s emotions by systematically guiding them to change their underlying thoughts. This type of therapy has been shown to be highly effective in treating a wide variety of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. 

Emotions are highly personal

Since your emotions result from your thoughts and your thoughts are highly personal, you can see how no one but you can cause you to feel anything without your consent. Your consent to feel a certain emotion comes from you entertaining certain thoughts. Many people are resistant to this idea because it flies in the face of how we are used to allocating responsibility for our emotions. If no one but you can make you feel anything then when you feel bad, you have no one but yourself to blame. This is highly unsatisfying. When we feel bad feelings we want to exact revenge on whoever caused them, but you can’t very well send yourself hateful texts, or slam the door of your own apartment, or beat yourself up (not that we should be doing that to other people anyway). 

When we say emotions are highly personal, that is because our interpretation of events around us is highly personal. 

Say for example you got a gift from your coworker on your birthday. 

You might think “ Wow! what a thoughtful gesture. I am flattered they remembered my birthday. I must be very important to them. They must value me a lot.” 

Thinking this , you might feel elated, connected, excited, and many other positive emotions. 

If on the other hand, you thought “Oh my god, I can’t believe this person remembered my birthday. I have no idea when this co-worker’s birthday is..wait did I already miss it? I have no idea what to get them. I already have enough on my to-do list and I don’t need another thing to worry about.” Your thoughts might cause you to feel stressed rather than happy in this instance. 

Same event, same gesture- totally different emotional response. 

Thoughts cause feelings-not people

The truth is that it was not the action that CAUSED you to feel the way that you did: it was your explanation of the event. In other words the story you tell yourself is WAY more powerful than what anyone says or does. 

It also means you are WAY less powerful than you thought in terms of affecting other people. Therefore the sheer act of sharing our thoughts, needs or feelings in and of itself has no meaning other than what the listener ascribes to those statements. We cannot fully predict or be held responsible for the effect that our thoughts, opinions, needs, and feelings have on others. 

That’s not to say that knowing this gives you license to say intentionally rude, hateful, or disrespectful things to others. If you are interested in maintaining the goodwill of those around you, you may wish to consider the impact of what you say to the best of your ability. But understand that your limited perspective means that you cannot take the full blame or indeed the full credit of your words. 

Final word

Our emotions are the children of our thoughts. Just like children, thoughts need to be disciplined from time to time, just like children thoughts need compassion from time to time. Don’t make the mistake of disciplining someone else’s children. 

Are you still concerned that speaking your truth is going to hurt somebody? If you have a tough conversation coming up and need someone to help you get in the right mindset, feel free to book a session. 

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