That is such a difficult question, isn't it?
It reminds me of the difficulty I had with the concept that I wasn't responsible for other people's feelings. After a long while, struggling with that concept with the help of a therapist, I realized that I was usurping power I didn't own from others and from God. By believing that I could control others' reactions, perceptions, behavior or even the outcome, by saying or doing the right thing, as Carole said: "who do you think you are, God?"
Much simpler to humbly say and live my own personal truth as best I know how and let others and God take care of their own business.
It's easy to see how that works in the less emotionally fraught environment of the work-place for example, as opposed to the duty I often feel to family or loved ones. For others, that pull of duty is to a religion, a social or tribal group, an idealogy, politics -- take your pick. In the hierarchy of our development and growth as individuals, that tribal energy is what gave us our being, the sense of coming from "somewhere", belonging. It is important to have that sense of belonging to the tribal mind, if it's not out of balance. Most of us probably are too susceptible to the tribal mind, but we can point to examples of people born into, or thrown into the world, without any opportunity for family or social ties, not belonging, not wanted. Neither is balanced.
A new supervisor once called a staff meeting in which she proceeded to announce that our department had a reputation for being "difficult". When asked for specifics, she refused to provide them. I suggested that without specifics, we could not #1: assess if we had actually done something that deserved that label and #2: decide what if any changes we should make to what we were doing.
Later, this supervisor cornered me and reprimanded me for "not caring what other people think of me". In that circumstance, it was very easy for me to explain that I could try and stand on my head and people could choose to think what they want anyway. Even if specifics had been supplied as to what actions had caused the "difficult" reputation our department supposedly had, and if we should have been able turn ourselves inside-out to change those behaviors and do something differently, that was no guarantee that the judgment would also change. The responsibility for the judgment lay with those who made it.
The most professional course of action for us within our department was, my peers and I decided, to work hard to maintain the professional and personal standards of excellence as we had already defined them, as best we could, treating our clients and professional peers with respect and courtesy, without making impossible promises to deliver what we cannot; to ask for the tools, resources and assistance of the corporation and other professionals and departments, as appropriate, to improve our ability to deliver professional care.
But how can you not care what other people think? the supervisor insisted. I can't. I can only evaluate their response, their concrete & specific complaints, and change my actions if I believe it's warranted. Just because someone is unhappy with me, doesn't mean I should necessarily change. Maybe they are just unhappy, period. Maybe they are way off base. Maybe something else entirely is making them unhappy, something I might be able to help with or maybe not. I can't care if that takes me off course and I get pushed and pulled all over the place trying to make this or that person "happy".
How often, in my very first encounter with a client, do I get the "it's all your fault" stare, and I haven't even had a chance to say "hello"!! It would be totally silly of me to feel responsible, wouldn't it? I can check to see if I can help resolve any existing issues, but how could I possibly feel any of that would be my fault?
OK. That was relatively easy for me. Family and loved ones are more difficult. Of course I care how what I say or do affects them. Of course I am tied to their happiness or unhappiness, as the case may be. But even there, I have come to realize that in so far as I have done my best, I am still not responsible for their feelings, their choices, their lives.
But, it makes me very unhappy when they are not happy, successful, thriving, healthy (you may fill in the blanks with all sorts of calamities, imagined or real, that I can find the time to fret over.) I worry. I try to imagine ways that I might solve their problems, help them out, make them happy. Oddly enough, quite often, what I, in my pushy way offer, is not what they need. They often really resist my help! Imagine! And I'm trying to help! The ingrates! Or they accept or ask for help, help and more help that I don't have the ability to give, but I try anyway and fail miserably, making both of us angry. I can give you all sorts of examples of this out-of-balance dance that I think many people will recognize.
The task for me has been to Trust. No matter what I think I'm afraid of, I need to trust that I can't take care of another person. The power is within that person to take care of themselves. When they ask for help they truly need that I can truly give, there is a smooth flow to it. It's true care for another person, unconditional. There is no score-keeping, no resentment, no negativity. It's a free gift of love. When they ask for something inappropriate to themselves or me, there is resistance, resentment, fear, anger, regret, all sorts of emotions that I am slowly learning to recognize. Still struggling with my personal, little god/control issues, I am learning to trust that the people I love don't need me as much as I'd like them to need me.
That may make no sense at all to many people, but that is where I am in my own, personal journey.
I can point to two examples of a daughter who put off marriage, a career, and never actually left home, to care for an invalid parent. In the case of each of these women, the parent eventually died after many years of being very dependent on the daughter. By that time, each daughter was well past middle age herself. Marriage and a career no longer seemed possible for either of them. One woman was happy, rich with memories, embracing a new chapter in her life, one that no longer required the devotion to the work of caring for an ill, beloved parent. The other woman bitterly regretted never leaving home, never having married, the wasted years spent caring for a demanding and difficult parent.
T. Harv Ecker tells a story of identical twin girls who had a terribly abusive father. He indiscriminately was incredibly cruel to both of them. One grew up to be very sweet tempered, unfailingly kind and considerate. The other was cruel, angry and abusive. When each woman was asked why she behaved as she did, the reply was "How could I be otherwise? Look how my father was!" So, what was the truth?
Everybody has people in their lives who will be affected by whatever choices you make in your own life. There will be people who will unconsciously or deliberately sabotage your efforts to live an authentic, purpose-full, joyful life, out of fear. Often, I hear someone trashing a successful person and I am stunned to recognize an ugly streak of ...you know: you've seen people do that yourself. And we can easily identify all the sources of fear that person perceives and to which that person is reacting defensively or jealously or angrily.
But how much easier is it to respond with joy to another's joy than it is to fight against the negative in our family or social history and decide to life a life of peace, hope and joy in spite of it? The ripple effect of our own lives lived "on purpose" with joy, will have a proportionally greater beneficial effect than lives that are cramped and diminished to fit into unhealthy definitions of "duty". A sincere smile elicits our responsive smile, almost effortlessly!
We all know those rare people people who are truly happy. While their lives are most certainly not without challenges, they love their life, they love what they have done or are doing, they love where they are, they love how they spend their days and they love who they are with. By connecting to what their deepest passion is, they have found enjoyment in living on purpose. And the people in their lives? For the most part, they are grateful for the gift of love that person is, just by being, however and wherever that passionate life is expressed.