Carolyn Hax

Carolyn Hax: Realize what you can and cannot control

 

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: You have said a few times something along the lines of “We are not responsible for someone else’s feelings,” and when it comes to the extremes of narcissistic or victim-playing behavior, I get this. But if I do or say something legitimately hurtful, prejudiced, etc., to someone else, whether through malicious forethought or benign error, it’s hard for me not to feel at least a little responsible for the likely distress that person then feels, and I do my best to make amends.

True, some of us have an especially Zen approach to life, and each of us ultimately chooses how we react to what life throws at us, but I think I’m understanding your comment much more coldly and heartlessly than you intended. Could you please clarify?

Anonymous

Truth is, I think a lot of what I advise and espouse amounts to a system — an emotional word problem, in a way. Therefore, talking about it involves breaking down very emotional things into transactions, which is inherently cold.

But that’s just in the mechanics; the result is an emotional exchange, which, if handled with respect and fair concern for all involved, tends to be the opposite of cold.

Short version: Your actions can cause pain, of course, but you can’t reach in and personally adjust the pain levels. You can only change your actions.

It is a cold word problem, but it also shows the path to a happy result where people care about each other while also recognizing the line between what is under your control (the outcome you intend) and isn’t (outcome you get).

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at washingtonpost.com.

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