Emotional Responsibility

by Mark Schiffman, Psy.D.

Who or what controls your emotions? Do each of your friends and family members have access to your emotional keyboard, with the ability to push your anger, anxiety, shame or depression buttons at any point in time? Do cars, trains, dating apps, long lines, and job searches hold your emotional joystick?  Most of us go around with the notion that “he makes me so angry!” or “she makes me depressed” but one of the central features of any Cognitive Behavior Therapy is that we take responsibility for our own emotions. In between the environmental inputs and the emotional outputs are our attitudes, beliefs and expectations.

It is for this reason that I found myself very intrigued and slightly conflicted while listening to one of the latest episodes of the Podcast Invisabilia on the topic of emotions. The beginning of the episode explored a fascinating and heart-wrenching legal case regarding payment and responsibilities for emotional damages.  The premise of the first half of the podcast was that our emotions are a product of our environment and the people around us, and it is for that reason that you can be held legally and financially responsible for causing me emotional distress.

While this may sound harsh, but if from a CBT perspective I am responsible for my own emotions, wouldn’t one have to draw the conclusion that I cannot be responsible for your emotional experiences? In the middle of the episode, they interviewed the emotion researcher, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, author of the book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, who makes this exact point from the research. Without any agenda to change any law or policy, she argues that the research on emotions supports the idea that emotions are constructed through our own prism, and are not a direct outgrowth of the people and things surrounding us.

What do you think? Should person A be held legally responsible for precipitating emotional harm to person B? Partially Responsible? Morally responsible?

Mark Schiffman



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