Responsible expression

I am responsible for what I say. But I am not responsible for what you hear.

don Miguel Ruiz


This is one of my favorite quotes from don Miguel. It is such an important, healing, and liberating piece of wisdom. I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot lately.

Expressions of truth can be really powerful. The intent behind the words, the part of the expression that is conveyed indirectly, is even more powerful. We are responsible for wielding that power wisely.

Speaking truth does not carry the intent to harm.

In fact, speaking truth must be done very carefully and considerately, so that any collateral harm it does produce is minimized. It is typically done vulnerably, with the intent to cease harm that has already been happening.

If the intent of the words is to harm or diminish the other, that’s not justified as speaking truth – it’s vengeance, retaliation, punishment, even if the words are technically true.

Hurtful things, said in the heat of a conflict, in order to win or dominate over another person are not justified as speaking truth.

We are responsible for the harm that harmful words and intentions convey. 

On the other hand, we are not responsible for the interpretations other people make. We are not responsible for how our words are heard, or received by those who don’t understand, and don’t make an effort to understand.

There are people who are highly reactive, lacking a certain generosity of spirit. Upon hearing something they don’t like, they immediately jump to absurd unjust conclusions, make ridiculous or inappropriate assumptions, become offended, and sometimes work themselves up into hysterical outrage. Typically, they start flinging wild accusations and personal attacks in response, all without ever asking for clarification or deeper explanations. They seem to always be ready for mortal combat at a moment’s notice, completely certain that their views and interpretations are singularly correct, and therefore the speaker must be destroyed. 

Those of us who grew up in oppressive dysfunctional environments know these people well. We were made to believe that we are always responsible for these aggressive inappropriate reactions of others. If they got angry, it was necessarily always our fault. We learned that we must be really careful, tiptoeing around other people, because any careless or unwelcome words would have dire retaliatory consequences. We were made to believe that this is normal, and morally justified, and it was our job to manage their reactions. We learned that we must be thoughtfully sensitive and careful with people who would regularly lash out with cruelty and destructive intent, if we said the wrong things, tried to speak the truth, or expressed unwelcome opinions.

This piece of wisdom resets those false beliefs back on solid ground.

We are responsible for ourselves – to speak with love, to speak with respect and kindness, to express hurt feelings or anger in a measured or careful way. To hold others accountable in a fair and tempered manner.

But we are not responsible for how other people react, how they mis-interpret our words, how angry they get, how destructive they get, or how much gas-lighting or blame-shifting they seek to engage in.

Destructive people like to make others responsible for their emotions. If they are angry, they always find someone to blame, whether it’s justified or not. They are unwilling, or at times unable, to see themselves clearly or control their explosive feelings.

But that does not make us responsible for it. We don’t need to carry that responsibility, nor remain silent in order to avoid upsetting them. If they jump to conclusions, and twist words and intentions out of context, and get angry seeking to provoke escalating chaotic conflict – that is entirely up to them. We don’t have to apologize, nor feel guilty or responsible, for things others choose to get upset about.

Learning to make the distinctions correctly is really important and takes time, courage, and lots of patience to figure out.    

Try as we might, we cannot control how other people receive our expressions. We all want to be thought of as good people, to be liked, admired, accepted, and appreciated, but the reality is that everyone hears, sees, and judges others through their own filters. People make assumptions, judgments, and interpretations based on what they believe about themselves, and the pain they experience in their own realities. There is very little we can do about that in relation to another person. We cannot explain ourselves to someone who is unwilling or unable to see past their own filters. We cannot prove our good or innocent intentions when they are convinced they know our true malicious motives. And we cannot be responsible for how they interpret or react to what we say, when they are stuck entirely inside their own reality. 

When we realize this, we stop trying so hard to affect what others think of us or how they receive our words. You can’t control their opinions of you, or how they react to you. You can only do and say whatever is in your own integrity, guided by your own love, truth, and compassion. And how other people hear you or react is entirely their business. Their emotions, their reactions, are solely under their sphere of control.