As a couple and family therapist, I have lost count of the times I have heard three little words spoken in my office that have a hugely negative effect on relationships. It’s something we have all said at one time or another, some of us more than others, but its impact is pervasive and crippling to intimacy in a relationship. What are the three words? Simply this: “You make me…(fill in the blank)!”
What’s so bad about that, you ask? At first blush, and if you are saying something like “you make me happy” it’s not so horrible, right? But what if the blank you are filling in is “you make me so angry!” That doesn’t sound quite as innocuous anymore. What if the blank you are filling in becomes “you made me hit you” or “you made me yell at you!”
What I am talking about here is that the phrase “you make me” or “you made me” implies that the other person had control over, and responsibility for, our behavior. It implies that if you do something that annoys me and I get angry, it’s your fault. What if the thing that annoys me is how you dress or what you are reading? Is that your fault?
If I get angry because of something you said or did, or are, that anger is my choice. How I deal with that anger is also my choice. It has nothing whatsoever to do with you. The whole “you make me” approach to conflict implies that we as humans have no control over our emotions or behaviors, and that control lies in the hands of everyone around us. Does that sound reasonable to you or a little bit crazy?
If you think that sounds reasonable, keep reading. Do you honestly believe that the people around you have control over your emotions? Do you believe that other people can walk up to you and “make” you feel a certain way or act a certain way? That’s a pretty helpless way to live, isn’t it?
I am not saying that our loved ones, partners, or family members don’t do or say things that are hurtful, confusing, or downright mean, but if we give them the power to control our emotions we might as well sign over the rest of our lives as well. No one on earth can “make” another human do or feel anything without that person’s permission.
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who was kept in a number of concentration camps during the Holocaust, including Auschwitz and Dachau. His entire family was killed by the Nazis, and Viktor himself had lost everything and everyone he had when he had a revelation one night.
While standing outside for hours in a freezing snow without adequate shoes or clothing, watching fellow inmates being killed as they dropped to the ground, Viktor realized that despite this inhumane cruelty, even the Nazis could not make him feel anything that he didn’t choose to feel. He decided that his attitude what his own choice, and he could even choose to love those who treated him cruelly. He owned something they could never take away: his feelings and attitude.
He later wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that “the one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose ones attitude in any given circumstance.”
He also wrote that “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Please think before you utter the phrase “you make me” again. Think about what you are saying and what you are giving away. You are giving away control over yourself and personal responsibility, but you are also giving away the opportunity to liberate yourself from an existence ruled by what others think, feel and do.
Understand that there is a space between what others say and do to you and your response. Use that space to decide what you are feeling and how you wish to deal with that emotion because whatever your response is, it is yours and yours alone. You own it and you will have to live with it. Forever.
By the way, read the book. You won’t be sorry.
Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC is a therapist who specializes in Marriage and Family Therapy in Denver, CO. She provides individual, couples, and family therapy through Maria Droste Counseling Center.