Emotional Proctoring: When the Emotions and Needs of Others Rule Your Life

The concept of codependency is often relegated to addiction literature, but it has tendrils far beyond addiction. Further, codependency is commonly described as some sort of blind enmeshment that leaves the codependent person feeling they must just be pathetic. Not only is this a potentially condescending oversimplification of codependency, but it lacks the nuance of how it manifests in people who otherwise present as strong, capable, and gritty.

(For a broad description of codependency, visit: https://www.mhanational.org/co-dependency or https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-codependency-5072124)

As a trauma specialist, the form of codependency I’m most likely to see has to do with caregiving and rescuing, and quite often, this caregiving and rescuing is emotional as much as it is logistical. In other words, my codependent patients tend to feel responsible for other people’s feelings. This can take many forms:

  • Feeling hijacked when someone else is in a bad mood
  • Feeling tense when someone’s mood shifts
  • Feeling responsible for cheering others up
  • Feeling like they’re not allowed to be happy unless others are
  • Personalizing other people’s negative moods
  • Believing they caused or contributed to the other person’s bad mood
  • Feeling they must problem-solve other people’s misfortune (aka: rescuing)
  • Trying to anticipate and get ahead of someone else’s feelings
  • Feeling like a failure if people didn’t enjoy themselves
  • Allowing other’s feelings to crowd out their own
  • Believing their needs or feelings cause other’s negative emotions
  • Feeling like they aren’t sacrificing enough for other’s happiness
  • Replaying interactions to examine how they could have prevented the other person’s bad mood
  • Feeling responsible for keeping everyone’s mood even
  • Feeling responsible for mending tensions between other people
  • Feeling responsible for whether or not someone else can love them
  • Believing they’re not worthy of taking up emotional space in relationships
  • Believing they must single-handedly investigate and resolve other’s passive-aggressiveness
  • Feeling others lashed out at them for a valid reason
  • Feeling automatic compassion for people who hurt them
  • Believing they must tolerate and be patient with other people’s mood swings
  • Feeling responsible for investigating and communicating the problem
  • Feeling responsible for reading between the lines
  • Feeling obligated to meet or match other people’s moods
  • Feeling it’s their job to initiate hard conversations
  • Feeling guilty for not dropping everything for someone else’s misfortune
  • Believing other people’s needs are more legitimate than their own
  • Feeling obligated to be responsive to other’s toxic communication or behaviors
  • Feeling selfish for not responding to other’s moodiness
  • Etc.

These types of emotional codependents might be thought of as emotional proctors. Dictionary.com define proctors as someone whose job it is “to supervise or monitor” or someone “charged with…the maintenance of good order.” Emotional proctors conduct constant surveillance of the emotions or potential emotions of people around them, and emotional proctors feel responsible for keeping everyone’s emotions in good order. Meanwhile, their own emotions are silent, invisible, and ignored – seemingly outsized and overpowered by the emotions of people around them.

Emotional proctors tend to unconsciously choose partners and friends who are essentially emotionally unavailable. I say “essentially,” because their partners and friends are often highly emotional, but there’s no emotional reciprocity that can nurture and sustain a healthy relationship. Rather, the partners and friends tend to be highly invested in their own emotions (consciously or not) and don’t show much interest in the emotional life of the emotional proctor. In other words, there’s a lack of exchange in emotions, which is prohibitive of emotional intimacy.

(For more on emotional intimacy, visit: https://www.choosingtherapy.com/emotional-intimacy/)

How emotional proctoring develops

Overarchingly, emotional proctoring develops due to not having your needs met in childhood. In other words, you were taught that your needs, emotions, boundaries, etc. weren’t important or weren’t a priority. This may have been a neglectful oversight from your caregivers, or they may have doled out overt punishment when you had needs, showed emotions, or behaved like a typical child. Additionally, you may have been parentified and forced to grow up too fast. In short, you were taught that you weren’t allowed to have needs, and/or if you did have needs, they somehow negatively affected others.

On top of your needs being neglected or punished, you were taught that it was beneficial to attend to other people’s needs. Sometimes this comes in the form of being able to make a parent laugh when they are agitated, or it may have been providing comfort to a sibling after they were abused. In whatever form you learned it was beneficial to manage other’s emotions, it was a survival tool and coping strategy that you unconsciously carried forward into adulthood.

Given the critical formative and developmental nature of childhood, these lessons become deeply conditioned in you and shape how you subsequently experience and interact with the world.

(For more on how emotional neglect and/or abuse can impact your emotional life, the following books are recommended: Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect by Jonice Webb, PhD and Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents by Lindsay Gibson, PsyD. For information on parentification, visit: https://www.healthline.com/health/parentification#instrumental-vs-emotional or https://theawarenesscentre.com/parentification/)

Who takes advantage of emotional proctors

So what type of person would take advantage of an emotional proctor? First, let’s be clear that the average, reasonably healthy person wouldn’t allow the emotional proctor to single-handedly bear the burdens of all emotions in interpersonal relationships, so a healthy person would either attempt to draw the emotional proctor out of their emotional foxhole or would distance themselves from the emotional proctor due to their emotional unavailability. Thus, it would take an emotionally unhealthy person to take advantage of an emotional proctor.

In my experience, there are two broad types of people that glom on to emotional proctors: the projectors and the parasites. There can be overlap in these two types. One person can be both a projector and a parasite and may move fluidly between these two sets of tactics. For clarity, however, I’ll describe them separately.

Both projectors and parasites choose emotional proctors, because they need someone to blame and someone to solve problems for them…and need someone who will readily accept this blame and responsibility. They also both have psychological structures that make their emotions dominant in a relationship, so they need people around them who don’t take up emotional bandwidth in the dynamic.


Projectors are quintessential externalizers, which means they blame external sources (i.e., people or circumstances) for their misfortunes and discontentment. (For an overview of externalizing, visit: https://psychcentral.com/blog/childhood-neglect/2018/08/are-you-an-externalizer-or-an-internalizer-4-ways-of-handling-blame#4) Since projectors are blamers, an emotional proctor in their orbit will be assigned blame, accept blame, and feel responsible for the projector’s discontentment. The emotional proctor will likely be wrapped around the axle – filled with tension and negative self-talk – until they feel they have successfully resolved the issue and made the projector feel better.

Since parasites are also externalizers (as described below), the key distinction here is that the projector doesn’t overtly present as a victim. Rather, the projector presents as capable, independent, and hardy, but they lash out, anger easily, exhibit irritability, and aggressively confront others whom they blame for their discontentment.

There is often an overt or covert power differential between the projector and the proctor. This isn’t typically a defined or ratified power differential. Rather, it’s a power differential that is a byproduct of the blame/responsibility dynamic (and/or emotional abuse) between them. As a result, the emotional proctor is likely to defer to the wishes and whims of the projector – in an effort to keep the projector happy. This blame-then-deference dynamic is what creates the power differential.

(For more on emotional abuse, visit: https://www.verywellmind.com/identify-and-cope-with-emotional-abuse-4156673)


Parasites are individuals who view themselves as victims and, therefore, feel entitled to the support and efforts of other people. (For some intel on the victim personality, visit: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/women-who-stray/202012/the-victim-personality or https://psychcentral.com/health/victim-mentality#signs) Parasites feel justified in taking from others to even the proverbial score in their enduring victimization, so they won’t hesitate to capitalize on the caregiving and rescuing of an emotional proctor. In fact, the parasite feels entitled to it, and proctors jump to lend a sympathetic ear and comforting shoulder.

As noted above, parasites are also externalizers, as they don’t tend to have good self-awareness and typically blame other people or circumstances for their (perceived) unjust fate. Unlike the projector, however, the parasite presents as a helpless, unfortunate, moody martyr. Thus, their tactics for using the emotional proctor look different. Rather than being explosive, for example, the parasite is more likely to whine, tell endless stories of their victimhood, and play on the heartstrings of the proctor.

Resultantly, power differentials and emotional abuse are less obvious – but only because they’ve gone underground. The proctor is unknowingly in an endless loop of trying to help the parasite problem-solve and feel empowered, but all the while, the proctor doesn’t know that the parasite isn’t angling to solve their own problems or feel empowered. They’re merely angling to have the proctor accomplish those things for them. When a proctor finally realizes this and takes a step back, the parasite merely views them as one more victimizer (and may seek revenge) and moves on to find their next proctor.

What to do about it

First, let’s be clear that there’s no law saying you can’t be an emotional proctor, so if you don’t want to dial down these ways of relating, that’s your choice. We see and support you. For those that are looking for change, read on.

  • Learn about where your proctoring comes from. Recommended reading includes: Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect by Jonice Webb, PhD and Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents by Lindsay Gibson, PsyD. Quite often, understanding ourselves generates organic change.
  • Assess the cost. Are you fatigued? Do you feel lonely? Are you getting sick more frequently? Develop an inventory of the consequences of your proctoring, and ask yourself if this is how you want to live. Better yet, ask yourself how you’d feel if in 10 years, not a single thing had changed. Most humans are motivated by immediate gratification, and for emotional proctors, that “gratification” is the relief of discomfort. You can challenge that gratification habit by panning back and assessing the longitudinal consequences.
  • Think about someone you love. Imagine them in precisely the same situation, and ask yourself what you would want for them. Proctors don’t typically have a clear bead on themselves and don’t see themselves as having the same rights or needs as others, so it’s often more effective to make assessments and decisions based on what they want for someone they love.
  • Study human rights. Read the UN’s definition of human rights (found here: https://www.un.org/en/global-issues/human-rights#:~:text=Human%20rights%20are%20rights%20inherent,and%20education%2C%20and%20many%20more.). Inventory your conceptualization of basic human rights, and study how you feel when you witness someone’s basic human rights being violated. Emotional proctors are natural empathizers, so studying human rights violations is a powerful exercise. Next, ask yourself why, out of more than 8 billion people on this planet, you are the only one not worthy of the same human rights.
  • Put the shoe on the other foot. When someone is syphoning your energy and emotions, ask yourself if you would put them in the same position as they’re putting you in. Would you make your emotions someone else’s problem? Would you erode someone else’s agency and autonomy to get your needs met? If not, why is it ok for them to do that to you?
  • Learn to identify and name your emotions. Proctors are veritable experts of emotions, but here’s the rub: They’re experts at other’s emotions – not their own. Since proctor’s emotions have been chronically neglected and/or punished, they have little expertise in their own emotions…and even less expertise in expressing them. Proctors must study their own emotions and practice saying them out loud to safe individuals.
  • Work on boundary setting. Emotional proctors notoriously have little to no boundaries. In fact, they don’t feel entitled to have boundaries, and/or they see boundaries as aggressive toward or intrusive upon others. Proctors need to devour articles, books, and videos on boundary setting to become resident experts, after which they need to begin to practice setting boundaries. (Note: New skills are hard, so we’re often clumsy in the early stages. Accept this clumsiness as an inevitability to help inoculate you to the discomfort you’ll certainly feel as you embark upon setting healthy boundaries.)
  • Don’t take the bait. Projectors and parasites don’t use healthy tactics to get their needs met. They might drop vague breadcrumbs – expecting you to dig for more information. They might make whiney or self-disparaging statements – digging for reassurance. They may say things in excessively angry or dramatic ways – then wait in silence for you to act out an equally angry or dramatic support response. They may act moody or isolative in group settings – expecting you to peel away from the group to attend to them. They may give you silent treatment – expecting you to initiate conversation and dig for what’s wrong. They may act like their life is irreparably damaged if you don’t do exactly what they wish. (There are so many more coercive tactics!) Regardless of the tactic, don’t take the bait. You’ll be crazy-uncomfortable, but don’t react in the way they are trying to coerce you to react. If you do, you reinforce their toxic tactics and you relinquish your autonomy. Insist upon clear, healthy communication and full participation in interactions.
  • Hone your radar. Work on developing a method of spotting projectors and parasites early on. Reread the above descriptions of projectors and parasites, and watch for signs and symptoms of these behaviors to reduce the number of projectors and parasites you bring into your orbit.
  • Conduct controlled burns. If you find yourself surrounded by projectors and parasites, you may have to do a controlled burn to prevent a proverbial wildfire. Assess which toxic relationships you can live without, and work on ending those relationships. (Note: You don’t owe an explanation. Sometimes it’s best to just let the relationship peter out.) Save your energy for working on the most valued and salvageable relationships in your life.
  • Learn to be an equal. Emotional proctors are expected to be super-human – having zero emotional needs and asking for no support, but this super-human pedestal actually results in the dehumanization of the proctor. Work on learning how to be a fleshy mortal just like everyone else. For example, if you and a group of colleagues or friends get bad news, be in that bad news with your peers. You don’t need to save the group and dehumanize yourself. You’re allowed to be pained alongside and equal to them.
  • See more than you save. Most emotional proctors feel invisible, so when I ask them if it’s more powerful for them to be seen or to be saved, they unequivocally say it’s more powerful to be seen. Then why are they out there trying to save everyone? If proctors are more moved by being seen, the natural conclusion is that they merely need to see others. Leave the saving to the lifeguards.
  • Find an ally. Proctors are lonely, and they have unhealthy interpersonal habits. Finding an ally in healthy and/or likeminded people can serve as a rally point for accountability, as well as a vector check if you’re not quite sure what to do in a situation. We humans are wired to be part of a community, so this work is a lot easier if you’re not doing it alone.

Joye Henrie, PhD

April 2023