You Don’t Have to Own Your Feelings
There’s a fine line between a partner requesting personal responsibility and manipulation.
‘Own your feelings’ is a heavily triggering sentence for me. I had it thrown in my face when I was in deep pain. It was a sort of motto in my poly family and something I would go back to when everything else failed. This sentence always felt so wrong to me. As a kid, I was really sensitive to things I felt were unjust. The feeling of injustice is something so close to my skin, it grew with me. Nothing triggers me worse than the feeling of something that is unbalanced, unequal, unfair.
I had that same feeling of unfairness with this sentence and tried to explain it, but was never able to get to the core of it — mainly because I was frequently talked out of questioning it. Whenever I picked this angle, I was presented with a ton of evidence to the contrary — mainly poly-mainstream books and articles who defended this approach — and I was left feeling there was no other way out. At the time, I only had my feelings to support my dislike for the approach. So, ironically, I had to own my feelings on that too. I didn’t have as many words as I have now.
The problem with owning your feelings is that it places an apparent focus on personal responsibility. And I say apparent, because owning your feelings is only about responsibility on a surface level. The reasoning around responsibility works to disguise what’s really at stake.
Here’s the logic behind the idea of owning your feelings: whatever you’re feeling is your responsibility and yours only. It’s framed on a thousand more or less famous quotes you can find online, one of those being attributed to Harold S. Kushner: “You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”
It sounds empowering. It gives you a sense of control in the face of adversity. I thought it helped me. I was wrong.
A google search on ‘own your feelings’ turns up millions of results with the likes of: Own your feelings, don’t let them own you. The power of owning your feelings. We are responsible for our own feelings. Powerful ways to own your emotions. How do I control my emotions? Only on the second page did I find an article that said: Stop owning your feelings. Feel them.
I get where this focus on responsibility comes from. It comes from the same place that teaches us to communicate with our partners changing the “you sentences” to “I sentences”. Instead of saying “you hurt my feelings by holding her hand when you said you wouldn’t”, you change it to: “I felt hurt when I watched you holding her hand and I’m trying to cope with it.”
It’s also the same philosophy that teaches you Nonviolent Communication — which, unsurprisingly, is also not what it sounds like (meaning, Non-Violent Communication can easily be used in a violent way and used specifically and most effectively to shut down legitimate complaints). Shifting from “you” to “I” makes the person speaking the only one responsible for whatever the problem is, even if there are other people involved. This shift brings all the focus onto the person having the feelings, leaving out possible hurtful behaviour from others. Broken promises, crossed boundaries, possible previous agreements, everything else gets discarded. From that moment on, your feelings are the problem.
‘Own your feelings’ stops all dialogue there and then. There’s no more possibility for conversation after that, because we’re made to believe we’ve reached the bottom of the problem.
The moment your feelings become the only real problem to be dealt with, you’re no longer able to address whatever it was that brought those feelings up. The conversation changes entirely — and eventually stops. ‘Own your feelings’ stops all dialogue there and then. There’s no more possibility for conversation after that, because we’re made to believe we’ve reached the bottom of the problem. Conversation is framed so that you come to the conclusion that you must own your feelings. ‘Own your feelings’ ends the conversation. From then on, it’s all up to you. Your feelings are the problem, you need to own them, be responsible, and solve your problem. Solve your feelings. And you must do it alone.
This doesn’t happen overnight. Own your feelings is a long process, and usually people don’t expect you to get it right in the first try. You come to your partner to share your pain, your doubts, your insecurity. You ask them to witness that, to help you deal with it, to reassure you of their love. And your partner might even do that. Once, twice, thrice. Everyone understands that you might take some time to get there, so if you don’t own your feelings immediately it will be fine. But after a while, people will start expecting you to have that work done. Your homework. At some point, you will be expected to already have owned your feelings. That is the moment where your partner or partners get a free pass. And if you can’t deal with some things they’re doing, well, guess what: it’s your problem. Get to work.
There’s another danger: not only does this approach leave you alone to deal with it, it also actively isolates you. ‘Own your feelings’ means you don’t need to keep on sharing them with others. Means you cut yourself off from others’ perspectives. From possible help from others. ‘Own your feelings’ comes with shame and blame. You are ashamed that you still feel those feelings and you blame yourself for feeling them. It’s a trap. It makes you fall prey to your anxiety and insecurities. Instead of giving you the tools to deal with your feelings, it gets rid of everything that might help you.
I lost count of the times I tried to own my feelings. Not only tried, but really did. No matter how unfair it felt to me (or how horrible it was), I still managed to do it for years. I also shared that technique with others in my poly talks. It’s one of the basics. And I had a ton of proof that it worked. No matter what the cost was. No matter what it did to me.
‘Own your feelings’ is a very useful weapon for a manipulator and an abuser.
Forcing someone to own their feelings is violence. Cornering them, so that they have to face their fears head on, is violence. Throwing it in their faces when they can’t do it is violence. ‘Own your feelings’ is a very useful weapon for a manipulator and an abuser. It neatly takes the attention away from their behaviour and places it on you.
The person telling you that you should own your feelings is no longer responsible for harming you, even if they are indeed harming you. For me, own your feelings, comes with an arrogant tone of voice. Just picture this: the person with all the power and owning (in fact) all the cards in their hand, turns to you and says: own your feelings. This is the same person you rely on to help you, to care for you, to reassure you. Instead, they tell you there’s a simple solution at hand. All you have to do is… stop feeling whatever you’re feeling.
In fact, you have two options. Own your feelings asks you to either live with them or change them. If you live with them and those feelings are mostly pain, there’s only so much you can handle. It’s a decision between being in pain or changing that. So you feel compelled to change your own feelings. And how does one go about doing that? You expose yourself to what hurts you and try to react differently.
Say it really hurts you to watch your partner kiss another person. Say you’d rather take an electric shock, than being exposed to that pain. Own your feelings might make you go for the pain. The three of you go on a date. The kisses happen and you laugh. You try to reassure yourself and repeat like a mantra: “my partner loves me; the fact that they’re kissing another does not mean they love me less”. It kind of works, so you keep on doing it until your feelings do in fact change. One day, it doesn’t hurt anymore.
It’s no longer about what you feel, so much as it is about how you’re going to make yourself not feel it.
You think you’ve solved the problem, when in fact you just numbed your feelings or reshaped them to fit the relationship style you’re in. Now apply this same logic to everything else. If anything hurts you, you just have to keep dealing with it, facing it, confronting it. It’s no longer about what you feel, so much as it is about how you’re going to make yourself not feel it.
I’m still trying to find out how many of my actual feelings I numbed down, ignored or outright violently changed to be able to own them. That raises the question: how much happiness did I actually experience? The times I felt good… was I actually feeling good? Or did I convince myself that I was? Did I change my feelings to become what I needed to be? This poly-evolved version of me? And who was I, if I didn’t have my feelings?
I want you to really think about how the actual sentence sounds when you say it or share it on your Facebook posts. Look at the words.
Own your feelings.
Own implies property and control. It’s not an innocent word. You need to have control over your feelings or if you don’t, you just take control. Your feelings are your property. Only you can decide on your property. Think how strange this sentence is in a context of love and of poly love at that. We’re talking about non-possessive love here, right? The kind of love you feel free to share with anyone and everyone. But then you go and tell your partners to own their feelings. So nobody owns anyone, but hey, just do your work and own your feelings.
Feelings are relational.
Feelings don’t come out of nowhere and just happen to you. In the context of a relationship, your feelings come not only from you, but from your partners or partners’ partners, from circumstances in your life, from your work environment, your family background, etc. This should be obvious, but it isn’t. We experience feelings in our minds, our hearts, our bodies, our nervous systems. Our feelings can and will affect others. We’re all connected and feelings are a big part of what connects us. Feelings don’t happen in a void. Feelings demand to be felt. They’re a part of us, as valid as our voices, our bodies. Sometimes, people hurt us. Sometimes, we hurt others. Sometimes, the people we love most will hurt us. If that happens, we have to be able to say “you” sentences. There’s nothing wrong with saying: you hurt me; he hurt me. If it’s true, there’s nothing we should be ashamed of, or afraid of. We can even get more specific. Identifying hurtful behaviour is an important step for healing.
That doesn’t mean we get to blame everyone for our feelings and use feelings as weapons to manipulate others or hurt them. It doesn’t mean we get to be irresponsible, quite the contrary. Your responsibility towards your own feelings comes from acknowledging them, but also valuing them. It comes from knowing your feelings are legitimate. It comes from knowing where and when and why they happened. And that means identifying situations, people, actions that made you feel diminished, scared, sad, anxious, inadequate or whatever else you might be feeling. Not owning your feelings means you get to feel them, you get to talk about them and you get to see them recognized as valid.
Feelings are essential to our health.
And I’m saying this in the broadest sense: physical, psychological and emotional health. Feelings are the key to healing. They’re in the forefront of trauma healing and self-love. Feelings are there for a reason. Of course feelings can lie to us, but even feelings that lie are real feelings. We still feel them. They still happen in us — not just to us. And we need to allow ourselves to feel them. Only by feeling your feelings will you be able to discern between truth and lies. And to speak about it. Feelings don’t need to be treated as secrets. Sharing your feelings with people you trust, your friends, your loved ones, your therapist — is necessary. You don’t owe anyone your feelings. Only yourself. But I don’t think anyone can heal without this space for sharing. There’s nothing wrong about feeling.
You don’t have to own your feelings.