Clients I work with often worry about reaching out to others when they are distressed because they don’t want to be a burden by dumping all their stuff onto the other person. Common comments include “they have a lot going on, I don’t want to add anything to the pot”, “I don’t want to be a burden”, “that is too much for them”.
From a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) perspective, this type of thinking is a common cognitive distortion called Personalization. Cognitive distortions are patterns of thinking that are unhelpful, exaggerated or irrational and not based in facts. Personalization is taking responsibility for something that is not in your control, such as natural disaster, other people’s feelings, or other people’s behaviors.
If you are thinking it is bonkers to say we are not responsible for others feelings, then I would not be surprised, as this is often a very new way of looking at things.
However, you can unburden yourself from the idea that you are responsible for others feelings or their experience, because of one simple fact: you cannot control how other people react or feel. Humans are complicated and we react differently to situations depending on the time of day, how we are feeling, the context, and many other factors.
For example, does it feel as good when a stranger tells you that you are good looking versus when your mom does? If someone close to you were to criticize your choice in shoes, would you react the same compared to if a stranger did? Probably not. While one person may find a joke offensive, the next person may not and it is impossible to predict with certainty who will or will not get offended. The words can be the same, but our reaction may be different depending on who it is coming from or the context. If people react so differently to the same words in different situations, how are we supposed to predict how someone else will react? We can’t.
We can control our feelings and our behavior, but we cannot control other people’s. Therefore, you are not responsible for others feelings, because you can’t control how that person will react. There is no guarantee you will “make” someone feel a certain way. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be mindful of others feelings and run around being rude or slamming doors in people’s faces, it just means that you are not responsible for people’s experiences.
So how is not being responsible for others feelings related to being a burden? Often people do not want to “burden” the other person with their problems or make them feel worse about something. This is personalization because you are taking responsibility for their feelings.
The idea of being a burden on someone else is also engaging in personalization because you are attempting to control the other person’s behavior in addition to their feelings. When we ask someone for something it is their choice to fulfil our request or not. It is their job to say “hey that is too much for me” or “no I can’t do that thing for you”. So, in a nutshell, if you are a burden on someone else: it is their fault not yours.
I know this may seem like a very odd statement. But when you really think about it, can you make a logical argument as to how it would be your fault if you were a burden to someone else? Logically, if you are a burden on someone else, the fault lies with them because they have failed to set boundaries with you as to what they can and/or are willing to do for you.
For example, let’s say you need a ride to the airport and you ask your friend if they can drive you. Your friend wants to help you out so they agree. In the meantime, they realize that they really are not available to drive you to the airport that day as they have other commitments that are important to them, but they want to be a good friend so they rearrange their schedule to accommodate you, which may lead to them feeling like you are a burden. However, who made the error here? Certainly not the person who made the original request, how could they know their friend already had commitments and was too busy to drive them? They couldn’t. The person who agreed to take on the task is the one who made the mistake; the mistake being that they failed to set boundaries around what they are willing and able to do for you. It is your friend’s responsibility to say “no I’m sorry I can’t drive you to the airport that day”, not yours. You are not responsible for setting their boundaries: they are.
When having this conversation recently someone pointed out that people are not good at setting boundaries, so there is still some responsibility on the requestor to be mindful of this. While I would argue that it is not your responsibility to teach someone to set boundaries and not your fault if they haven’t developed that skill, we can reduce some worry about this by giving people a clear opportunity to set boundaries with you. For example, before offloading and venting about your horrible day you may say something like:
“I have something really heavy to discuss and I need to vent, do you have the mental space for that today?”
This gives them the opportunity to say “Of course, I would be happy to be your ear!” or “no sorry not today, how about tomorrow at 5 pm?”. If they choose to say yes when they really can’t handle it: that is not on you. That was their choice to accept. You can’t force people to get good at setting boundaries, but you can help set them up for success and make it easier by giving them an opportunity to decide for themselves if they can handle your request.
In a nutshell you are not responsible if you are a burden to someone because the fault lies in their ability or inability to set boundaries with you. If you disagree or can make a logical argument as to how it would still be your fault if you are a burden, I welcome your comments and feedback on this post.