A clinical psychologist, Dr Ellen Hendriksen, mentioned that it is typically a positive trait if you are responsible since it shows you’re dedicated, trustworthy, accountable, and concerned about others. It’s the polar opposite of avoiding responsibility by blaming others or making excuses. However, it’s possible to go overboard. Do you take up everyone else’s duties? If someone knocks into you, do you utter words of apology? Do you believe it’s your fault if someone you care about is irritable? Indeed, it is a mark of maturity when you own your errors and mistakes. However, you become overly responsible when you own other people’s faults and blunders. Dr Ellen stated that feeling overly responsible can be a main symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). She used the example of one of her clients who was certain she was to blame when a tree fell on her car during a severe rainstorm, claiming, “I shouldn’t have parked it there—I should have known.”
Let’s view this from a different lens: let’s say there isn’t any OCD present. What causes non-diagnosable yet toxic over-responsibility? According to Dr Ellen, it typically begins in childhood, as with many maladaptive beliefs. Children who are blamed for matters over which they have no control, such as their parents’ feelings or economic circumstances, begin to feel they are truly responsible.
In order to know whether or not you are overly responsible, it is perhaps wise to know the things you shouldn’t be responsible for:
- Your loved ones’ feelings
Have you ever felt that it is your fault if your loved one feels unhappy? Do you think that it is your responsibility to hype them up, fix their problems, and remove their pain? You hold a basic core belief that their pain = your fault. According to a licensed couple and family therapist, Dr Assael Romanelli, such beliefs lead to reactionary behaviour in close relationships. Whenever your loved one talks about something distressing or agonising, you stop listening from an open, comfortable position as you think of ways you can relieve the suffering. Due to such mental effort, it is easy to tend to avoid your loved one because you already have a lot to deal with. It is this automatic reactivity that keeps you in a symbiotic relationship, where both people are reluctant to share their pain, and their difficulties are experienced as a tremendous emotional burden by the other person, as your agony = their problem. You might find that you begin to avoid giving constructive feedback, sharing your frustrations, and sensitive topics because you believe that doing so will ultimately hurt your loved one. In a healthy relationship, their emotional happiness is not your responsibility. It doesn’t mean that you ignore their suffering. Instead, set good boundaries, and let your loved ones know that you are there to support them while they deal with their personal issues.
- Rescuing someone from their own bad habits
When your loved one has bad habits, do you bend over backwards to get them out of the habits, irrespective of your time or resources? Even if they tell you that they like to work it out themselves, you believe that you know the best way how to make them break their bad habits. Sarah Allen Benton, a licensed professional counsellor, mentioned that there is absolutely nothing wrong with helping your loved one to leave their bad habits. However, it starts to become a problem when your self-worth is connected to being needed, and you believe that your purpose is helping others, to the point that you end up burning out. This is known as saviour complex or white night syndrome. Individuals with this syndrome are inclined to assist those who are desperate for help, often at the expense of their own needs. The issue with wanting to become a “rescuer” is that you prevent your loved ones from accepting responsibility for their own actions and developing intrinsic motivation. As a consequence, the good improvements may be transitory.
- Bearing the brunt of someone else’s mistakes
Have you ever blamed yourself when someone else is making a mistake? Do you wake up at night wondering, “What did I do (or not do) to cause them to make that mistake?” You play this self-blame game for as long as it can go, but you have never been the winner. Instead, you feel more emotionally depleted, fatigued, miserable, and horribly upset. So, what causes us to self-blame? According to Dr Gary Bell, a licensed marriage and family therapist, in his podcast, “A Life of Regret”, it’s simpler to blame ourselves for other people’s mistakes than to examine the issue for what it is and assign responsibility where it belongs. Additionally, often we might find ourselves giving a blind eye to the blunder made because they are done by those who are most beloved to us. There is hesitation to blame them because we don’t want to put them down from that pedestal, and we don’t want to face the reality that perhaps they are not the individuals that make our lives better.
- Excessively putting other people’s needs before your own
It is a basketball night, and you are watching the game on the television with your friend while munching on that delicious pepperoni pizza. It’s now down to one slice. Would you allow your friend to have the honour of finishing the last slice, or would you grab it and savour every last bit of it? If you choose the first option, you are portraying cooperative behaviour, or what the researchers from the article published in the journal of Personality and Individual Differences referred to as “others-centeredness”. One of the researchers, Ryan Byerly, defined others-centeredness as “a tendency to put others’ interests ahead of one’s own that is based on a specific way of thinking”.
Individuals with others-centred thinking view their personal interests as equally important to others. Interpersonal interactions are, however, very important to them. This is different when you are excessively concerned about the well-being of others, which is known as “unmitigated communion”. When someone has unmitigated communion or high other-focus, they may prioritise others out of concern that they, themselves, cannot be satisfied unless they do not fulfil other people’s needs.
- Fulfilling the dreams of others
Take this scenario. You are a travel YouTuber, and many of your commenters comment that you should visit the newly opened Harry Potter theme park in a distant land. You give this suggestion a thought, but you realise if you fulfil this wish of your commenters to “live vicariously” through you, you have to spend an exorbitant amount of money. Do you think you are responsible to “grant this wish” of your commenters, although your current economic situation does not permit you to do so? Or, let’s see another more common example: parents who view their children as a second chance to fulfil their own dreams. According to Brad Bushman, one of the researchers of “My Child Redeems My Broken Dreams: On Parents Transferring Their Unfulfilled Ambitions onto Their Child”, these parents regard their children as extensions of themselves rather than as separate people with their own hopes and dreams. Having not achieved their dreams themselves, they want their kids to do so. It is not your responsibility to fulfil other people’s dreams.
When you bear too much responsibility for things for which you should not be held accountable, you may become frustrated, resentful, and develop feelings of being taken advantage of. Even though changing such behaviour is challenging, it is achievable if you acknowledge how it can negatively impact your interpersonal relationships.
Benton, S. A. (2017, February 6). The savior complex. Psychology Today. Retrieved October 2, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-high-functioning-alcoholic/201702/the-savior-complex
Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Slagt, M., Overbeek, G., de Castro, B., & Bushman, B. (2013). My Child Redeems My Broken Dreams: On Parents Transferring Their Unfulfilled Ambitions onto Their Child. Plos ONE, 8(6), e65360. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0065360
Byerly, T., Hill, P., & Edwards, K. (2022). Others-centeredness: A uniquely positive tendency to put others first. Personality And Individual Differences, 186, 111364. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2021.111364
Hendriksen, E. (2022, July 12). How to stop feeling overly responsible. Quick and Dirty Tips ™. Retrieved October 2, 2022, from https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/articles/how-to-stop-feeling-overly-responsible/
Romanelli, A. (2019, August 22). You are not responsible for your partner’s feelings. Psychology Today. Retrieved October 2, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-other-side-relationships/201908/you-are-not-responsible-your-partners-feelings