The #1 Key to Better Relationships

Originally posted on Thursday, August 11, 2016

Yesterday it hit me that there really is one thing I believe is the key to better relationships, so I wanted to share it with you immediately. I hope it leads to more moments of connection for you!

If you want to improve your relationships, stop making other people responsible for your feelings.

That’s it. That’s the key.

As long as you are making other people responsible for your feelings, you are caught in the blame game. When you blame somebody else for “making” you feel the way you feel, they’re not going to be able to hear you and open their heart to you, because they will be busy defending themselves and/or feeling guilty or ashamed. Not to mention you’re totally giving your power away.

So this means the end of statements like, “You made me angry.”

“But, if they’re not responsible for my feelings, who is?” you might be wondering. “Should I blame myself?”

No! Please don’t blame yourself. Don’t blame anyone. Step out of the blame game completely.

“How?” you might be asking.

Well, since you asked :-)

4 Steps for How to Stop Making Other People Responsible for Your Feelings

1. Identify the trigger. What exactly happened that stimulated your feelings? What did the other person literally say or do? And I don’t mean something like, “He was a total jerk to me.” I mean what words or actions did that person express that contributed to you thinking of them as a “total jerk”? What would an audio or video device capture?

You'll notice I used the phrase "stimulated your feelings." This is a very deliberate choice of words. You'll notice I didn't say "caused your feelings." I consider this an essential distinction. When I say someone stimulated my feelings, I mean they did something that impacted me, and it impacted me in the particular way it did because of many factors, including, of course, what they did, but also how I'm interpreting their actions, my own personal history, my mood in that moment, what I ate for lunch that day, whether or not I slept well that night, what their actions remind me of, etcetera. No one is powerful enough to cause me to feel any certain way.

2. Take responsibility for your feelings. What does it mean to take responsibility for your feelings? Again, it doesn’t mean blaming yourself. It means turning your kind attention to yourself, acknowledging what you’re feeling, and letting yourself feel it. What did you feel when the person did or said the thing you identified in step 1? (Here's a list of feelings to help with the identification process.)

While this may sound simple, I’m amazed by how difficult it can be.

Some of us can tolerate anger but have a hard time tolerating sadness. Others of us have no problem acknowledging disappointment but can’t go near jealousy with a ten-foot pole. How about you? What feelings are easy for you to acknowledge, feel, and tolerate? Which feelings are harder for you to make space for?

3. Inquire into what you’re wanting or needing. I like to think of feelings as messengers. Their job is to let me know when my needs are met or aren’t met. If I’m feeling pleasant feelings, it’s usually an indicator that I’m experiencing some key needs as being met. If I’m feeling unpleasant feelings, it’s usually a sign that I’m experiencing some key needs as not being met. For example, if I’m feeling sad, it might be because I have a need for connection that I’m not experiencing as met right now. If I’m feeling happy, it might be because my need for connection is met right now. What needs are the feelings you identified in step 2 pointing to? (Here's a list of needs.)

4. Choose whether or not you want to tell the other person. You get to decide if you want to let the other person know what your feelings and needs are. There’s no rule that you have to, and no rule that you shouldn’t. It’s up to you.

If you do, and you want the conversation to go well, you’ve gotta own it. By “own it,” I mean don’t blame them (or you!). It can feel radically different to tell someone that when they arrived thirty minutes late to your date you felt anxious because you wanted to trust that they were still interested in connecting with you, as opposed to saying something like, “You’re so rude for being so late.”

If you do decide to talk to the person, try to think of what you want back from them after you share your feelings and needs. It might sound something like, “I’ve been feeling anxious waiting for you for thirty minutes because I’m wanting to trust that we’re both still excited about this relationship. Would you be up for telling me what kept you from getting here at 7:00?”

Taking responsibility for your feelings means being curious and respectful of your human experience. If you choose to share this with the other person, I recommend holding this attitude: “I’d like to tell you about what came up for me when you did that thing that was hard for me. Are you interested in hearing about my experience?” If you sense they are interested, then tell them about your experience, not why you think they’re wrong or bad. They’re way more likely to remain interested in hearing about your experience if they’re not busy defending themselves or sinking into their own shame or guilt. And while you can't control someone else's reaction, you can do your part to increase the chances of connection.

That’s it! Now you have the key. Simple but not easy. I’m here to help you learn to use it. Feel free to reach out to me at or (415) 820-1433. I'd love to hear from you.

©Ali Miller, MFT 2016

Ali Miller