The Myth Of “Nobody Can Make You Feel Bad Without Your Permission”

There’s a common sentiment that goes, “Nobody can make you feel bad without your permission” – generally trotted out when someone’s been hurt by a mean thing that someone said.

The idea, I believe, is that we are all rational, robot-like beings who can control our emotions – and thus if we get upset by someone’s assholic statements, we have chosen to be upset. We could have shrugged it off instead.

Problem is, people don’t work that way.

Now, first off, “shrugging off other people’s insults and accusations” is a learned skill. If you’ve ever raised a kid, you know most of them don’t come pre-baked with the “Eh, whatever” switch – if you yell at them, they cry. If other kids make fun of them, they get upset. Actually placing the “Okay, they’re mocking you, but do you respect their opinion?” switch in place is a process that takes years, requires a healthy ego on the kid’s part, and isn’t 100% successful.

So expecting everyone to have that skill is kinda jerky. Admittedly, it’s a vital skill that everyone should actively cultivate – without it, abusers can emotionally manipulate you into the most awful of situations by pressing your “guilt” button whenever you complain about valid stuff.

But not everyone had nice parents. Not everyone’s discovered how to interrupt their emotions with logic. And as such, sneering, “Well, you chose to feel bad”isn’t actually true. They have yet to develop a barrier between the onrush of primal feelings and the rationality to say, “Wait, no, that’s actually something I shouldn’t feel.”

You might want to start that long discussion of how to get to the point where they can shove off that tidal wave of sadness with a cold freeze of logic… but that’s not how this is used. Instead, the “Nobody can make you feel bad…” argument is generally wielded as a club to make it the victim’s fault when someone decided to be an asshole at them.

Yet hey! What about me? I’ve been on the Internets for years. I’ve received death threats. I’ve had hundreds of blog-entries devoted to what a jerk I am, entire forum-threads of vitriol. Some people loathe me personally, and they’ve never met me – and yet I’m still posting my opinions daily.

So as one of the most thick-skinned people I know, I clearly understand how nobody can make me feel bad without my permission, right? Otherwise I’d just be shivering in a closet.

Wrong.

What I know is that I can shut down those bad feelings that come when someone chucks a nastygram in my direction - but it takes me effort to do so.

I think of it as walking to the store. Under normal circumstances, I’ll get to where I’m going. But with the right insult, some asshole can drop a fifty-pound weight in my backpack. I’ll still get to the store, but thanks to their jerktasticness, it’s a fuck of a lot more effort.

And if I was low on energy that day? Or in a rush to get somewhere?

Lord, those insults can fuck up my day, whether I wanted them to or not.

And that’s not me saying that human interaction should be scrubbed of all potentially harmful content. Some people do get butthurt incredibly easily, and I think there’s a point at which you have to make the decision that this person’s rigid boundaries are going to hem in your speech to unacceptable levels, and blow them off.

(Some people don’t read me because they’re offended by my swearing. I support their right to unfriend me in order to protect their sanity, but stopping? Fuck that noise.)

But when you say, “Well, nobody can make you feel bad without your permission!”, that sets up a world where you have no responsibility for your speech. Were you digging for weak spots, mocking to make a point? Oh, hey, well, you were trying your damndest to make them feel bad, but if it worked it’s their fault for not having sufficient defenses. It’s not 100% correlation, but when I see “Nobody can make you feel bad!” I usually find a taunting dillweed nearby, taking potshots from the brush and then claiming no responsibility.

No. You may not be able to make someone feel bad, but you sure as fuck can make them burn strength they were planning to use for other projects that day. So speak carefully. Try to be kind. And don’t be a dick unless it’s your last choice.

It won’t hurt to be a little nicer, man. I promise.

23 Comments

  1. Sara Harvey
    Apr 17, 2014

    I had a manager you used to say this.
    “You made me feel really bad,” I told her once. She huffed and replied, “No one can MAKE you feel anything! You chose to feel bad and that’s not my problem!”
    Yeah she had issues and needless to say, I didn’t work there very long.

  2. Sara Harvey
    Apr 17, 2014

    WHO used to say this. Must have more tea before commenting…

  3. Gretchen
    Apr 17, 2014

    Yes. Yes. So much fucking yes.

  4. Erin Lale
    Apr 17, 2014

    Thanks for saying this. I usually roll my eyes at the new age bunkum that tries to tell people it’s their own fault if they get sick or aren’t rich or were raped. The dictate to not feel anything because of other peoples’ actions doesn’t even work for the gods, let alone people. (Go on and think of any story in mythology in which one of them died. Did the other ones cry? Yeah, they did, huh.)

    • Yet Another Laura H.
      Apr 17, 2014

      I guess the people who subscribe to that “secret” think that life is like a dream— sometimes you have nightmares, but they come from your consciousness and are a part of it.

      How narrow is that world, that it does not shock and amaze and awe every day? Leave the poor little people to their poor little lives, and hope they grow out of wishful thinking before they start using it as birth control.

  5. Stephen
    Apr 17, 2014

    I love this! I could not have said this better myself! Thank you for posting and I hope a million people read this!

  6. Siobhan
    Apr 17, 2014

    The actual “quote” is ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ It’s attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt but is actually a Reader’s Digest version of the following incident:

    ” The Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration was invited to give a speech at the University of California, Berkeley on the Charter Day of the school. The customary host of the event was unhappy because she felt that the chosen speaker should not have been a political figure. She refused to serve as the host and several newspaper commentators viewed her action as a rebuff and an insult.

    Eleanor Roosevelt was asked at a White House press conference whether the Secretary had been snubbed, and her response was widely disseminated in newspapers. Here is an excerpt from an Associated Press article [ERNC]:

    “A snub” defined the first lady, “is the effort of a person who feels superior to make someone else feel inferior. To do so, he has to find someone who can be made to feel inferior.”

    She made clear she didn’t think the labor secretary fell within the category of the “snubable.””

    -http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/03/30/not-inferior/

  7. Siobhan
    Apr 17, 2014

    Which is to say, people who spout lines like “feel bad without your permission” are dead wrong. The “Roosevelt” quote isn’t about not feeling hurt. It’s asking you whether you feel *inferior* to the people who are insulting you. Whether you’re buying into their power play.

  8. Yet Another Laura H.
    Apr 17, 2014

    Not uncommon for rape survivors to torment themselves, and be tormented by well-meaning friends, with this very platitude— YOU’RE the one who’s CHOOSING to be traumatized. Please stop your whining!

    Glad to see it so solidly drubbed. Thanks.

  9. Jules
    Apr 18, 2014

    I think I love you. THANK YOU for this… and for you honesty, frankness, and the swearing… I LOVE the swearing. Sometimes there is nothing that can express exactly what you’re thinking (or feeling) than a heartfelt cuss word… or as my 3 yr old asked me when I stubbed my toe really hard “Is that a OH FUCK moment, mommy?” (My son is very precocious.)
    I’m a first-time reader, but you can be sure it’s not the last :D

  10. Well said, and needful. Thank you very much.

    I’ve needed a way to explain why I let people’s comments/taunts/blows with baseball bats hurt me (with my permission). Thank you for explaining that sometimes we make that choice because the choice to not let it hurt you does take too much energy.

    I really wish people didn’t see the need to say or do hurtful things, especially when the purpose is to hurt.

  11. Eric Chappell
    Apr 18, 2014

    It seems like you’re trying to paint a picture where logic and emotion are anathema to one another, but they aren’t. Humans are emotional creatures, and logic always coexists with emotion. I think the idea/level of logic you’re talking about exists only in sci-fi movies.

    It isn’t about shutting down your emotions or feelings when you’re deciding how to respond to someone who does something hurtful to you, but about asking yourself why they are able to make you feel the way that you do. Of course you must first feel that way to understand it, but then you have to wonder what exactly is going on inside yourself that brings any undesirable emotion forward. And of course you’re not always going to understand it at first, but you have at least begun that process.

    If what you’re saying here is it’s obvious that others can control the way you feel by how they treat you, then you must wonder why you can’t have that same reign over the way you feel by the way you think about what has been done to you.

    • Trance
      Apr 18, 2014

      Actually, you can kind of control your responses, including some of your emotional ones. The key to shutting out other peoples’ hurtful behaviours is to feel apathy towards them. They’ll still be able to impact you, but only if you yourself choose or have chosen to believe their statements and implications.

      It takes excellent mental and emotional control, though, to do this. The ability to hold off on all responses, as it were.

    • Helen K. Krummenacker
      Apr 19, 2014

      Perfectly said. When I’m hurt by someone, it takes a lot of time to process what exactly happened, why it hurt, what their actual intent may have been, etc before I can then pack it away and feel better. The worst comes from people with *power* over you, because their opinion may determine your grade, your performance evaluation, letters of recommendation, and so on. It isn’t always possible to shrug off a person’s sarcasm or betrayal as irrelevant. And even if it is someone you can walk away from, there’s still time you want to spend cooling down and determining the cost of breaking off or distancing from them.

  12. Susan Garrett
    Apr 19, 2014

    I think eleanor Roosevelt, commonly thought of as the person who popularized this saying, meant this in a more global way than ” you should never let anything a jerky person does hurt you”. She endured an awful lot of ridicule about her looks, taunts about staying in her place , criticism about getting involved in causes and politics. I suspect she meant that you can’t let people’s nasty comments be the thing that shapes how you feel about yourself. She would not be happy to see the phrase used as a way to justify nasty behavior and unkindness. Good article calling people out for being jerks and then denying its their fault or problem.

  13. Wendy Delmater Thies
    Apr 19, 2014

    Yes, it is a learned skill. Good post. Sorry about the jerks trying to blame you for reacting to their verbal abuse.

  14. Helen Churchill
    Apr 19, 2014

    Here is the article ‘in a nutshell’- quoted directly from this article:

    “shrugging off other people’s insults and accusations” is a learned skill. . . .So expecting everyone to have that skill is kinda jerky.

    But when you say, “Well, nobody can make you feel bad without your permission!”, that sets up a world where you have no responsibility for your speech.

    “Nobody can make you feel bad…” argument is generally wielded as a club to make it the victim’s fault when someone decided to be an asshole at them.

    What I know is that I can shut down those bad feelings that come when someone chucks a nastygram in my direction – but it takes me effort to do so.

    No. You may not be able to make someone feel bad, but you sure as fuck can make them burn strength they were planning to use for other projects that day.

    I’m gonna remember these points, the next time I hear bullshit like this. “Don’t worry, be happy,” etc. As if it was that easy!

  15. ElephantFootUmbrellaStand
    Apr 20, 2014

    The person who says the thing that makes you feel bad does not have a right to say that it is you making yourself feel bad. They need to take responsibility for the inaccuracy of what they have said and the cack-handed way they have said it. In your own head, you should take them to task for what is wrong with what they have said, and push it away, to restore your equilibrium. Only later, when you’re sitting quietly by the window, should you consider, perhaps I am vulnerable for this or that reason, perhaps underneath, that comment does have a small point, and I can make a small adjustment here. But you cannot think like that until you have taken the pressure off yourself.

  16. Amber Marsden
    May 6, 2014

    For me, learning this vital lesson took going through and breaking off what ended up turning out to be a toxic, long-term friendship with a girl who I discovered was not only manipulative but backstabbing. She’s the sort of person who has gone through life playing the victim card with every guy and female friend she’s ever had and was always extremely private about her past. Once I finally wised up to her game, she cut me off and in nearly 10 years that have passed since, she’s made a point of discrediting me to our mutual acquaintances.

    The lesson I’ve had to learn is ignoring the knee-jerk, gut reaction to defend myself against her false accusations, but in the end, I discovered that habit was only alienating people more rather than helping the situation. Now, I just politely brush off any attempts by people we both know to delve into or bring up he subject of what new he-said-she-said nonsense this girl is spreading around.

    It’s true we’re not taught this important skill early on and it’s something we can all learn to cultivate as adults.

  17. Ruby
    Jun 3, 2014

    Oh my god, this is what I’ve been needing to read for such a long time. I have been scouring the internet in hopes that I wasn’t just completely insane, here is why:
    After i was raped several years ago, several of my friends at the time taunted me with this bit of dangerous philosophical bullshit that’s been circulated it seems. I was told it was my fault I was having nightmares, I could choose to get over it if I truly wanted it. That my symptoms meant that I must want people to feel sorry for me, otherwise I would just simply “choose” to not feel such heavy pain.

    I had given my rapist permission to hurt me, and its my own fault I’m not ok.

    I was told that I obviously didn’t care about them anymore since all I did was cry.

    One of the boys told me :
    “You know, nobody can force you to do anything against your will” I asked him, “but what if they have a gun?”
    His answer, I shit you not, went like this: “You still chose it, you could have chosen death but you didn’t. Don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for you for your own choices”

    At the time, I was completely unaware, that this was an actual psychological philosophy being preached by several online. And when trying to find articles to help myself, I found nothing but webpage, after webpage telling me the same thing my (ex) friends had:

    I had given my rapist permission to hurt me, and its my own fault I’m not ok.

    Perhaps my experience has screwed up in my head, many of the things I’ve read online; but between what I’ve seen being spouted about, and my experience with my (ex) friends, I wonder if there is not some conspiracy to turn people into complete psychopaths, while causing others to off themselves. Population control maybe?

  18. Jody Johnsen
    Aug 10, 2014

    It is true. If I give someone else’s opinion more value than my own then another can decide how I feel, when and for what length of time. If, however, my opinion of me matters more then nothing you or anyone else can say can hurt me. You don’t matter so your opinion doesn’t matter. Get it? Say whatever you like. Be cruel, heartless, viscous and cold. It just doesn’t matter because you don’t matter.

    • absolutely
      Aug 21, 2014

      I Think Jody hit the nail on the head with this one, in reality nobody matters at all, so why should anything they say matter? stop worrying about what other people say or do. If someone is “abusing” you, and you get hurt, then guess what? you probably deserve it for being such a whiner in the first place! I blame feminism for most of this crap.

  19. Korey
    Nov 9, 2014

    Absolutely love this!

    Thank You!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. On The Myth Of “Being Inoffensive” | Ferrett Steinmetz - […] I wrote about how it takes some training to learn to shrug off insults, and said […]
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  3. Civics and Seamonsters, Calvin and Hobbes | Benjamin Ross Hoffman's personal blog - […] Here’s an article objecting to that aphorism attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, for pretty good reasons (h/t Kate Donovan, who …

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