How much empathy, self-control, and personal responsibility are you showing in relationships? (self-test)

It is human nature to see our own perspective as right and justified. It is also human nature to doubt ourselves and to wonder if we’re wrong in what we’re doing.

So how do you balance the need to act with confidence in yourself and your actions with the need to see conflict from someone else’s perspective and to admit when you’re wrong? How do you know when you have done enough to resolve conflict and when you still need to do more?

There is no perfect way to answer these questions because conflict resolution requires flexibility. The important question is, “Are you taking enough responsibility, showing enough empathy, and exercising enough self-control that you can work through problems effectively.” You can’t control another person’s behaviors and you can’t make every relationship work. What you can do is increase your skills for empathy, self-control, and personal responsibility and by so doing attract better relationships and healthier interactions.

Are you showing enough empathy?

Consider your last conflict with a friend, family member, loved one, colleague, boss, etc. then answer the questions below.

  • Did you spend much of the time defending yourself, instead of listening and trying to understand the other person’s perspective, feelings, or complaints?
  • Did you minimize the other person’s feelings, tell them they were wrong, or express how their situation is not as bad as someone else’s or your experiences?
  • Did you become intimidating, angry, blaming, or critical to get them to shut up, back down, or give you what you want?
  • Did you damage any of their property, break anything in their presence, hit the wall, throw something, take their phone, physically restrain them, keep them from leaving, prevent them from sleeping, read their email, go through their phone, etc.?
  • Did you call them names or say something threatening?
  • Did you threaten to abandon the relationship or leave them somewhere on the side of the road?
  • Did you see their complaints or needs as irrational, stupid, or irrelevant?
  • Did you see them personally as irrational, stupid, witchy, needy, imbalanced, crazy, etc.?
  • After the fact, do you have difficulty remembering what their complaints were?
  • Do you still see their complaints as being invalid, stupid, or unreasonable?
  • Would the other person say that you did not listen to their perspective or understand their feelings?
  • Do you struggle to see what experiences or problems from their past or present could be contributing to the situation?
  • Do you still believe that you did nothing wrong and that the issue and their reactions had nothing to do with you?

If you answer yes to any of the above than you probably struggle with empathy and have not taken the time to sufficiently see the situation from the other person’s perspective. 

Everyone has the right to their own feelings, needs, opinions, property, space, privacy, safety, and freedom. Those who have empathy understand that no matter what their needs or opinions are they don’t have the right to impose upon others’ rights. They see others’ opinions and feelings as valid and important even when they are different from their own. They don’t touch or break others’ things, intimidate or threaten, invade privacy, or keep others from leaving a room if they desire. They may not agree with someone’s perspective but they listen and can understand portions of why others might believe as they do. They may not like the way others respond to situations or handle their life but they can understand the emotions and bigger picture that might drive this behavior.

In other words, someone who has empathy can see beyond one situation to the greater whole of the individual with basic respect and value for them and their rights. In the heat of the moment they may not react in such an ideal way, but after the fact they often calm down, regain perspective, and even apologize for what they might have done or said that contributed to the problem. In this way, their empathy often drives them to exercise self-control for the benefit of others (and their own self-respect), take responsibility, and change behavior as appropriate.

Are you exercising enough self-control?

Consider your last conflict with a friend, family member, loved one, colleague, boss, etc. then answer the questions below.

  • Did you express your feelings, thoughts, and needs with anger, personal attacks, swearing, or belittling statements?
  • Did the conversation escalate quickly to raised voices, intimidating behaviors, threats, slammed doors, damaged property, etc.?
  • Did you do or say things you’d previously regretted or promised you’d not do again?
  • Did you act contrary to your own personal beliefs or values in the heat of the moment?
  • Did you sacrifice what you wanted long-term for what you were feeling in the moment (for example, you might have said or done something that compromised your work, offended an important relationship, or put your in legal jeopardy)?
  • Are these behaviors a pattern for you in other areas of your life (such as excessive spending, road rage, drug and alcohol use, sexual impulsivity, etc.)?
  • Do you see yourself as only reacting to your situation, thus your behaviors are not your fault?

Your actions say everything about you and very little about the other person or situation (just as others actions say everything about them). You always have options. You are not a victim to your circumstances. Therefore, if you answer yes to any of the above you need to take more responsibility for your behaviors and commit yourself to exercising more self-control.

Even if you attempt to argue that your reaction was unusual for you and only triggered by an extreme situation you still need to accept responsibility for choosing that behavior (especially if you were an adult at the time). The only way to prove your true character is by creating and acting on your plans for avoiding the triggering situation or your reaction to it in the future. If you allow the behavior to become a pattern (or to continue) you can not argue that it is due to your situation. You’re allowing it to become a part of your character and personality. You have the power to change your behaviors and redefine your character but this requires you to be active, not passive. To create change you will have to first accept and take more responsibility for your past, present, and future behavior.

Are you taking enough personal responsibility?

Consider your last conflict with a friend, family member, loved one, colleague, boss, etc. then answer the questions below.

  • Did you spend much of the time defending yourself, your actions, or your position?
  • Did you do most of the talking?
  • Do you see yourself as being unjustly attacked or injured?
  • Did you avoid conflict by just saying what you had to say to get out of the situation?
  • Did you make promises you didn’t keep?
  • Did you say yes when you really needed to say no?
  • Did you discount, minimize, or deny your feelings or needs?
  • Did the other person have to push and prod you to express your thoughts or take action?
  • Did you share with others the details of your conflict and your feelings instead of talking with the person whom you had conflict?
  • Did you hold a grudge or act angry, silent, and withdrawn after the conflict?
  • Did you send messages through a third person to the one with whom you were upset?
  • Did you expect others to read your mind?
  • Did you stop trying to communicate after the first sign of resistance or misunderstanding?
  • Did you walk out on the conversation, not return calls, refuse to communicate, use the silent treatment, put the conversation off for days or weeks?
  • Did you abandon the relationship without any warning or at the first sign of difficulty?
  • Did you express to friends what the other person did wrong while simultaneously struggling to see or admit what you did wrong or how you might have made the situation worse?
  • Did you get defensive, angry, or withdrawn after others expressed how you might have handled the situation ineffectively?
  • Did you express that you know something is wrong with you and that you need to change but since then you haven’t sought help, taken action, or followed through with a plan for change that lasted for more than a few days or weeks?
  • As you read these questions are you analyzing how the other person was deficient in these ways rather than seeing a few of these behaviors in yourself?

If you answer yes to four or more of the questions above than you’re definitely NOT taking enough responsibility for your part in the problems of your relationship. This is also the case if you didn’t answer yes to any of the questions above, which would be a sign of, not your perfection, but your denial and lack of personal insight.

Everyone does some of these so you should naturally be seeing a few of these behaviors in yourself. Excusing and defending yourself or blaming others instead of taking responsibility will only keep you from seeing what you’re contributing to the problem. Dominating the conversation and feeling like a victim shows your resistance to hearing the other person’s perspective. Your lack of sharing your feelings and needs (and expecting others to read your mind or to draw your thoughts out of you) demonstrates insufficient personal responsibility and respect for yourself as well as the relationship. Withholding personal thoughts, feelings, and needs, refusing to be vulnerable, and not investing fully is often a manipulative and passive aggressive way of controlling a relationship. Additionally, talking with others about the conflict creates collusion and provides positive reinforcement that only keeps the problem going instead of really resolving it.

Giving up on a relationship or conversation before it’s really been attempted can feed a victim mentality that makes you believe you are just unlucky in relationships rather than unhealthy in them. Abandoning the relationship at the first sign of conflict often makes the other person seem like the perpetrator of a great offense when in actuality your lack of investment and dedication to communication is more indicative of the true source of the problem. Without effective communication of your needs on multiple occasions and providing sufficient time for change you can’t truly judge the character of another person or the potential of a relationship.

Doing things out of guilt, making promises you don’t keep, saying yes when you need to say no, and holding resentments is often something people do when they see themselves as weak and incapable of confronting issues, but it’s also a way of playing the victim. Talking about how you know you need to change but doing nothing about it makes you seem like you’re trying while masking your passiveness—words are cheap, actions are not. The true sign of personal responsibility isn’t saying, “Something needs to be done about this (which is passive and doesn’t own the problem or solution),” its saying, “I’m going to do ________ about this” and then making yourself accountable to someone else over the weeks and months that follow.

Certainly there are those individuals who are toxic, act manipulative, and regularly inspire conflict. Taking more responsibility than is yours by blaming yourself, working harder in the relationship, or excusing their behavior is not being responsible, but over-responsible. This encourages enabling and co-dependency for both of you. Learning to take personal responsibility requires that you say no when needed, have boundaries, confront inappropriate behavior, express your feelings, and let others own and fix their problems rather than stepping in and doing it for them.

Empathy, self-control, and personal responsibility are like a three-legged stool. If any one leg is weak or missing the stool will easily tip and cannot support weight.

Each of these skills supports the refinement of the other and is essential to lasting, mature relationships.

So, with this in mind. How are you doing in these areas? Where can you improve?

It’s not about other’s skills (or lack thereof) of empathy, self-control, and personal responsibility. It’s about yours. The more you improve in these areas the more you will naturally attract others who have these skills too (or are willing to work on them just like you).

4 ways to learn more

  • Schedule a free 30-minute consultation

    Alisa Goodwin Snell is a dating and relationship coach who spent 17 years as a marriage and family therapist. She’s written 7 books for singles, created numerous audios, videos, and articles, is a popular public speaker, and has been on over 100 TV and radio programs nationwide. Learn more.

  • Get Stage 0, which will lay a foundation for you to move forward

  • Get the Relationship Package (if you are already in a relationship) so you can lay a more solid foundation while also learning how to enhance your current relationship
  • Get Everything, because you are not currently in a relationship and need to learn how to lay a solid foundation and navigate all 5 stages of the dating process.


7 thoughts on “How much empathy, self-control, and personal responsibility are you showing in relationships? (self-test)

  • Thanks for sharing this!! I have found I have to be willing to be a “team player” (similar to being on a basketball team, baseball team) in order to be in successful in relationships. Those who are more comfortable being solitary players (like golfers or other solo sports) for example, may be very good at what they do, but don’t make the best team players. Thanks for your insights, they are helpful in becoming aware of different types of people one may come across.

    • You can do both at the same time. Having empathy means that I can see the situation through another person’s perspective. Nevertheless, that may not mean that I agree with their perspective relative to how it would affect me.

      For example, if a friend is having a hard time paying a $200 bill, I can show empathy for how anxious they may feel, how stressful the situation can be, and the despair they may feel, but that doesn’t mean I have to give them $200. Instead I can say, “That is so hard. I bet you feel so stressed. What are your options?” This shows empathy. By exploring options with them I can help them find solutions. If they ask me to pay the bill, I can respond, “I’m so sorry that isn’t something that will work for me but I have faith you will find a solution. What other options do you have?” Even if the person plays the victim and tries to guilt me into paying the bill, I can say, “I don’t know what you are going to do, but I believe in you. Let me know how it works out.”

      I don’t have to fix others’ problems just because I have empathy. Having boundaries shows that I have personal responsibility and empathy for my own feelings, rights, and needs too. These two skills (of empathy for others and self) can co exist and others with empathy and personal responsibility will see this in you too. They are not offended by your boundaries and they express their boundaries as well.

      Does this answer you question? Did it help?

      • I guess I noticed the one about threatening to leave someone by the road. I was in the car at one point with someone who was becoming increasingly verbally abusive and finally did tell that person that if she didn’t stop that I would be stopping to let her out of the car. For me it was a boundary issue, I didn’t see it as a lack of empathy.

      • Yes! That is an appropriate way to set a boundary. That being said, where you leave them reflects your empathy and respect as well. For instance, leaving them on the side of a country road or a bad neighborhood would not be appropriate. Leaving them at a gas station where there is a phone is appropriate. I’m assuming they backed down and you continued to your destination. This is why boundaries are so effective. It gets others to show more respect. That being said if they became violent than your safety comes first and dropping them off right there wouldn’t be an issue. Good comment. Alisa

  • Yes, she finally backed down…granted, I was slowing the car down before she did…

    Thank you for getting back to me about that. I was raised in a family that had next to no boundaries so they’ve been something I’ve worked hard to learn and apply. Granted, not all members of my family are thrilled with that. 😉

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