Are you a sponge for the emotions of others? Do you find Zoom calls and group chats draining because there is just too much coming at you all at once? You’re probably like me in that you need the occasional reminder that you’re not responsible for other people’s happiness.

an ice cream cone smashed on the ground with a blurry background and the text "You're Not Responsible for Other People's Happiness"

Other people’s emotions have always been tough for me. I think one of the reasons I got into reading and writing as a kid was because it gave me a space to be alone without being aware of other people or their emotions.

I’m not sure where it comes from, but some of us grew up thinking we could help other people by making them happy.

Maybe it’s birth order. Maybe it comes from being praised for being the kid in the family that is easy for your parents to raise. It could be the kids you grew up around. Or maybe it’s none of those things.

Whatever it is, there was some time in our lives where we were made to believe that we could make others happy if we tried hard enough.

But you can’t. If it ain’t yours, don’t carry it. And this, friends, ain’t your job.

You’re Not Responsible for Other People’s Happiness

I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know how the brain works. So, I don’t want anyone to read this and think that I’m an expert.

Also, I don’t want this to read like a “choose joy” post because some people can’t. Not everyone has the neural pathways and brain chemicals for that, and to pretend like getting out of depression or anxiety is as simple as choosing joy is a total dick move.

But I will say something I know to be completely true.

You’re not responsible for other people’s happiness. You can’t fix how other people feel. And there is no universe where you’re responsible for doing that.

Even if you’ve been made to feel that way in the past.

I have a tendency to attune myself to the energy in the room. I figure out where the anger or sadness or whatever is, and I placate that person. I’ve done it my whole life.

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And I don’t want to anymore because it’s exhausting, and at the end of the day, it’s not my job.

So if you feel exhausted or burnt out because you can’t stop trying to fix how others feel, then keep reading.

Because guess what? You don’t have to fix how people feel, or feel guilty for not doing it.

How to Stop Feeling Guilty for Other People’s Feelings

This is not something you’re going to figure out over night. It’s not something that you’ll be able to do well 100% of the time. And it’s not something that will come easily.

But it’s totally worth the work.

Here’s how you can stop feeling guilty for not making others happy all the time.

001: Pull way back.

Generally speaking, you probably need some space.

Because if you’re a feelings fixer, you are probably so enmeshed in that weird relationship that you don’t even see all the ways that you’re stuck in it. So, if you can, pull back from the person or people who you always find yourself fixing.

I know that I used to do this at work a lot. I had a coworker who would run 5-hour meetings. She would demand to have a whole semester planned out months before it began. She wanted everyone to do exactly the same thing.

And everyone in the department gave in to her.

But after a couple of years in that department, I pulled back from that person. In the end, it wasn’t mandated by the boss that we operate that way, and it was detrimental to my mental and physical health to keep working like that.

So I pulled back and stopped sharing so much. It was hard, and I know this person saw it as a personal insult. But I couldn’t be responsible for her feelings.

I needed the space to breathe.

002: Create the boundary you need.

Figure out what you want the relationship with that person to look like.

If you want a clean break and you can make that happen, then do it. But if you can’t because you work together or you’re in a family together, think about the best case scenario.

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Start with what you need. Do you need less communication via text messages? Do you need nights off from dealing with them? Would you like to only speak with this coworker during work hours?

Figure out what will work best for you. Then, outline what that will look like in practice.

You have to figure out what you need to do in order to make this boundary work. Because without your vision for it, you won’t be able to uphold it.

For me, a lot of my boundaries are easy. Like my phone goes on Do Not Disturb at specific hours of the day. So I’m not available by text message for those hours. And I work from home now, so I don’t really have to enforce boundaries in a hostile break room or meeting.

You may have to get really creative to make this boundary possible, simply because so many relationships and work environments function on overstepping boundaries.

003: Give that boundary time to strengthen, if you can.

Boundaries are really hard. I tend to suck at them.

Not for lack of trying. But because I’m so conditioned to think I can fix people. And I can’t!

So I know when I put a new boundary in place, it’s going to take some time to make it work for me. And I know I can’t have someone pushing on it all the time.

Take the time that you need. If that means ignoring text messages, so be it.

The thing to remember here is that this is for you and you alone. And if you don’t do it, there’s likely a chance that you will burn out in that relationship and be unable to continue. You may say some things that can’t be taken back. Or you may find yourself resenting that person.

So give yourself some space away from the person who keeps pushing on that boundary.

If you can work on it over the weekend before going back to work on Monday, good. If you can take a few days off work, even better. If it’s with a friend, let them know that you’re going to be working on something and may not be available.

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I know you can’t always give yourself the time you need to let your boundaries set, but if you can, it’s worth it.

004: Be ready to defend it.

So, if you have a person who functionally uses you to fix their feelings, they’re going to wonder why you’ve stopped.

When my coworker realized I was no longer sharing all my assignments or available for meetings, it destroyed the atmosphere in the department. I was lucky in that my boss supported it, and my officemate did as well.

But the change in the workplace was palpable. And the coworker who had always needed the placating and the sense of control of everyone was not pleased.

Did it destroy the relationship? Yep.

But I couldn’t have kept going on the way we were.

In the end, I was just at that job as long as I needed to be until I could quit. And when I did, I knew I didn’t have to be there anymore, and thus that relationship didn’t really matter.

So, know that there will be confrontations. But you have to remember why that boundary is there in the first place. You can’t be the fixer for people. And you can’t be emotionally available to everyone. In fact, the more you learn to defend these boundaries, the easier it gets, and the more boundaries you can set.

Are You an Emotions Sponge Too?

I love hearing stories about how people have learned they’re not responsible for other people’s happiness. Tell me about a boundary you set that was tough, but that you’re happy you put in place.

4 Responses

  1. Have you any insights into how to manage feeling that you have done or said something that upsets someone, close or not, without meaning to? Sometimes you know you’ve said the wrong thing; sometimes what you say triggers a response you can’t anticipate because you don’t know their personal circumstances.

    1. Oooh. I totally know this sort of feeling. I think it’s important to always apologize if you caused some kind of harm, even if you didn’t intend to. That being said, you can’t control how people respond to you and everyone’s emotions are their own. It’s been a long journey for me to learn that people get to feel how they feel, and it’s not my responsibility to fix it or change it. Obviously, no one wants to go through life offending people left and right, but sometimes it happens and you can apologize. But really, that’s all you can do.

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