“Nobody can make another person feel anything.” Errrr…

One of the advantages of being new to the field of relationship psychology is that I am still relatively immune to the jargon and nuance of meaning in phrases that professionals seem to use nonchalantly; words that we regular folk may not fully understand.  What is obvious and innocent psychobabble to a practiced therapist sometimes stands out as dangerous non-sense to me. I fully admit that my response is coming from a place of incomplete understanding, but I am convinced that things sometimes get lost in translation for us regular folk. I’ve seen it happen.

So, when a professional recently replied to me that “Nobody can make another person feel anything” my initial response was “horse feathers!” (OK, maybe not horse feathers, but referring to bovine after-product might get me in trouble with my co-editor.) This assertion flies in the face of common sense and seems to contradict a great deal of the hard research I am reading.

Here are just a few examples of how one person might make another feel…

  1. Suicidal: On January 14, 2010, teenager Phoebe Prince committed suicide by hanging. Six bullies from her High School were later indicted as adults on felony charges. While legal precedent seems to be only now catching up to public sentiment, it is fair to say that the legal system acknowledges that one person can make another person feel poorly enough about their situation to commit suicide.
  2. Defeated/nervous: Bullying can actually change the brain, affecting the way the victim feels and responds to the world.
  3. Avoidant:  “Anyone who is pursued by someone with an anxious strategy is going to feel more avoidant.” ~ Dr. Phil Shaver
  4. Angry/sad: “Rejection elicited greater anger, sadness, and hurt feelings than acceptance, as well as an increased tendency to aggress toward the rejector.”
  5. Changed/successful: Studies into “The Michelangelo Phenomenon” indicate that there are “strong associations between perceived partner affirmation and self movement toward the ideal self.” i.e. We sculpt our heartmates.

There are many, many more examples of actions of one person changing the feelings of another. This should come as no surprise to us – human beings are inherently social animals. We are designed to work together and respond to one another.

I can only conclude that my understanding of what is meant by “nobody can make another person feel anything” is flawed, as I have heard this, or similar words, from several different sources. There must be words behind the words that I do not understand. I suspect the intention is to indicate that we should not look outside ourselves for control of our world – we are still accountable for our own actions and that ultimately each individual is _responsible_ for their own feelings. I can live with that.

So why does this phrase bother me? Because I have witnessed two very negative interpretations of these words when taken word-for-word, out of context. Specifically:

  1. The Corollary: “If it is true that nobody can make another person feel anything, clearly nothing I do can make another person feel anything. So, by logic, anything I do to another person is irrelevant. If they have a negative emotional reaction to my [bullying, shunning, yelling, etc.], it isn’t my fault.”
  2. The Revealed Flaw:  Another interpretation I have seen is a little more subtle. It goes like this – “If I cannot make another person feel anything, yet they now are feeling [sad, mad, rejected, etc.], clearly I have discovered something in that person that I previously overlooked. Sometimes it takes getting close to someone in order to really discover flaws.”

In both of these responses, the interpreting party twists the stock phrase to absolve themselves of any responsibility for their actions in their relationship(s). I believe that the phrase creates a blind spot to negative behaviour(s) that ultimately can continue unchecked from relationship to relationship. Again, clearly this is not the intention, although I’ve seen it happen.

So, therapists, do you tell your clients “nobody can make another person feel anything.” If so, where did that phrase come from (research citations greatly appreciated)? Why do you use it? And what are the words behind the words? I’d love to hear what you mean. I look forward to your comments.

3 thoughts on ““Nobody can make another person feel anything.” Errrr…

  1. I’ve understood this phrase to mean, – stated defensively when experiencing inappropriate guilt/shame for failing to prevent impacting another, but also painfully aware of my responsibility for an action that has caused someone a painful experience.
    perhaps I might be the cause for triggering the felt experience by another, however not responsible for the content of their internal discourse and its related residual pain. That being said, i agree this saying is too often used to avoid personal accountability for other unproductive and potentially harmful behaviors. But I gotta say, there is still something I’ve missed.

  2. Yes! Couldn’t agree more. I’ve always struggled with the idea that people can’t ‘make us (whatever)’. Part of intimacy, friendship and connectedness means that we open ourselves up to people. Being open to the positive also means being vulnerable to the negative. Perhaps the problem is with the word ‘make’, but certainly other people can influence the way we feel and respond to the world for better or worse. You have articulated the issue beautifully. Thank you!

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