How Do You Make Others Feel?

By Sam Jolman | April 23, 2012

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  Maya Angelou

“We actually respond to one another’s energy more than to people’s exact words or actions. In any situation, your taking or giving of energy is what you are actually doing.”  Richard Rohr

“Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road?” Luke 24:32

I sat with a man the other day who was simply fed up with how little people noticed him.  He could walk through his house of roommates and no one would say a word to him.  At work, he sat in the lunch room ignored.  Even at a friends party, he was blown off by several people he attempted conversations with.  And don’t even bring up his experience of pursuing women.  Just this week a woman forgot she’d ever even met him, even though he’d worked up the courage to introduce himself the week before.

He had only one conclusion about himself, and a damning one at that:  “I am repulsive. Not much to like here obviously.”  It seemed absolutely certain to him this was true.  I sat back contorting my forehead.  He didn’t smell bad or look weird.  But he was not about to let me tell him any different.

So I asked him how he coped with being ignored so much.  “I don’t know… I guess I just distract myself with something else.  I try and make it look like it doesn’t bother me that much. You know, look busy or something.”  I pondered this.  “So if I’m around you, the feeling I’m going to get is that you’re busy and don’t want to be bothered.”

“You mean I might be playing a role in this?”  He paused in surprise.  “I’ve never thought about that before, how others might feel around me.  That’s exciting… and troubling to think about my impact like that.”

No one can make you feel anything.  Ever heard this?  It floats around in counseling circles.  Its an attempt to get people to take ownership for there actions and not blame it on how someone else made them feel.  I get it.  But its just not that helpful.  I hear it used more as a weapon than anything.  I once had a spouse use this response when her husband shared that it hurt when she called him an asshole. “I can’t make you feel anything.  If you feel hurt, its your fault.”

The truth is that we do have a certain kind of impact on others that leads them to feel certain things.  Not that everything people feel around us is our fault.  We may have reminded of their angry father or mean ex-girlfriend and unknowingly kicked the hornet’s nest of their heart.  But we all leave an impression on others.  You’ve probably heard it said that communication is 10% verbal and 90% non-verbal or body language.  I’m not sure on the percentages, but the idea is true.  We all communicate to others far more than we realize.  And what we communicate is a certain feeling.

John Eldredge calls it a gravitational pull.  And I like this description.  We know that every planet has something like a magnetic field to it, a force not quite explained in physics, that pulls on things, drawing them into its orbit.  And I agree with John that we all have something like the emotional and spiritual equivalent of this.  We do exchange a certain kind of energy with each other, entering and leaving each other’s orbits.  We pull on others when we’re around them.

I’m actually sitting in a coffee shop as I write this.  At the table next to me is a man who keeps fidgeting in his chair, sliding it in and out trying to get it just right.  He keeps looking around at everyone.  He talks aloud to himself.  And I just get this feeling that he wants me to notice him.  He seems pretty insecure about himself, anxious in his own skin.  Its more than an observation.  I literally mean I can feel it.  I’ve been distracted from writing, a little on edge just sitting at the table next to him.  I actually just moved chairs to get out of his “energy field.”  And he moved closer!  Its like he needed to stay in my orbit, because he knows I’m trying to get away from him and he doesn’t want to lose my acceptance.  And I can actually feel my energy draining.  I can’t wait for him to leave, to get my energy back.

The feeling we give others is either a blessing or a curse.  Words matter, actions matter, but the energy you give off also matters and is often overlooked.  We think of good and bad only in terms of behaviors.  Don’t steal or hit people or call people names.  Be kind and generous and share your toys.  This is a good elementary school playground version of right and wrong, I’ll admit.  But our impact on others can be a much more sinister, sly, subversive thing.  We can love or hurt people simply in our mood, the energy we give off.

Ever felt someone’s anger for you just by being in the room with them?  Or maybe you’ve sensed in your gut that someone was trying to use you even though you couldn’t put your finger on what told you this?  Your intuition is picking up on the unconscious interactions.  You can hear this in the example of the man who came to me for counseling.  Unaware, he was choosing to close himself off to people, hurting himself and those around him.  He became the cold, busy, “not interested in talking” guy, though it was far from his true heart.

We counselors call this a person’s relationship style.  Over thousands and thousands of interactions with other people, we all develop a way of relating to others, our own style.  We are all constantly, mostly unconsciously, reading people’s reactions to us and adjusting how we come across, like an actor before an audience.  I learned from author Dan Allender that the word personality is derived from the Latin term persona, a word originally used to refer to the masks worn by Greek or Roman theatre actors.  Literally a part of your personality is an act. And in this sense we are constantly changing who we are.

I know most of this seems far from chosen.  The world is often a cruel audience and we’re doing our best to get through the play.  We change who we are just to cope.  Author Frederick Buechner says it brilliantly:

“Of course the world does its work…making us into what the world would like us to be, and because we have to survive after all, we try and make ourselves into something that we hope the world will like better than it apparently did the selves we originally were.  The original shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all.  Instead we live out all the other selves which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the worlds weather.”

As this man in my office shared his story with me, I learned how brutal his peers had been to him throughout school.  His whole track team in high school turned on him because he was in close competition with an upperclassman to be the top runner on the team.  And this upperclassman in retaliation, turned the whole team on him, leading them in a mockfest.  It confused him and crushed his spirit. He finally accepted it must be him and just quit the team.  This experience – and sadly many others – led him to conclude that his best option was to just keep his distance from people.

Can you hear how he was reading his peers response to him?  And how he began to believe that he must be the problem?  Most of us are not Hitlers, enjoying the harming of others.  Most of us have just learned to cope with our pain, our wounds, by developing a personality that avoids more pain.  We reject in order to avoid rejection.  We isolate in order to avoid isolation.  We invite vulnerability from others in order to avoid the exposure of our own vulnerability.

This man in my office is in a different place.  The arrow of this event has been pulled from his chest and the poison is wearing off.  He is a brave man to face this story and grieve its impact.  He worked to forgive this classmate, even grieved for what might have been going on in this guys life.  Talk about an open heart!  And he gave me permission to share his story here with all of you.   His true self is indeed emerging and its powerfully loving.

How do you make others feel?  What’s the vibe you give off?  Ask your closest friends to answer that question for you.  And then ask yourself, where’d you get that part of your personality?  I guarantee it has a story to it.  Face this and you’ll be more free to be your true self.


  • the only sentence i don’t understand is:
    We invite vulnerability from others in order to avoid the exposure of our own vulnerability.
    i thought vulnerability was generally good

    well anyway – i’m so glad i found your blog
    you don’t write often but each writing is important – worth reading

    • Lisa, thank you! Glad you enjoyed it. I am working on writing more and good to hear you would want more.

      Yes, you are right. Vulnerability is a great thing. But some people will hide behind always asking others, “How are you?” so that they never have to share themselves. In many ways, this is codependency – getting lost in someone else’s feelings to avoid your own. Hope that helps.

  • Wow! Why haven’t I found this gem before? I guess because God meant for me to read it right this moment! Thank you Sam. This is a powerful piece!

    • Hey Lisa! Thanks for stopping by. Really glad you liked this post. And even more glad God used it to speak to you.


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