Creativity and Boundary-Setting, Part 2: The Limits of Responsibility | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Creativity and Boundary-Setting, Part 2: The Limits of Responsibility

In the last post in this series, we talked about how developing the ability to say “no,” and protect our time, is important for making the kind of progress we want in our creative work.

In this post, I’ll discuss how it can help our creativity to set another kind of boundary — to stop blaming ourselves for how others experience the world.

As I’m sure you’ve learned firsthand, when we let people see our creative work, we risk getting criticized.  But criticism by itself, I think, isn’t a problem. It only becomes problematic when we take responsibility for the critic’s suffering and anger.

My Criticism Fantasy

I’ll give you an example from my own life.  While I was writing my book, I had a nagging tendency to imagine ways people might attack it.  A very specific “worst-case scenario” kept coming to mind.

The scenario involved me speaking at a bookstore.  During the question and answer period, a man stands up and launches into a tirade.  “This book doesn’t solve any real problems,” he shouts.  “I’ve got two kids, a wife and a mortgage, and no job — how does this book help me with that?”

I thought for a while about why I kept imagining this situation, and why it seemed troubling to me.  Eventually, I realized the problem was that I was taking responsibility for my fictitious critic’s suffering.

In other words, this man was basically blaming me for his situation and his emotional distress, and I was buying into his story.  But in “reality,” I didn’t create his financial problems, abuse him as a child, or do anything except tell him about my book.  When I recognized that, my body suddenly relaxed — tension I hadn’t noticed before melted away — and the fantasy no longer seemed so worrisome.

Releasing Your Responsibility

I’ve found that this kind of fantasizing is common among people who are having trouble putting their creative work “out there.”  Often, these are compassionate, empathic people.  They want to heal others’ suffering — not bring more into the world.

Unfortunately, people with this mentality (myself included, sometimes) also tend to have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for how others feel.  If someone else is hurt, they assume, I must have hurt them, and it’s my job to make it better.

The paradox is that this attitude actually prevents people from playing the healing role they desire.  Their fear of hurting others causes them to shrink away from giving their gifts to the world.  If they wrote that book or started that business, they think, somebody might get mad, and then the world would be worse off.

The key, I think, is to recognize that it’s possible to care about people without “merging” with them – without taking all of their hurt, suffering and fear upon ourselves.  Breathing deeply, and sensing the pressure of our feet against the ground, I think, is a helpful way to remember our separateness from others, and our solidity in the face of their upset and distress.

I know this was a liberating realization for me, and I hope it also helps you find the sense of ease and flow you may be seeking in your work.

37 thoughts on
Creativity and Boundary-Setting, Part 2: The Limits of Responsibility

  1. Evan

    I think another aspect is our expectations about our work. If we really do want to have something that will solve everyone’s problems (in five simple steps that can be done in five minutes) then we will also be affected by this kind of criticism (not that I’d know much about that – ha!).

  2. Chris - Post author

    Hi Evan — I wonder where that desire to solve everyone’s problems, no matter what they are, would come from. I can get how, if it came from a place of “I’m responsible for how others feel and I need to fix any concerns they’re having,” others’ criticism would cut pretty deeply, since it would suggest that you weren’t meeting your supposed obligations.

  3. Mark

    This is a very important lesson for all to learn. We cannot take responsibility for the perspective and attitudes of others. We must trust in our self. We must be authentic and know that this is enough and it matters not how some else reacts to our creativity and to us. We are all in different places and it is important to accept people for where they are in their journey.

  4. Cath Lawson

    Hi Chris – I’m glad you went through this exercise. You can’t please everyone all of the time and somebody will always be offended no matter what you say. And I guess a lot of these people aren’t ready to take responsibility for their own problems and work out how to put things right. Instead, they’re always on the lookout for someone to blame – me, you, the politicians or whoever.

  5. Evelyn Lim

    I agree with Cath. There are bound to be people out there who will not like your book. I was googling about this famous author yesterday and found that there were just as many criticisms about his book as there were for positive comments. The thing is not to take it to heart, even if your imagined scenario really happens. Know that you will attract enough readers who will like the messages that you share through your book.

    Have an awesome weekend,

  6. Hilary

    Hi Chris .. how right you are – we need to take responsibility for our own life .. all of it, from when we starting growing and taking decisions .. and if we look back we can realise what we were doing & then take that learning and apply to the things happening today. By passing on those sort of thoughts .. then others might look at their own lives in different ways. We can only help ourselves and do the best we can …. certainly not stop doing things because someone who has no idea says it won’t help them .. too many, who have no knowledge nor understanding, tell us what to do .. we need just to get on with what we see as best for us.

    Thanks – have a good weekend .. Hilary

  7. Chris - Post author

    Hi Mark — I liked what you said about respecting where others are in their journey — it’s always seemed to me that, when I blame myself for someone else’s suffering and other aspects of their experience, I’m actually not acknowledging the place they’re at in their journey and all the history that made them what they are today, and that’s an invitation for me to get present again to their uniqueness.

  8. Chris - Post author

    Hi Cath — It’s good to see you again. Yes, the imaginary people in my head tend to be such incurable blamers! :) Your comment reminds me of a thought I had the other day, which was — surprisingly — about professional sports, which I usually don’t think about at all. I reflected on how these professional athletes, every day, play their game for audiences that invariably contain people who yell “you suck”! Making a big impact, it seems, doesn’t exempt us from ridicule — in fact it earns us more.

  9. Chris - Post author

    Hi Evelyn — thanks for that — I know I’ve been much happier putting the book “out there” and taking some criticism than I would have been if I never released it.

  10. Chris - Post author

    Hi Hilary — yes, that is an interesting phenomenon, isn’t it — that people who give advice often are the least knowledgeable about what they’re saying — probably because, the deeper and more nuanced our knowledge about something becomes, the more we realize how hopelessly ignorant we are, and stop trying to tell others what they should do.

  11. Stacey Shipman

    I’ve learned how to make this distinction more in my professional life than in my personal life (though, I’m not perfect!) And just over the weekend I had to consciously tell myself not to take on the feelings of a family member. It’s definitely not easy, yet it is freeing when you can make the separation.

  12. Chris - Post author

    Hi Stacey — I can definitely relate to what you say about becoming “merged” with people in my personal life, particularly family. What I’ve found is that recognizing that separation actually gives me more space to be compassionate toward people — I can’t really give them anything unless it’s clear where they end and I begin.

  13. Sara


    This was a very helpful post. I could identify with what you were saying…especially that conversation with the critic:~)

    It also was a different way of seeing how we block our own creativity and the sharing of it. I really liked this line: “The key, I think, is to recognize that it’s possible to care about people without “merging” with them – without taking all of their hurt, suffering and fear upon ourselves.”

    I think this is an issue for “helpers.” Empathy can be a doubled-edged sword, at times. I like that you point this out and make me stop and think about the times when I absorb someone’s pain too much and instead of being helpful, I try to fix things which seldom works.

  14. Ivee Olivares

    Hi Chris,
    I can completely relate to this. But this applies to anyone who “puts himself” out there, no matter what profession. There’s alway a risk. To be misunderstood or blamed or criticized. But if we worried to much or take negative reactions to heart, we’ll never do anything.

  15. Cath Lawson

    Hi Chris – It must be so hard to play well when folk are yelling you suck. I guess they must get used to blocking it out, or maybe they train themselves to imagine people are shouting – you’re a star.

    I haven’t been in the blogosphere much the last few months – I only just started blogging again recently.

  16. Jannie Funster

    Funny, but you know how you say sometimes we may avoid sitting down and reading our emails because we fear there will be requests in there we can’t fulfil? Sometimes I get that feeling about FaceBook and Twitter. If I don’t respond to personal messages, I feel a bit like I’m “letting down” my friends. (I actually never have responded to a DM on Twitter.) So, I am taking on the perceived suffering my friends may be going through.

    And for what it’s worth, I’ll be the one jumping up at your book-signing saying “This book rocks!!!” Totally.


  17. Patricia

    I was brought up to do my family’s emotions for them, your lesson here has been a huge struggle for me, though recognizing others feelings and needs in a counseling session I am leading has been a snap. I am hyper responsible and have taught one of my children to do the responsible thing too ( though she does not do the collecting emotions part of it)

    Good words and important for me to read today. Thank you for putting them out so clearly
    I will join Jannie dancing at the book signing…cause your book rocks

  18. Chris - Post author

    Whoa, what a week — and now I’m open for business again in the blogosphere.

    Back to you, Sara — I think that’s a great way to put the distinction — between actually being with another person and trying to fix the situation — the latter is really more about making it safe for ourselves, I think, than serving the person we’re with, because the emotional intensity seems too great or we think it’s our fault.

  19. Chris - Post author

    Hi Ivee — yes, it does seem to be a myth that many people subscribe to that it’s possible to lead a criticism-free life. After all, if we don’t do anything, people can always criticize us for not doing anything. :)

  20. Chris - Post author

    Hi Jannie — that sounds like a powerful thing to be aware of — that you sometimes try to anticipate how someone else might experience something that you might do and plan accordingly — I can imagine how much energy would be freed up to actually do what you want if you didn’t feel the need to do that much planning. Then again, I shudder to think about what a Jannie with even more energy might unleash on the world! :)

  21. Chris - Post author

    Hi Patricia — thanks for the appreciation. It’s funny, I’ve also been thinking recently about how empathy (heh, specifically, my own empathy) develops. It sounds like, for both of us, it was sort of a defense mechanism that helped us anticipate how others might feel and try to prevent “bad” feelings. And it’s also a gift, in the sense that it sounds like both of us put it to good use in our work.

  22. Wilma Ham

    This is a great powerful way of behaving in situations where other people’s egos attack yours.
    Whose problem is it anyway has been another powerful message I have been given myself.
    But it is so true, I too have been taken on responsibility that wasn’t mine and of course in those situation I was totally ineffective. I have done it with my ex husband and I am still in danger of doing it with my daughters. Not getting involved in their story took me some doing, at first it went so against the grain as I confused tough love with adding insult to injury.
    But once you understand what you so eloquently say here, it is the way to go. And yes, people might get mad and shout you don’t understand, well so be it, they are just not ready to hear it.
    You heal on with your book, Chris, I will NOT attack you or so I hope.

  23. Chris - Post author

    Hi Wilma — I like how you put that — it sounds like you can slip into a mode of trying to fix your daughters’ problems, as if you were the Fix-It Woman whose job it is to deal with those situations, and the results haven’t been what you wanted. I know the same usually happens for me when I get in the mode of giving advice.

  24. Michelle @ Find Your Balance

    There was a lot of criticism of the movie Lemonade because it’s about how people, like me, turned a layoff into a good thing. Others who have suffered through layoffs in a not-so-good way got mad that we could show this positive side and there were some harsh words. But it’s like they were just taking out their frustration on the movie.

  25. Patty - Why Not Start Now?

    Hi Chris,

    I really like this point about releasing responsibility. For me, it goes a step further, to actually redefining what responsibility means. I’ve discovered that responsibility starts with me, inside, and flows outward. If I don’t take care of myself first (which includes being clear about what’s my job and what’s not) then I’m no good for anyone or anything.

    BTW, one of my favorite quotes is about responsibility: “Freedom is the will to be responsible to ourselves.” (Nietzsche)

  26. Robin Easton

    Dear Chris!

    I have SO missed being here more often!! And this article is just WOW! WOW! WOW!!! :)
    I think this is one of the MOST brilliant things I’ve ever read! I am laughing right now because I soooooo relate to this. Why? Because I have a book coming out in about 5 weeks! OMG!!! LOL! The timing of this post could not be more perfect. You continue to amaze me over and over. I read the part of your fictitious critic’s “blasting” and laughed out loud! :) :) I know this feeling; I think we have the same fictitious critic. Or we DID.

    I say “did” because I too let myself explore what this was about. When I came to the conclusion that I did not have to be anything for anyone, nor was I trying to be, and that I have only written the story I was called to write, and it is ONLY “my” story, “my” experience (nothing more), I suddenly realized that I had nothing to “defend”.

    Like you I also looked deeper and saw a time of my life when I was very young (which I write about in my sequel to Naked in Eden) where I thought the world owed me something, ANYTHING (but “they” better give me SOMETHING!! :)), I didn’t even know WHAT the world owed me; it just owed me. (an “attitude” which I later came to seriously look at, understand and let go of).

    So when you write: “Eventually, I realized the problem was that I was taking responsibility for my fictitious critic’s suffering.” I really related to that. And I now know, from my own youthful experience) that there are people moving through life feeling like the world owes them something, and they will rant, kick scream, attack, argue, “entangle with” anyone they can ensnare into their sticky web. Because if they entangle someone and keep the argument going, the pushing and pulling, kicking and screaming, they never have to stop and realize that no one owes us anything. We just arrive here, we get what we get, and now what do want to do about it. This doesn’t mean we can’t get help, caring, etc, but we will never find that if we are aggressively attacking others and world for what we don’t have, for our suffering, our challenges, our losses, and so forth.

    As you say, “If someone else is hurt, they assume, I must have hurt them, and it’s my job to make it better.” Yes, this is very true. And it can be a very hard, but GREATLY rewarding lesson to learn that the world owes us nothing. In essence we ARE (each of us) the world creating itself.

    And this line “The paradox is that this attitude actually prevents people from playing the healing role they desire.” This works on both sides of the equation. For the sensitive caring person who is called to “give”, whether that be a book or teaching etc., if they shrink back due to fear of attack, which is so easy to do, they never give their healing beauty to the world. AND likewise, for the angry suffering person (like your fictitious critic) he never receives the healing he feels he deserves, even when it is standing right in front of him.

    This is a post I think I am going to print out, because it is one I can draw strength, courage and truth from as I move into the world with my own story, my own sharing. Oh Chris, you are amazing. I could spend days reading your posts. You always are honest and hit on a deep gutsy level that is drawn from your own life experience. So appreciate that. I just saw your “subscribe” box at the top of your sidebar and am going to subscribe to your work. I have you in my RSS, and rarely subscribe to things as I as I can get 100 – 200 emails a day. But I would like to see more of what you are doing.

    Thank you for being both deeply sensitive and yet courageously bold.
    Hugs to you,

  27. Chris - Post author

    Hi Michelle — it sounds like there are people who have strict rules in mind about how you’re supposed to feel about being laid off, and they got frustrated when it seemed like your movie broke those rules. I get the sense that this will happen whenever we try to follow rigid rules for how we and others are “supposed” to experience life — that seems to be a recipe for suffering.

  28. Chris - Post author

    Hi Patty — that sounds like a helpful thing to keep in mind — that taking responsibility has to include taking responsibility for ourselves, or else we’ll soon run out of energy and inclination to serve others.

  29. Chris - Post author

    Hi Robin — thanks for the appreciation and I’m glad to hear that the post was helpful and entertaining for you. That felt liberating for me to read when you said you just let go of the expectation that your story needed to be this or that for someone else, and instead just allowed yourself to see your book as your story and nothing more or less.

    That definitely resonated with me when you said that, unless we can let go of our patterns of attacking others for not giving us what we want, which usually come from far in the past, we can’t enroll them to help us in the present. I’m sure there are ways I still do this in my own life, and becoming aware of them can actually be an exciting journey.

    I also felt very understood when you said it sounds to you like I’m writing from personal experience — that’s what I strive to do here, which is — like you said about yourself — to do nothing more or less than tell my story. I’m glad to hear you’re checking out the newsletter and I hope it’s helpful to you.

  30. Julie

    Chris, your words rang so true for me to write my books, but rather than thinking of critics, I find myself thinking, “Will they really understand?” Getting my feelings and understandings translated into words has been more difficult than I anticipated, probably because I started questioning others’ responses. I’m SO glad you said that in your imaginary story you were just telling about your book. This reminds me that I’m just telling my views, and I need to do that in my own special way. Thank you. :)

  31. Chris - Post author

    Hi Julie — I can definitely relate to that fear that “I won’t be understood” — people will read my work or hear me speak and look at me with blank, uncomprehending stares. It sounds like you can fall into a pattern of trying to anticipate whether people will understand your work, and that you get that letting go of that need to predict what they’ll think can free up energy to do what you want.

  32. Patricia

    I was just reading Julie’s comment and it came back to me that when I was first ordained and I would preach a sermon I would get lots and lots of comments about “we could not hear you” “You are hard to understand” and it took me years to figure out it was not my delivery or a bad mike, it was a way of undercutting a female in the pulpit…..I no longer take it personally – it really is their problem.

    I did officiate a wedding where everyone had to put up their umbrellas and then I knew it was the weather’s fault that folks could not hear what was being said….:)

  33. Chris - Post author

    Hi Patricia — that sounds like a valuable realization about the weather not being your fault. :) That also sounds valuable to recognize that other people bring their own expectations and quirks to the table in how they listen to your speech. And, if you do wind up taking it personally, I can also get how that might be an opportunity to explore what you’re needing and who you are.

  34. Joyce at I Take Off The Mask

    I really appreciate this article. It came at a time when I was reflecting about setting boundaries and strengthening one’s identity. For those who are able to easily empathize with others, this really helps a lot and gives clear pointers on how to separate one’s work with the feelings and issues of other people even though we may care a lot about them.

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