Is it ever OK to tell another person how to feel? Would you, for example, tell someone that they were obliged to like your favourite food or that they weren’t allowed to dislike Brussels sprouts? How would you feel if, when you were frustrated by a perceived injustice, your complaints were received coldly by a person in authority? Nobody wants their hurt feelings to be brushed off with, “You’re too sensitive. Just get over it!”
Our emotions are not really something that we control. They’re mostly involuntary, rooted in a complex cocktail of brain chemistry that controls pleasure, triggers the fight or flight response, and gives us a sense of satisfaction. Neurons fire, chemicals click into place in our brains, and we feel whatever we’re going to feel. There’s no decision to make; it’s just done unconsciously. Odd collections of atoms and molecules strung together do all the deciding for us.
So what’s the point of trying to tell someone how to feel?
An Emotional Response to Another’s Feelings
And yet, this too can be an emotional response, triggered by those selfsame brain chemicals that made the other person feel. The primary teacher who shrinks from confrontation may feel extreme revulsion when two students get in each other’s faces on the playground. The playboy who fears a committed relationship is angered when his girlfriend says, “I love you.” The film buff feels he has been personally insulted because his best friend can’t stand his favourite movie.
So even when we react to someone else’s feelings, it’s an emotional response. We just can get away from feeling!
Pain is Inevitable, Suffering is Optional
While there’s no difference in what makes us feel and what makes us react to another person’s emotions, there is a significant difference in what we control. We can’t control how the other person feels or what those emotions cause him to do. But we can control how we choose to respond to our own knee-jerk reactions.
There’s a saying, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” And this same sort of philosophy applies to how we react to other people’s feelings. Sure, it’s disappointing when a friend rejects something that you think is the best thing since sliced bread. And you can’t help feeling a little crestfallen as a result. But that’s just the brain chemistry; it’s the pain. The suffering part is up to you.
Will you choose to recognize that your friend has a right not only to his own opinion but also his feelings? Will you let it go, and try to find a movie you can agree upon? Or will you choose instead to dwell upon the matter, complaining to other friends behind his back and expending energy trying to force your friend to watch similar movies in hopes that you can bring him around to your way of thinking?
That’s the suffering. You suffer because you refuse to let go of your hurt feelings. Your relationship with your friend suffers because you’re so busy trying to force-feed him similar content that you completely disregard his growing discomfort. Your friend suffers, of course because you are trying to silence him and you’re telling him that your feelings matter more than his. And in the long run, you can even damage your relationships with other friends who are made to suffer through your emotional tirades and listen to your mean-spirited critiques of someone they hold dear.
No, we can’t control how we feel. But we do control how we choose to express those emotions. We can choose the path of attempting to silence and overpower the other, or we can simply accept that no two people will have the same emotional response to a situation. All the emotions are valid and deserve our respect, and we can choose to behave in a way that we communicate that respect despite our differences. In the end, that’s really what makes the difference between the immature response of the toddler who has a tantrum every time she is told no, and the mature adult. Even though often, the adults around us don’t seem to have much control over how they respond to the emotions of others!