Nobody Can "Make" You Feel Anything -- Except When They Can

We don't live in a feelings vacuum where people are completely unaffected by each other, no matter how many comments people leave to that effect.

Jun 11, 2013 at 1:30pm | Leave a comment

When I was 12 or 13, I started seeing my very first therapist. Her name was Charlotte and I played a lot of solitaire while talking to her. I also did some fingerpainting, but that's just because fingerpainting was fun.

One of Charlotte's big concepts was that no one can MAKE another person do something. Children, she emphasized, cannot MAKE their parents be abusive, cannot MAKE their classmates bully them, cannot dictate the actions of anyone else just by virtue of their being.

At the time, it was an empowering message. Kids in particular tend to take on a lot of guilt and assume that bad situations (like divorce, for example) are their fault. Part of this is developmental (there's ongoing work regarding egocentrism in people across the age spectrum) but there is also the theory that children under stress protect themselves through this sort of worldview. Whatever the reason, it's not uncommon for a lot of people -- kids and adults who learned it in childhood -- to think everything is their own fault.

For a person I regarded as an authority figure to tell me in no uncertain terms that it was not my fault when other people treated me poorly based simply on my identity as a weird, fat kid was absolutely revolutionary. It was a starting point -- we discussed how your emotions can be influenced by other people, but your actions are, within your context, your own. That is, while every situation has its constraints, you might FEEL a certain way but no one can MAKE you do anything.

A child cannot MAKE a parent hit them. A child cannot MAKE a bully make fun of them. 

There are reasonable limits -- but at the end of the day, the message is that people have autonomy.

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I have personal autonomy. But I didn't wake up as a kid and decide to feel bad about being fat. That was a learned behavior.

I absolutely believe this. But I also believe that patriarchy and rape culture exist. That racism has a pernicious influence over American culture. That there is a lot of internalized, all but invisible ableism deeply rooted in our society. I believe, in short, that some people are provided more circumstance in which to exercise their autonomy.

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

I want to tell you these things so that you understand where I am coming from when I ask you to knock it off with telling members of oppressed groups that they are looking for reasons to be offended, that no one can make them feel offended. I keep seeing this in the comments here at xoJane, more and more. And I figured, hey, we're into meta, right? We can talk about this without needing a "How Not To Be A Dick" article.

Here's another example -- a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (Livejournal), a lot people would tell the members of the Fatshionista community that it didn't make any sense to feel bad about themselves. No one can make you hate yourself, some people claimed. You just have to NOT hate yourself. 

A simple solution, on the surface. Just stop hating yourself. Just don't care what anyone else thinks. Just don't give a shit that doctors treat you poorly and you can't find an acid wash denim pencil skirt in your size at any price point. Just don't care.

I am soon to be 36 years old. I love it and I am stoked about it. In part because it has taken me this long to practice determining my own value by my own standards. That way, when people tell me that I am an Internet crazy lady, I can shrug it off. When people tell me they hope I die in a car accident (oddly specific email trolls are oddly specific), I don't need to take it personally.

But there's no way in hell I could be this sanguine about the haters if I had not consciously worked at this shit. If I had not carefully chosen whose opinions I care about. If I had not surrounded myself with awesome and supportive people who will tell me when I am full of shit but who will otherwise support me when my own internal monologue will not.

Because there IS that internal monologue, the recorded message that was installed by cultural messaging since the day I came home from visiting my great-grandmother and was fatter than I was supposed to be. Because our culture DOES believe that I should hate myself for being fat. And while some people might grow up in surroundings that combat those messages, not everyone does.

Telling an adult that they should just not feel offended about something is quite often spitting in a wishing well -- no one can simply go back in time and unlearn everything they've been constructed to believe. As adults, we can certainly examine those assumptions that we learned as children. But I'm not entirely certain we can completely unlearn them; there will always be a scar for many people.

When you tell someone that they should stop choosing to be offended by something, you are suggesting they erase a lifetime of cultural messaging.

Easier said than done.

You're also erasing people's lived experiences. 

I've given a lot of thought to people's motivations for this. And, ultimately, I just don't understand. Because what it always comes back to, for me, is that "Stop choosing to be offended" always seems to read as "Stop asking me to consider my actions." It's a defensive response that dismisses concern about something -- and, yeah, maybe sometimes people (myself included) are concerned about relatively small things. Relatively being the key word there.

It's not particularly fun to be confronted with someone who is saying we are complicit in a system that actively hurts other folks that maybe we've never even thought about. It feels personal -- and it should, because it IS personal. We all have to find some balance between living in the system and changing the system (if we're into that sort of thing) to make things better for everyone.

But if I refuse to respect someone else's lived experience, I'm just perpetuating a system in which oppressed populations aren't regarded as qualified to speak for themselves.

In some ways, I am still guided by the freedom Charlotte gave me when she told me that I couldn't MAKE anyone feel anything. From an abuse perspective, that is an invaluable message. But that only goes so far and while it works great to release children and abuse survivors from a burden of guilt, I don't think it works in reverse. I have a lot of personal autonomy, yeah. And so do other people. But not everyone is autonomous in the same way or in the same circumstances, particularly when it comes to things our culture devalues or outright loathes.

If that's not how you operate, I think that's also a totally valid way to be. I am happy to support you doing you, especially if you doing you means you don't carry around the trauma that a lot of people live with for a lot of different reasons. But for the rest of us? Maybe it's that people can't MAKE us feel anything in particular -- but our ever-present cultural context can.