In an increasingly narcissistic and self-centered society, liquid relationships threaten to become the new standard, a standard of fragile bonds that extols the tendency to run away when things go wrong. In that environment, emotional responsibility is a rare sight. However, if we want to establish more mature, fulfilling and satisfying relationships, we need to develop affective responsibility.
What is affective responsibility?
Affective responsibility is full awareness of the impact that our words and actions have on others. It implies being aware that our behaviors have consequences on the emotions of others, whether positive or negative.
Therefore, this concept leads us to conceive the relationships that we establish as spaces where each person is affected by the actions and decisions of the other. This leads us to a more respectful and empathetic relational pattern with what others may feel, instead of ignoring how we influence those around us.
The concept of affective responsibility does not imply adapting ourselves to others or putting their needs above ours constantly, but only striving to build more equitable, respectful and transparent relationships, based on the awareness that we all have the ability to generate emotions in others, as well as others, can generate emotions in us.
This awareness is what allows us to communicate assertively, respecting the other, and develop the necessary maturity to assume our responsibilities and try to correct our mistakes.
The huge difference between affective responsibility and psychological projection
Affective responsibility is the antithesis of psychological projection. When we project we think in terms of: “You are responsible for how I feel” or “I am responsible for how you feel.” As a result, it often leads to feelings of guilt, unhealthy attachment, emotional dependency, and controlling behaviors.
The psychological projection is a double-edged sword. We can use it to blame ourselves for the emotions of others or we can use it to blame others for how we feel.
When we think in terms of psychological projection, we can tend to take responsibility for how others feel, to the point of thinking that it is our mission to make them happy and alleviate their pain. On the other hand, when we think in terms of affective responsibility, we are concerned with the happiness of the other and try to alleviate his or her suffering as much as possible, but we are aware that this weight does not fall completely on our shoulders.
We can also make the mistake of projecting our feelings onto others, holding them accountable for our emotions. So we end up putting the responsibility of making us happy on their shoulders and blaming them for our misfortunes. On the other hand, if we are emotionally responsible, we understand the influence that others have on us, but we assume that we have the power to change those feelings. So we remove guilt from the equation.
We can’t control the circumstances, but we can manage our emotions
Philosopher Aaron Ben-Zeev explained that many times the spontaneous nature of emotions makes us believe that we are not responsible for them. However, the truth is that we have power over our emotional reactions and we can use it to improve our relationships with others and with ourselves.
Negative emotions are inevitable, but we can detect when we experience them and observe how they affect the people with whom we interact. Not being aware of the damage we cause does not erase it. We can also understand how others influence our emotional states.
This implies accepting that we live certain situations that can generate unpleasant emotions, so that instead of dedicating ourselves to looking for guilty or lamenting, we need to project ourselves into the future and ask ourselves what we can do to change the situation. How can we respond more assertively? What can we do to mitigate the damage? It’s about developing a proactive approach.
Ultimately, we have the power to decide what responsibilities we want to take on. We should avoid both “that’s not my problem” ideas, when in fact we could help, and the “I have to do something” mentality when we can’t help.
Affective responsibility is also a matter of two
Since affective responsibility involves understanding mutual influence, it also demands a commitment from both parties. Faced with a difficult or conflictive situation, it is essential to reach agreements in which each party assumes responsibility for it.
To do this, it is essential to establish assertive communication. We must be able to express how we feel, what we want, what bothers us, as well as our expectations and ideas. Speaking clearly about our feelings creates deep emotional ties and builds bridges to resolve conflicts.
This assertive communication focused on forging agreements must be transparent, but always taking into account the opinions and wishes of the other. We need to understand that a relationship consists of more than one person, which may seem like a truism, but would actually avoid a lot of conflict. We must remember that we are not the only ones living on Earth and starting to be more empathetic by putting ourselves in the place of the other.
Of course, emotional responsibility does not imply acting perfectly, which is impossible. Rather, it is about acting with empathy and respect, resorting to dialogue, reflecting before speaking or acting and assuming the consequences for our emotional reactions.
It is not a miracle cure for pain and interpersonal conflict. The possibility of hurting others or being hurt is always latent. Tensions won’t go away as if by magic, either.
Affective responsibility simply helps us to stop dealing with problems by taking the blame or blaming. In the place of blame, responsibility is born so that conflicts become an opportunity to get closer and better understand ourselves, from a more sensitive position.
Johns, N. et. Al. (2016) Affective responsibility and Loneliness as Correlates of Life Satisfaction among Adolescents. IRA-International Journal of Management & Social Sciences; 3(3): 558-567.
Roberts, T. (2015) Emotional Regulation and Responsibility. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice; 18: 487–500.