We’re living in a time of revolution when it comes to how we talk about things. As a society, we are increasingly aware of the reality that our words matter. There are many important and equally valid reasons as to why that is. From my perspective as a therapist, I’m interested in the ways our words inform how we understand our experiences, which in turn inform our emotional responses and the actions we choose.
There are plenty of ways we could talk about how language relates to our understandings of things, but in this post I focus on a particular issue that comes up a lot in my counselling work: the distinction between effects and responses, and how they shape our perspectives on responsibility for our own and other people’s feelings and actions.
The Difference Between Effects and Responses
When we talk about effects we generally mean:
- a change that results when something is done or happens;
- an event, condition, or state of affairs that is produced by a cause.
One of my mentors and favourite people, Allan Wade, brings clarity to this simple notion with the analogy of kicking a rock. To paraphrase:
If you strike a rock with your foot, it will probably travel some distance, then gravity will do its thing, and it will land and stay put (until the next time it’s acted upon). The movement of the rock is an effect of the kick. As inanimate objects, rocks do not respond to us acting upon them; they are limited to being effected by our actions.
Living things, like trees, cats, or human beings, are not so simple. If someone was to come along and kick us – I mean really give us a good kick – we might travel some distance too, like the rock. It would be fair to call the distance that we travel in this scenario an effect of the kick. But as beings that are far more complex than rocks, we would also feel stuff after the kick. These feelings might include physical pain around the area we were struck on our body, as well as emotions (like anger, sadness, fear, or confusion).
In lieu of these emotions, we might avoid going near the location that the kick took place, we might experience anxiety around other people who remind us of the kicker, and we may be more vigilant than we were before we got kicked – doing our best to avoid something similar happening in the future. In agreement with Allan Wade’s position, I’m of the opinion that these feelings and actions are responses to being kicked.
You’ve probably heard people describe their emotions as effects of their experiences. For example, someone might say, “depression is an effect of childhood abuse.” This perspective is super common, but also kind of problematic. Here’s why:
When we label our feelings and actions as effects of our experiences (like the kick described above), we are reduced to the same status as the rock. In a linguistic sense, it’s actually objectifying to say that a person’s sense of upset after being kicked is an effect of the kick, as it positions them as a passive object rather than an active subject.
On the other hand, when we use a language of responses, we acknowledge that people are actually active social agents. If someone was to kick you, and I was to ask you all about how you responded (including your thoughts, emotions, physiological responses, and actions), our conversation would be honouring the fact that you’re an active subject, and not a passive object. If, however, I were to ask you about how that kick effected you, I’d be denying you the opportunity to give a full account of your experience, which would no doubt include how you responded, and resisted the force of the kick.
Effects, Responses, and Emotions
In my post Your Emotions Aren’t a Problem, I acknowledge how everyone experiences emotions differently, and that no two people will have the exact same emotional response to the same event or experience. From my perspective, this helps illustrate that emotions are responses, not effects.
After all, if we were to rig up a rock-kicking machine that kicked 10 different rocks of the exact same size and weight, all with the same velocity and force, we could pretty much count on those 10 rocks traveling and landing in almost the exact same way.
If we were to then take 10 different human beings and subject them to the force of the kicking machine, we would probably witness 10 distinct emotional (and behavioural) responses. Some may be outraged, others may feel sad, while some may feel indifferent, and one or two may even kind of like it. This purely hypothetical example illustrates how subjectivity and individual differences set the stage for a wide variety of possible responses, which a language of effects does not account for.
Who is Responsible for Emotional Responses?
This brings us to an interesting and controversial question: if emotions are responses to events, who is responsible for them? This is the issue at the heart of this post. Many people I see in therapy experience a lot of distress around how their actions affect others. In spirit, I think that’s fantastic – it shows a genuine regard for other people’s wellbeing, and accountability for one’s own behaviour.
The downside of this, as many folks have illustrated for me, is that when we see ourselves as responsible for how other people feel, it’s easy to move through life with immense feelings of guilt and worry. That doesn’t feel good, and people often seek help when they experience life in this way.
Here’s an example:
Karen and Steph are colleagues who mutually enjoy one another’s company – so much so that they’ve started getting together outside of work. Karen has been going through a rough time with her siblings, and she and Steph shared some really intimate conversations in which they were very emotionally open and vulnerable around issues in their lives. In lieu of these conversations, and the closeness the two of them shared, Steph went out on a limb one evening while they were embraced in a goodbye hug and kissed Karen on the lips. Feeling caught off guard, Karen did not pull away from Steph, but she also didn’t feel comfortable with the kiss, as she did not have those kinds of feelings for her friend. She now fears that Steph regards her in a much different light than she views Steph, and has been spending many restless nights riddled with guilt over a sense that she led Steph on, and for the impending disappointment she anticipates Steph will feel when she clarifies her feelings.
In short, Karen is worried that she will cause Steph emotional pain, which feels really distressing, given how much she values their friendship. The word to pay attention to here is “cause” – and this is where things get tricky. Given what we know about emotions (which are responses, not effects), Karen would not cause Steph to feel disappointed. Rather, Steph’s disappointment would be part of her emotional response to Karen’s actions. Although it would be understandable and totally valid for Steph to feel disappointed, if her values were different, she might just as well feel some other emotion. Because Steph’s feelings hinge on more than just Karen’s actions, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that Karen caused Steph to feel disappointed – because disappointment is a response, rather than an effect.
Intentions and Responsibilities
When people worry about how their actions will affect others, I often invite them to consider their intentions. In Karen and Steph’s example, Steph may feel a significant sense of disappointment after Karen lets her know that she doesn’t share her romantic sentiments, but it isn’t Karen’s intention to hurt Steph’s feelings.
That isn’t to say that people can’t do harm accidentally – we’ve all inadvertently stepped on other people’s toes despite having good intentions. But if we’re thinking critically about our actions (as Karen is in the example above) and being careful with how we carry ourselves, we can generally say that we’re doing the best we can in a given situation – and we can’t do much more than that until after we learn from our mistakes.
At the end of the day, the only people we can answer for are ourselves. In the interest of working toward a more socially just world, I believe that it is important for us to take ownership of our own actions, while also acknowledging other peoples’ ownership of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. If we look at people’s emotional responses to our actions as effects, the next logical step is to apologize for how they’re feeling. This is a slippery slope, as we can then fail to acknowledge our own actions that others may be responding to. Many of us have likely been in situations where someone has transgressed, and then apologized for us feeling upset ("I'm sorry you feel sad", for example). From where I stand, this is like apologizing for the sky being blue - we have no say in how other people feel (although they may respond predictably to certain actions we take). By recognizing that emotions are responses to, and not effects of events and experiences, we are better equipped to see what we’re actually responsible for in our interactions with others, which can ease guilt in some situations, and invite us into accountability in others.
When it comes to emotions, how do you make sense of the difference between effects and responses?
Have you spent more time than you'd like to worrying about how you make other people feel?
if you'd like some help.