Welcome to post-pandemic life! Welcome back to dining at restaurants with cloth napkins; watching movies in huge, dark theaters; chatting with your friends at living room parties; and dancing to your favorite band at a concert. There’s a lot to celebrate, huh?
But while I’m at it, I might as well also welcome you back to worrying about whether your dinner date thinks this place is too expensive; worrying about the fact that you chose this movie and there’s a super-violent scene you weren’t anticipating, and your best friend is violence-averse, and you’re not sure if she can handle it; worrying about whether everyone in this living room conversation about Dachshunds is feeling included, since Neal has been noticeably silent this whole time, and it is very possible he is allergic to dogs; and worrying about whether your concert-going companion, who is much shorter than you are, is even able to see the band. If you are like me, post-pandemic life means a return to the specific social anxiety that comes with wanting to manage everyone else’s emotions.
It might be a fabulous time to start believing a fundamental truth about being a human: you are not responsible for anyone else’s happiness.
I know this is hard to believe. I have a hard time believing it. For example: a friend recently came to town to visit (because we can have visitors again!), and was staying at an AirBNB near my house. He was disappointed, though, because he hadn’t realized it was a private room in a shared house, and the door was right in the middle of a communal kitchen. He’s sensitive to noise, so he felt anxious that he’d have trouble sleeping.
There is a world in which I might have said, “Oh man! That sucks. I’m sorry to hear that,” and moved on. But he was visiting ME, in MY hometown. Hearing that he was unhappy made me flush bright red with the ignominy of living in a city that had failed him, near an inadequate AirBNB. I spent the whole night online trying to find a better place for him.
“Come to bed,” said my husband.
“I can’t. Stuart is unhappy with his housing accommodation!”
And this is when my husband said, with a lot of calmness, “Oh, that’s too bad. It seems like you are forgetting that you are not responsible for his happiness.”
He was right. But in the moment, I was annoyed. OK, fine, my husband didn’t get it. Trying to make sure everyone around me is comfortable has basically been my life’s identity.
During the quarantine, I was finally given the opportunity to re-calibrate where my energy was going. I noticed what it was like to finally ask myself what I wanted, and how it felt to take the things I needed (like sleep, food, and space). As we emerge from this period, it feels like a critical opportunity to hold on to that newfound balance.
If you are also a people-pleaser, it can help to understand the “why” behind the belief that you are personally responsible for the feelings of everyone around you; and it can also help to give yourself some reframes for moments when your own internet-surfing-for-better-Air-BNBs tendencies come up.
People who had emotionally abusive childhoods might believe they have to take care of other people’s feelings in order to survive.
If you had to take care of your parents’ feelings when you were a child, it actually was necessary for you to people-please. If you didn’t correctly guess what your primary care-taker wanted or needed, and take steps to provide it, the risks were significant. Emotionally abusive parents withdraw care, love, and attention when their own needs are not being met.
If you’ve attached your personal wellbeing to childhood experiences like that, it makes sense that your neural pathways would be pretty deeply embedded in the belief that you have to make sure everyone around you is OK in order to survive. This was a coping mechanism you used in order to literally stay alive when you were small.
For most adults, it is no longer true that we have to take care of other people’s feelings in order to be physically safe. (The exception here is continued abuse in adulthood, which merits another article. If this is you: you’re not alone; and I am so sorry for what you’re going through.) Try saying to yourself, “The feeling that I have to take care of everyone else’s emotions in order to stay safe is real; but the story behind it is no longer true.”
Take your own preferences into account.
It’s empowering to acknowledge and name that you have a preference around something like a restaurant, a movie, or a Saturday activity. A lot of us are worried that what we want to do won’t match what someone else wants to do, so we default to, “Let’s go wherever you want to go!” or, “I honestly don’t care; I’d be happy with anything.”
First of all, it’s courageous to acknowledge your preferences! We often forgo sharing what we want because we’re scared of rejection. In fact, someone else’s “no” is not usually equal to rejection. Just because you’d rather have Japanese food than the pizza your partner is suggesting doesn’t mean you’re definitely going to have Japanese food (or pizza!); it means that you feel safe naming your own reality, with the knowledge that your preference isn’t going to hurt anyone else.
Second, it’s not your job to make sure that everyone likes the thing you suggested. Trust the people you love to make decisions that are right for them, and to articulate their own needs. (Just as you’d like them to trust you to do the same.)
If you believe that you really and truly have no preferences about anything, ever, ask yourself what you’d do if you were faced with a decision and you were alone. Practice saying what you notice about yourself out loud. Naming subtle preferences will strengthen your ability to recognize them.
Check in with your own body while you’re in social situations.
When you’re at a party or other gathering, it can help to go inward a few times throughout the event.
Ask yourself: How is my heart rate? Am I able to really listen to this person I am talking to? What am I looking at, and why? Am I sweating? Am I drinking a lot of alcohol? Eating more food than I really want to be eating? Talking just to fill silence?
After you’ve taken inventory, take a deep breath and try to focus on settling your own body. That might mean you are just going to be quiet for a little while. It’s not your job to be entertaining, charming, or engaging. In fact, the people around you will probably be grateful that you’re taking care of yourself.
Not being responsible for someone’s feelings is not the same as not CARING about someone’s feelings.
In fact, not feeling responsible for anyone else’s happiness allows that person to really feel whatever it is that they are feeling.
When you aren’t worried about making someone else happy, you can let them be however they are. You open yourself to actually listen to them, and to hold their truth, whatever it might be. It is actually pretty compassionate to not force your own expectation of happiness onto someone else.