How can I take the right amount of responsibility? What is mine to do? What is not mine? How do I know the difference?
I feel pulled in opposing directions. On the one hand, I come from a family of lawyers and competed for years in speech and debate: I am a master at deploying logic and marshalling arguments to rationalize my behavior and thus avoid responsibility. My work here is to take more responsibility, to combat my tendency to justify my actions.
On the other hand, I have a tendency to take responsibility for things that I am not responsible for. In particular, I have a tendency to take responsibility for other people's emotions: when others are distressed I feel it is my responsibility to help them feel better, or to take responsibility for being the cause of their distress. My work here is to take less responsibility, to own what is mine but no more.
It's a really difficult practice, and I don't always have a good sense of how far across the bridge I need to walk; what is my journey, where do I wait for others to meet me. I want to use this post to unpack what it looks like to take the “right” amount of responsibility in the context of interpersonal conflict.
TL;DR: Boundaries are an expression of love: for yourself and the other. Saying ‘no’ creates space for an authentic ‘yes.’ You are responsible for your actions, not other people’s reactions or feelings. Yet… the responsibility to initiate repair rests with the person most healed, regardless of who bears responsibility for the rupture.
“It is one of the highest forms of love to set boundaries”
I tend to think of boundaries as something to keep something out; it feels to me like a form of rejection. It feels harsh. But this line from parenting coach Janet Lansbury invites me to reframe how I think about it: what if boundaries were not selfish, but loving?
A boundary is a clear understanding of what is okay for you, and what is not okay.
Xavier Dagba offered a really helpful way to tune into your own boundaries by noticing your feelings as an indicator. He explains that resentment and anger are both warning signs of boundary violations. Where resentment indicates a boundary wasn’t set, anger is a signal that an identified boundary has been transgressed.
Setting and enforcing boundaries is often framed as an act of self-care, and self-love… which, of course, it is. Brené continues:
Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.
But it’s more than that. The key is to find a way to set a loving boundary: one that is an invitation to connection without self-sacrifice. I like the way Alexandra Solomon describes the aspiration behind setting boundaries:
The goal is to remain grounded in myself and connected to you.
A weak boundary loses myself; I can’t hear my own voice. A rigid boundary disconnects me from you; I lose the ability to hold you in my circle of care and concern. Not just a boundary, then, but a loving boundary: autonomy and connection.
This feels much better to me: it’s not about privileging the self, but it’s about giving my needs equal weight, considering them alongside the needs of others, and standing in integrity when in conflict. Prentis Hemphill said it best:
I love this: #lifegoals. Prentis gave words to something I’d long yearned for — reminding me of the concept of an ecotone: boundaries as a site of connection and creation, rather than separation.
My wife and I are still in deep practice around this. At our wedding almost 13 (!) years ago, we read from Gibran’s On Marriage:
Let there be spaces in your togetherness… the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
Good in theory; much harder in practice. It’s hard enough to find the courage to name the boundary in the first place; harder still to enforce it lovingly (to remain connected to myself and my partner at the same time… still aspiring to Prentis’ aspirational vision).
“Your ‘no’ makes the way for your ‘yes’”
I love this line from adrienne maree brown, another of the people I look to in navigating this fraught terrain. She elaborates in Pleasure Activism:
Boundaries create the container within which your yes is authentic. Being able to say no makes yes a choice.
I remember when I first read this page I had to close the book and just sit with it. Like Prentis’ statement, it landed in my body with the visceral resonance of a truth already known but never given words. I thought of this line recently while reading this devastating New York Times Magazine essay entitled “I Spent My Life Consenting to Touch I Didn’t Want.” It’s a difficult read, but this line still haunts me:
There were few people who seemed capable of the deep attention required to actually know what they wanted, especially when faced with the wants of someone else.
I remember a moment in high school, I was maybe 16, and I asked a friend if she wanted to go to the homecoming dance with me. She said no. I was surprised — we were already friends, it didn’t feel high stakes — and I asked why. She said she’d never said no to anyone before, and wanted to try it out, and she thought I could handle it. I wasn’t sure at the time what to do with that, but even in my adolescence I understood her point. She was expressing adrienne’s insight: if you never say ‘no,’ how do you know whether your ‘yes’ is freely offered, is really a choice?
To this day I find it difficult to trust other people to set or enforce boundaries with me, because I’ve so often experienced the knee-jerk consent — perhaps better-described as acquiescence — of people willing to follow my lead… only to subsequently find out that they weren’t in fact making an affirmative choice . (This was the dynamic so cringingly illustrated in the viral Cat Person). And of course, the work isn’t only theirs to do: because my life experience has strengthened and validated my capacity to refuse, I too often assume others feel similarly liberated to enforce their boundaries.
But of course, we don't all move through the world in the same bodies; our boundaries — stated or unstated — and not respected or transgressed in the same ways. As with everything, the ability to set and enforce boundaries is racialized, gendered, classed, etc… and informed by our own histories of trauma. In my case (as a 6’4 man) it’s also about size: I’m acutely aware that people (other men very much included) see in me the potential for threat and violence.
There’s so much here. Most of us simply don’t have the practice in saying no, or owning our yes, to effectively navigate interpersonal boundaries. And the goal of course is flexibility: to have the agency to relax — or expand — our boundaries depending on the context. One more thought here from Alexandra Solomon, reinforcing the importance of embodiment:
The difference between yes and no is felt in the body.
Often we won’t actually “know” in the moment: we need to take time to tune into what our bodies are telling us, and then to act from that groundedness. Kids are actually much better at this than we are: they have no trouble telling you if they want a hug or if they don’t (and it’s my ongoing practice not to show disappointment when they say no… because my disappointment risks overwhelming their boundary). It’s we adults who’ve lost connection with our bodies — or lost faith in our voices — who struggle to remain grounded and connected.
I’m responsible for my actions… not your feelings
After a couple years in therapy, I’ve finally come to intellectual terms with this truth… but it remains difficult to embody in the face of all my conditioning. I really like this piece from Margaret Paul, where she explains:
Because we all have a tendency to apologize as a form of control and to avoid another's anger, we need to be very conscious of whether the other person is projecting their own behavior onto us or whether we've genuinely done something hurtful.
When there is a rupture or conflict in a relationship, I am almost always the one to take the first step to build the bridge to reconnect. Often I have gone too far and shouldered work that isn't mine (telling myself: well, I'm strong enough to carry the load). But there’s a fine line between compassion and rescuing, between support and saviorism… and I fear too often I fall over the line. Another truth I’ve come to intellectually understand but still struggle to embody:
When you take emotional responsibility for yourself but not for them, you are so much more present and so much kinder.
So when is an apology warranted? I love this definition from Cordelia Kovalic on the We Heal Together podcast:
An apology is about taking responsibility for your actions, and the impact your actions had on someone else.
This it where it gets super slippery: my actions do not CAUSE your feelings (two people could have very different reactions to the same behavior). But of course my actions have an impact on you. In other words: your feelings may be a reaction to my behavior, but they're your feelings. Updated to include this hot-off-the-presses line (published the day after I published this… resonance in the world) from James Clear, which makes the point nicely:
The way someone else perceives what you do is a result of their own experiences (which you can’t control), their own preferences (which you can’t predict), and their own expectations (which you don’t set). If your choices don’t match their expectations that is their concern, not yours.
Not sorry, but… sympathy?
The thing I’m coming to that feels helpful is about focusing on regret and behavior change: if I regret my actions and can identify a tangible shift for my future behavior… it’s time for an apology. This is also a domain of practice, to be sure: to take accountability, to repair.
But if I feel I was standing in my own integrity, and I don’t regret my behavior… that’s a warning to me that perhaps an apology is the wrong framework. Léa Rose Emery explains:
In a healthy relationship, saying “I’m sorry” when it’s not warranted only stunts your relationship growth and stops you from getting to the bottom of what’s really going on.
A key piece of my learning here is trying to differentiate between two different scenarios:
I behaved in a way that I regret and need to change my behavior (the learning is primarily individual, the work is mine to repair)
I behaved in a way that I don’t feel a need to change, but that caused harm, and I need to repair the relationship (primarily relational, the work is ours to repair)
The first case is about accountability, itself a deep domain of practice for me and a subject I’ve discussed in previous posts. The latter case to me feels like something different, something that stands outside the framework of accountability. In this case I assume good intent, and assume that the other party experienced harm (at least in the form of emotional distress). The question is: who is responsible for that harm, and who is responsible for repair? In the situation I’m focusing on here, let’s imagine the harm experienced is entirely a function of one person’s emotional triggers, not the behavior of the other. That is, the harmed person is responsible for their own emotional distress.
But of course I feel badly about the impact: I can hold compassion for someone in emotional distress, even while declining to accept responsibility for being the cause of that distress. I haven’t found anything in the literature that quite speaks to this subtlety, but I think perhaps it’s as simple as holding space for someone else’s emotions: a kindness we do for those we love… albeit more difficult when they believe you are the responsible party. This article by Alana Mbanza on the parent-child relationship (and the mother-daughter dynamic in particular) is a powerful read, trying to walk that line between self-protection and compassion.
An example to try to make this more concrete: say you were driving down the road, paying close attention and following all the rules, and a pet darted off the sidewalk under your tires before you could react. Of course you would be sorry… but not in the sense of an apology. You couldn’t have done anything differently, and it’s not your fault it happened. You would feel sorry for the harm… not the behavior. Which is to say, you’re not sorry at all, in the proper meaning of the term… you’re something else. Sympathetic? Compassionate?
“Responsibility is always on the one most healed”
Having now absolved ourselves of responsibility in the context of someone else’s emotional reaction… time to complicate the story! I take this line from from Quanita Robertson, who elaborates on who has responsibility for performing the initial emotional labor to repair a relationship:
… because you [the more healed person] can see more of the picture.
Oof. Landed on me with the force of truth, giving name to a tension I frequently carry. I think about this as the twice-traumatizing work of being the bridger: first you get traumatized, then after healing yourself you have to do the additional emotional labor to reconnect… often with the person who is responsible for the trauma in the first place (in the case of race relations between White and Black people, e.g… the context in which Quanita was speaking).
In a conversation with a fellow member of Building Belonging recently I was speaking to my tension here: oughtn’t I shoulder the load for repair if I’m better equipped to carry it? And he said: “stop saying you’re better than other people.” Meaning: don’t presume that I am better able to do the emotional work, nor that it’s my responsibility to help them do theirs. Fair enough… as a hyper-attuned people-pleaser I definitely have a tendency toward rescuing and saviorism… what would it look like not to shoulder that burden, particularly when it’s not asked for? As Ara Wiseman notes:
Enabling can often be disguised as helping, but repeatedly rescuing someone from the consequences of their own behaviors perpetuates unhealthy behavior patterns... When you stop rescuing, you help them access their own inner strengths, helping them move toward realizing their own potential.
I’ve found it helpful to ask myself: what am I afraid is going to happen if I don’t do this? What is the consequence? It’s helpful to notice whose distress I’m actually solving for: their distress, or my discomfort at feeling their distress.
After all, as Kazu Haga so beautifully reminds us, the goal is not to “solve” the conflict, but to repair the relationship:
Conflict resolution is about fixing issues. Conflict reconciliation is about repairing relationships.
I deluded myself into thinking this would be a quick post focused on the subtlety of responsibility for emotions… but soon realized it’s so much bigger than that. This is why it’s so hard: so much nuance, depth, and care here, and all of us doing our best to unlearn and relearn in real time?
And yet: the potential is so incredible I can taste it. Setting boundaries — and having them be respected, and even honored! — is an incredible feeling. It’s at once incredibly hard and almost dazzlingly easy. As Terri Cole, author of the new book “Boundary Boss,” said:
What if we simply asked for what we wanted?
And honestly, as someone on the other side often wishing people would set and hold boundaries with me… it’s incredibly liberating when people do. It frees me to believe that their ‘yes,’ when offered, is truly authentic rather than grudging acquiescence.
As always, I’d love to hear what resonates, what doesn’t, and what resources you are finding helpful in your own journey.