Being a responsible person is usually a good thing—it means you’re committed, dependable, accountable, and care about others. It’s the opposite of shirking responsibility by pointing fingers or making excuses.
But it’s easy to go too far. Do you take on everyone’s tasks? If someone you love is grumpy, do you assume it’s something you did? Do you apologize when someone bumps into you?
Owning what’s yours—mistakes and blunders included—is a sign of maturity, but owning everybody else’s mistakes and blunders, not to mention tasks, duties, and emotions, is a sign of over-responsibility.
But here’s the twist: being overly responsible isn’t just the realm of control freaks or earnest Eagle Scouts. Over-responsibility can work for you, building trust and even currying favor.
For example, a fascinating joint study out of Harvard Business School and Wharton examined what happens when we apologize in the absence of culpability—that is, when we take responsibility for something that’s clearly not our fault.
Specifically, on a rainy day, the researchers hired an actor to approach travelers in a busy train station and ask to use their cell phones. Half the time, the actor led by taking responsibility for the weather: “I’m so sorry about the rain! Can I borrow your cell phone?” The other half of the time, he simply asked “Can I borrow your cell phone?”
When he took responsibility for the weather, 47% of the travelers offered their phone. But when he simply asked, only 9% of the travelers acquiesced.
The findings lined up with previous research showing that people who express guilt or regret are better liked than those who don’t. Why? Taking responsibility is a show of empathy. The apology isn’t necessarily remorseful; instead, it’s recognition of and concern for someone else’s experience.
But at a certain point, over-responsibility stops working and starts getting in the way. Looking through a completely different lens, over-responsibility is often a core symptom of OCD. For example, one of my clients felt overly responsible for potentially harming others as he drove—every bump in the road, in his mind, was a pedestrian or cyclist he had thoughtlessly run over. Another client was 100% convinced she was responsible when a tree fell on her car during a massive thunderstorm—she insisted, “I shouldn’t have parked it there—I should have known.”
But what if there’s no OCD in the picture? Where does non-diagnosable but toxic over-responsibility come from? Like many dysfunctional beliefs, it often starts in childhood. Kids who get blamed for things they have no power over, like their parents’ emotions, finances, or relationships, start to believe they are indeed responsible. Examples include, “Look how upset you made your mom,” or “Buying Christmas presents this year is really making us broke,” or any variation on the classic mindbender, “Look what you made me do.”
So is over-responsibility helpful or toxic? The answer—a little of both. To illustrate, here are 4 ways it plays out in life:
4 Signs of Over-Responsibility
Sign #1: Guilt
Guilt is the appropriate emotion to experience when we’ve deliberately or accidentally caused harm. But in over-responsibility, we feel guilty when things out of our control go wrong. No matter how many balls we’re juggling, we feel guilty when someone else drops one.
Sign #2: Conflict Avoidance
Taking on everyone’s responsibilities is often a sign of conflict avoidance. In trying to keep the peace, we’d rather shoulder more than our fair share of burden than risk a difficult conversation, or worse, a confrontation involving anger or rejection. It’s easier to expand the scope of our responsibilities than to risk upsetting or disappointing people we care about.
Sign #3: Feeling Used
This is a tough one. On the one hand, we train those around us to trust that we’ll cover for them—we’ll drive our teenager to school if he’s running late, pick up the loose ends of our co-worker’s unfinished project, or even work a second job to make up for our spouse’s bad financial decisions.
The result? An unending to-do list and a thousand details to attend to. We’ve talked about the difference between demands and priorities on the show before, but it bears repeating. Priorities are the things you want to do, demands are the things other people expect you to do. Too many priorities lead to boredom, while too many demands lead to resentment. And resentment is exactly where the road of over-responsibility takes us.
Even though we’ve volunteered to always pick up the pieces, we end up feeling overworked and underappreciated. Now, you’re not about to go on a Bad Moms-inspired run of Whippits-fueled debauchery, but when you stop and reflect, you realize your burning resentment could boil water.
Sign #4: Feeling Competent and Needed
So what is this doing on the list? A sense of competence is a good thing. Feeling necessary is a good thing. And that’s the point. It’s nice to feel needed and capable. If we get sick or go out of town and everything grinds to a halt, it’s a sign that we matter. But it makes over-responsibility a hard habit to break because it’s so reinforcing. There’s a deep satisfaction that comes from the sense that we can handle it all and fix whatever comes our way. It gets reinforced externally as well—for better or worse, especially for women, being on top of all the details garners admiration and respect.
How To Roll Back Over-Responsibility
Being overly responsible can be a hard habit to break—it gets reinforced externally by those who depend on you, and reinforced internally because you feel competent and get to avoid conflict. But you’ll know when it’s getting to be too much. Don’t wait until you’re so resentful you go on strike. Instead, try these three experiments.
Balanced Responsibility Experiment #1: Return responsibilities.
Return responsibilities as if they were overdue library books. Start by thinking of one task or responsibility you can return to one specific person. It may be as small as returning the responsibility of waking up on time to your teenager, or as large as returning responsibility for her own happiness to your mother. Regardless of how the responsibility ended up in your hands—whether you took it freely or it was foisted upon you—it’s time to pass it back like LeBron with a basketball.
However, don’t expect them to read your mind. Don’t just let your teen oversleep on a random Thursday when you’re feeling especially resentful. Instead, set everyone up for success by communicating what’s happening and why, what the expectations are, and collaboratively coming up with a plan that your teen can fully own.
Finally, when you relinquish, fully relinquish. It’s tempting to be a safety net or to manage from the sidelines, but trust that your loved one is capable and creative, even if he racks up a few tardies before all the kinks are worked out of the system.
Balanced Responsibility Experiment #2: Accept all offers.
Practice accepting all that’s given to you. Accept a compliment, accept tomatoes from your neighbor’s garden without worrying that now you have to give her a cucumber. Best of all, accept offers of help. Don’t think of it as burdening the helper; instead, think of it as a way to share the feeling of competence that makes you feel so good. Then, once you’re comfortable accepting help, you can go for your black belt by asking for help.
Balanced Responsibility Experiment #3: Shift your sense of responsibility from saving others to launching others.
Consider the core beliefs that keep your over-responsibility simmering. By keeping all the competence to yourself, it implies you think others are incompetent, or at least less competent than you. Therefore, reframe relinquishing over-responsibility as helping others develop their skills. Especially when it comes to kids, you want to be able to launch them into the world ready to fly, not keep them tethered to you.
All in all, there are worse things than being overly responsible. But like all good things, taken too far, it can be stressful and get in the way of life. So give others’ responsibilities back to them while still enjoying the sense of competence from handling your own. If all else fails, you can always apologize for the weather.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.