So I’ve been reading through the archives of Mark Manson’s blog lately. (Wait, you mean the dating coach / self-help writer? Yes, that one. Turns out he’s sensible, respectful, and says smart things about relationships.) Something I’ve noticed, a theme he repeats frequently, is the idea that you should take responsibility for your own emotions and no one else’s.

I like this idea, not least because it hints at the possibility of having unconstrained, dynamic relationships free from emotional blackmail. Breaking it down, we’re looking at two questions: (1) to what extent do I take responsibility for my own emotions? and (2) to what extent do I take responsibility for others’ emotions? Here’s the corresponding 2x2:

a 2x2

We might call the upper left quadrant “mature,” where responsibility for emotions is purely internal, and applaud those who manage to situate themselves there. The upper right quadrant (what I call “martyr”) might require some explanation. In one of his articles, Mark says:

“People who take the blame for other people’s emotions and actions are always looking to save someone. They believe that if they can “fix” their partner, then they will receive the love and appreciation they’ve always wanted.”

Hyperbole? Perhaps, but I think the quote contains a grain of truth, and is central to Mark’s message.

But the fact of the matter is that sometimes my actions really do effect your emotions, and vice versa.

A little while back Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex wrote the provocatively-titled Should You Reverse Any Advice You Hear?, which argues that the advice a person tends to seek out is often the exact opposite of the advice they should be taking.

I suspect that Mark’s suggestion is one of those pieces of advice that needs to be reversed more often than not.

Imagine someone who likes to say rude or offensive things, and people (justifiably) get upset about this. Mark’s advice would be absolutely horrible for this person, not to mention the people they interact with. Imagine this rude person takes Mark’s advice to heart. They’ll probably start offending people even more often, not less, and when people object they’ll say, “Don’t be offended, you should take responsibility for your own emotions!”

As Scott Alexander points out, when there’s a spectrum of possible behaviors, simple unidirectional advice has a good chance of being exactly 180-degrees wrong. You end up telling jerks to care less about what other people think and telling overly-scrupulous pushovers to worry more about how what they say affects others.

To strengthen Mark’s advice and make it more jerk-proof, we’d have to say “You should take responsibility for your own emotions within reason, and you should not take responsibility for others’ emotions, also within reason.”

Then again, now we’re relying on the reasonable judgement of someone who is behaving badly (either as a jerk or a doormat) and we’re back to square one.

Truth vs. Usefulness

An interlude.

It might be that other people really are fully responsible for your emotions, or that you are fully responsible for the good feelings of your partner. (Here I’m using “responsible” in the causal sense, not the moral or normative sense.) Even if this is the case, it may also be true that we can have better relationships when we act in accordance with Mark’s advice, that the best results happen when I think and behave as if I am responsible for my emotions and not yours, and vice versa.

So in this scenario we are dealing with a conflict between what is true and what is merely beneficial. Litany of Tarski devotees beware.

End interlude.

Uncertainty and Bias

Given the above, there is some fact of the matter (actions cause emotions) and there is some set of healthy relationship behaviors (I own my emotions and I am respectful with yours), and we don’t precisely know these facts and behaviors. There is a massive amount of uncertainty in both truth and usefulness.

We are also prone to systematic bias. We lay blame on others. We judge our own behavior with the richness of our internal contexts, while we judge others’ behavior by appearance. There’s good reason to think that, for most people, even if we think we’re holding an internal locus of emotional control we’re actually unfairly blaming others or inappropriately trying to fix their problems. If you consider Mark’s advice as a bias-correcting heuristic rather than a statement about the world it starts to look more reasonable. For most people. Probably.

Tangentially related (if you like rabbit holes): ask culture and guess culture, tell culture, and reveal culture, particularly this comment.

Photo credit: RBC Core values cube - responsibility by Trish Thornton

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