Emotional Responsibility

In his Emotional Intelligence (1995) and Working with Emotional Intelligence (1998), Daniel Goleman focused our attention on the profound role that emotions play in our personal, work, and social lives. His presentation is well grounded in neurology and richly illustrated with vivid examples of emotions running riot; as well as calm and calming responses to infectious emotional situations. In a section on self-control, he writes: “The ultimate act of personal responsibility at work may be in taking control of our own state of mind. (1998, p. 84). Taking control of our own state of mind implies emotional responsibility—not only at work, but in all areas of life. Practicing emotional responsibility frees us to follow the advice of the I Ching about brightening our bright virtue, as I wrote in the December column.

What does it mean to be emotionally responsible? To illustrate emotional responsibility I often use the term “emotionally house-broken.” We know what happens if our domestic pets are not house-broken: they let go wherever they happen to be. A person who is not emotionally house-broken “lets go” wherever and whenever, pretty much regardless of the situation or who is present. Such an individual has no sense of responsibility for polluting the environment. Because emotions are contagious, another person’s uncontained, emotional outburst can trigger a corresponding or complementary emotion in us. Whether we wish for that to happen or not.

For example, we feel intimidated or assaulted by the angry person’s uncontained anger. We cringe or want to strike back. The whiner elicits revulsion in us or the impulse to “give him (or her) something to whine about.” In the presence of a depressed person, we may try to cheer him up or try to escape and avoid the deadening pull of depression. In these examples, the angry person, the whiner, and the depressed person let their emotions flood the area, affecting everybody nearby. These people take no responsibility for their emotions.

What tells us that a person is emotionally responsible? We feel emotionally safe in that person’s presence. We can recognize that the other person is experiencing some sort of emotion, yet we don’t feel infected. Taking responsibility for emotions means containing them; but containing does not mean suppressing them, and it does not mean denying them. You can contain an emotion while at the same time tell another person what emotion you are experiencing. You experience the emotion, but the emotion doesn’t do the talking. Another part you your mind that is in charge speaks about your emotion. That is emotional responsibility in action.

The importance of cultivating emotional responsibility extends beyond our private lives. The constant emotional bombardment from advertising, news, and politicians aims at arousing and manipulating our emotions to further their purposes, buy their product, believe this or that side of a dispute, support this or that candidate or policy. In both private and public life, letting emotions have their way with us polarizes and divides us one from another. As difficult as it may be to develop emotional responsibility so that we contain our emotional reactions, we must do just that if we want to find common ground with others and make it possible to live together in the same house, the same city, the same country, and ultimately on the same planet.

What I write here proclaims no new wisdom, yet each one of us has to learn it for ourselves, probably the hard way.