Your OK-ness is Not My Responsibility

Whitney Kenter
Whitney Kenter
Aug 22, 2023

At first glance, you may think this isn’t very glowey. But stay with me, and I’ll explain what I mean.

I’m sharing my story here so that you can hopefully avoid the trap that got me into trouble for decades, until I learned to set a boundary that changed everything. I grew up thinking that it was my job to keep everyone around me feeling ok. Not angry, fearful, embarrassed, or sad. What began in childhood became integrated into my leadership style. Along with all my other responsibilities, I also took on the responsibility for everyone else’s feelings. That meant, when considering a strategic decision, I spent a lot of energy worrying how that would make other people (especially the most senior leaders) feel.

As a result, I often ended up with my focus split between the business decision at hand (straightforward, clear options) and managing the emotions of those involved (distracting, not my responsibility, and actually impossible).

So, it’s true that I wouldn’t say “Your ok-ness is not my responsibility” to someone, verbatim. It’s an operating principle.

Exploring Your Current Mindset

It is absolutely glowey to care about the people in your business, and to behave in a way that helps them feel valued, respected, and safe. And it starts with you, your beliefs, and your boundaries.

Explore how these statements feel when you say them out loud.

  1. I am not responsible for other people’s emotions
  2. I let go of what I can’t control.
  3. I deserve the same grace and forgiveness I extend to others.

I'm not asking you to make any immediate changes. The exercise of reading these and noticing your reaction, and how it feels in your body, is a first step. If you don't agree with these statements, you are not doing anything wrong. There is no deficiency to correct. Just an opportunity to reduce friction in your life through changing your mindset.

3 Pitfalls of Taking On Other People's Emotions

In reading the statements above, you may realize you are holding yourself to a different standard than others. There are a few pitfalls to this. One is that you could be making yourself the hero of the situation. Hero sounds like a good thing, right? Not necessarily. Because in order for you to play the hero, you are casting someone else as the victim. If you're thinking about another senior leader, don't you think you should ideally be able to trust your closest team members to take ownership of their own emotions and communicate clearly with you when something is not right?

Another, potentially more obvious, pitfall is that taking responsibility for other people's emotions can burn you out. It's difficult enough just to maintain your own emotional health. If you're really doing a good job, you are investing a lot of energy in acknowledging, feeling, processing, and making adjustments. This is important work, and you deserve to do this for yourself.

Finally, you may be allowing yourself to be treated worse than you treat others. You deserve the same thoughtfulness and care that you extend to others, starting with the thoughtfulness and care you extend to yourself. Where might you be putting yourself in a position to take unnecessary emotional damage, and how can you minimize or eliminate it? There is a line between someone letting you know they are upset, and someone blaming you (making you responsible for their emotions). Think about this as you navigate your daily life.

Empathy and Boundaries Co-Exist

You can be intentional about how you approach a tough decision or sensitive discussion, while respecting that someone else’s reaction is not your responsibility and you don’t have to take it on. This is an invitation to have empathy AND have boundaries. As a leader, I have learned this is a critical lesson and frankly one that will help reduce stress AND achieve outcomes more quickly.

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