How to Stop Feeling Overly Responsible

Forward-thinking companies strive to be socially responsible. Beer commercials exhort us to drink responsibly. And every parent wants their kid to be more responsible. All in all, responsibility is a good thing, right? It is, until it’s not. What to do when you have too much of a good thing? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers four signs of over-responsibility, plus three ways to overcome it.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
Episode #224
person feeling overly responsible

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.


About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
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