It’s no secret that I’m a firm believer in the idea that the way we talk about things matters. There are plenty of equally valid reasons as to why that is, but from my perspective as a therapist, I’m interested in how our words inform how we understand our experiences, which in turn inform our emotional responses and the actions we choose.
In this post I focus on one issue that comes up a lot in my counselling work: the distinction between effects and responses, and how differentiating between these notions is crucial when it comes to how we assign responsibility for our own and other people’s feelings and actions.
When we talk about effects we generally mean:
- a change that results when something is done or happens;
- an event, condition, or state of affairs that is produced by a cause.
One of my mentors and favourite people, Allan Wade, brings clarity to this simple notion with the analogy of kicking a rock. To paraphrase:
If you strike a rock with your foot, it will probably move through the air (or skip along the ground), then land and stay put (until the next time it’s acted upon). The movement of the rock is an effect of the kick. As inanimate objects, rocks do not respond to us acting upon them; they are limited to being effected by our actions.
Living beings, like plants, animals, or humans, are not so simple. If someone was to come along and give us a kick, we might move a short distance too, just like the rock. It would be accurate to call the distance that we travel an effect of the kick. But as beings that are far more complex than rocks, we would also feel stuff after being kicked. These feelings might include physical pain around the area of our bodies we were struck, as well as emotions, like anger, sadness, fear, or confusion. On top of those emotions, we might avoid going near the location that the kick took place, we might experience anxiety around other people who remind us of the person who kicked us, and we may be more vigilant than we were before we got kicked – doing our best to avoid something similar happening in the future. In agreement with Allan Wade’s argument, I’m of the opinion that these feelings and actions are responses to being kicked.
As a human being living in this world, you’ve probably heard people describe their emotions as effects of their experiences. For example, someone might say, “depression is an effect of childhood abuse.” While this perspective is common, many people don’t realize that it’s also objectifying. Let me explain why:
When we label someone’s feelings and actions as effects of our experiences (like the kick described above), we are reduced to the same status as the rock. In linguistic terms, it’s actually objectifying to say that a person’s sense of upset after being kicked is an effect of the kick, as it positions them as a passive object rather than an active subject.
On the other hand, when we use a language of responses, we acknowledge that people are active social agents. If someone was to kick you, and I was to ask you all about how you responded (including your thoughts, emotions, physiological responses, and actions), our conversation would be honouring the fact that you’re an active subject, and not a passive object. If, however, I were to ask you about how that kick affected you, I’d be denying you the opportunity to give a full account of your experience, which would no doubt include how you responded and resisted the force of the kick.
This is an important distinction that we’re not given the opportunity to learn in conventional spaces. In most psychological and medical publications, the contrasting notions of responses and effects are talked about as though they’re synonyms for one another other, which they are not. That’s not to say that adverse experiences do not affect human beings, but that it’s important to distinguish when something is an effect and when it’s a response.
Effects, Responses, and Emotions
In my post Your Emotions Aren’t a Problem, I acknowledge how everyone experiences emotions differently, and that no two people will have the exact same emotional response to the same event or experience. From my perspective, this helps illustrate that emotions are indeed responses, and not effects.
After all, if we were to rig up a rock-kicking machine that kicked 10 different rocks of the exact same size and weight, all with the same velocity and force, we could pretty much count on those 10 rocks traveling and landing in almost the exact same way. If we were to then take 10 different human beings and subject them to the force of the rock-kicking machine, we would probably witness 10 distinct emotional (and behavioural) responses. Some may be outraged, others may feel sad, while some may feel indifferent, and one or two may even kind of like it. “Different strokes for different folks”, after all. This purely hypothetical example illustrates how subjectivity and individual differences set the stage for a wide variety of potential responses, which a language of effects does not account for.
Who is Responsible for Emotional Responses?
This brings us to the issue at the heart of this post: if emotions are responses to events, who is responsible for them? Many people I see in therapy experience a lot of distress around how their actions affect others. In spirit, I think that’s great – it shows a genuine regard for other people’s wellbeing, and accountability for one’s own behaviour.
The downside of this, as many folks have described for me, is that when we see ourselves as responsible for how other people feel, it’s easy to move through life with immense feelings of guilt and worry. That doesn’t feel good, and people often seek help when they experience life in this way.
Shane and Liz have been dating for a few months, and things haven’t been going easy for them. Liz is working to complete a university degree in a really stressful program, and Shane has been having some challenges with some family members. Both of them are experiencing a lot of stress.
Shane works as a professional helper for people with special needs and is the only male on his team. He’s gotten relatively close (in a platonic sense) to a female colleague, who is roughly 20 years older than him, and has started to open up about some of the difficulties he’s been dealing with. She responds really supportively, and encourages him in really helpful ways. He feels like she’s a good friend.
Shane tries to be an “open book” with Liz, and tells her about his appreciation for his colleague at work, letting her know how helpful it is to talk with her, and that she’s a really good friend. Liz responds to this in a way Shane did not anticipate: by yelling at him, calling him manipulative, and saying, “Why don’t you go be with her then!?” Shane tries to calmly address Liz’s concerns, but she refuses to listen, and is silent when he explains his understanding and intentions.
Over the next week, Liz refuses to see Shane. He sends her apologetic text messages and attempts to connect with her, and she responds to few of his messages, generally with cold, one-word answers. Shane feels terrible, like he really screwed things up. He thinks to himself, “I never would have even talked to my coworker if I knew it would effect Liz like that.” He feels guilty and longs for a second chance.
Shane is worried that he has caused Liz emotional pain, which feels really distressing, given how much he values their relationship. The word to pay attention to here is “cause”. Given what we know about emotions (which are responses, not effects), Shane has not caused Liz to feel upset in the way she is. Rather, Liz’s sense of distress is an emotional response to Shane’s actions. Although there is likely an understandable reason for Liz to feel upset in the ways she is (the exploration of which is beyond the purpose of this example), if her experiences in life and values were different, she might just as well feel some other combination of emotions.
Because Liz’s feelings hinge on more than just Shane’s actions, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that Shane caused Liz to feel upset – because her distress is a response, rather than an effect.
Intentions and Responsibilities
When people worry about how their actions have or will affect others, I often invite them to consider their intentions. In Shane and Liz’s example, Liz may feel a significant sense of hurt after Shane lets her know about his friendship with his colleague, but it isn’t Shane’s intention to hurt Liz’s feelings. That isn’t to say that people can’t do harm accidentally – we’ve all inadvertently stepped on other people’s toes despite having good intentions. But if we’re thinking critically about our actions and being careful with how we carry ourselves, we can generally say that we’re doing the best we can in a given situation – and we can’t do much more than that (after all, we are only human).
At the end of the day, the only people we can answer for are ourselves. In the interest of working toward a more socially just world, I believe that it is important for us to take ownership of our own actions, while also acknowledging other peoples’ ownership of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. If we look at people’s emotional responses to our actions as effects, the next logical step is to apologize for how they’re feeling. This is a slippery slope, as we can then fail to acknowledge the implications of our own actions that others are responding to.
By recognizing that emotions are responses to, and not effects of events and experiences, we are better equipped to see what we’re actually responsible for in our interactions with others, which can ease guilt in some situations, and invite others and ourselves into positions of accountability.
About Will Bratt
Will Bratt is a counsellor in Victoria, BC, specializing in therapy for trauma and interpersonal violence. He is passionate about addressing stigma through depathologizing human suffering. In addition to writing for Healthy Minds Canada, he runs his own blog on his website, Will Bratt Counselling. You can connect with Will through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.