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When Someone is Unhappy, It's Not Your Fault

No matter how much you want to support someone, their emotional experience is not your burden to carry.

What do you do when someone around you is unhappy? How do you feel? It can feel pretty uncomfortable even if I know their unhappiness has nothing to do with me. It’s extremely uncomfortable if I think someone is upset with me.

When someone isn’t happy, it’s natural to want to find a way to cheer them up or fix whatever is wrong. This is especially true for those of us who have a tendency toward people-pleasing. When someone else is unhappy, it can bring up a lot of fears for us. Did I do something wrong? Will this cause a rift in our relationship? Unfortunately, this sometimes leads us to take responsibility for things that aren’t ours to control.

We can’t avoid uncomfortable emotions.

Emotions are a normal part of life. I don’t think I’ve ever gone a whole day without experiencing any emotion. Most days I feel many different emotions, even seemingly conflicting emotions.

We may wish we could only feel—and make sure those around us only feel—comfortable emotions, but as Dr. Brene Brown says, We can’t numb the dark without numbing the light.

They have a choice.

While we may not be able to control which emotions we experience, we do have a choice in how we respond. I’m not suggesting that if someone is unhappy they should simply choose to be happy instead. Avoiding or denying our emotions doesn’t make them go away and can build up inside us and may start to show up in unexpected ways.

They do have a choice, however, between processing through their emotions or wallowing in them. They have a choice between taking responsibility for their own emotional well being or expecting someone else to make them happy. They can choose to seek support or to bring everyone else down with them.

It’s ok to not be happy all the time.

Expecting to be 100% happy all the time is actually a lot of pressure. Disappointing, scary, and painful things happen. That’s part of life. We get tired or hungry or get a headache. We feel lonely. Sometimes we just feel crabby for no apparent reason. Being unhappy doesn’t mean we’re bad—it just means we’re human.

You are important, too.

It can be a good and generous thing to want to bring others happiness, but it’s important to pay attention to the cost. All too often we sacrifice what we want or need in an attempt to make someone else happy.

Of course, there are times when we will generously choose to do something for someone we care about. There is a difference between putting someone else’s wants before our own on occasion because we want to express our care and doing so because we fear it’s our fault if they’re unhappy.

When we repeatedly go against ourselves in order to avoid someone else’s displeasure, we communicate to them and to ourselves that we matter less than they do. This reinforces patterns of people-pleasing and can lead to relationships that feel unbalanced.

They might be looking for someone to blame.

When someone is unhappy and doesn’t know what to do with their unhappiness, they are likely to look for someone or something to blame. If they don’t know how to process their emotions in a healthy way, they might instead vent them on anyone nearby. In particular, people-pleasers can be an easy target for misdirected blame because we are more likely to try to ease the situation than to get angry in return. Just because someone takes their unhappiness out on you, doesn’t mean that you are responsible.

They have other resources—including themselves.

Maintaining someone else’s happiness is simply not your responsibility. You may be part of their life, but you are not their only means of support.

Take a look around. Note other family, friends, and acquaintances. Consider community resources and helping professionals.

They also have another essential resource—themselves. Relying too much on external sources for happiness can keep someone from developing the tools to create their own. No matter how much you want to support someone, their emotional experience is not your burden to carry.

You can support without care taking.

Now all this isn’t to say that you need to walk away from anyone that’s unhappy. Situations can vary so widely. Sometimes it may be wise to limit contact, but often we just need to show up in a different way.

This is a big topic and can take some practice for those of us who are used to jumping in to smooth things over. We can empathize, acknowledging what’s hard, without taking on someone’s unhappiness as our own. We can show we care and want to offer our support, without trying to rush through their feelings or fix the problem for them. We can be kind while leaving space for the other person to decide how they will choose to navigate the situation. We can make a point of acknowledging and processing our own emotions and requesting the support we need, as well as offering support to others. We can be honest about our motives for helping.

I’d love to know…what’s your typical response when someone is upset? How might you show care for another person without taking on their unhappiness?