It’s Not Your Fault: Dealing with an Over-Active Sense of Responsibility

Whenever anything goes wrong in life, it’s my fault. This is the narrative I’ve been telling myself since I can remember.

All misfortunes and disappointments, great and small, are my responsibility. I failed. This was me.

It’s only now, in adulthood and after several courses of therapy, that I realise… It’s not always me. In fact, much of the time, it has literally nothing to do with me. Not because it’s someone else’s fault, but because there’s plenty of shit going on over which I have zero control.

Why do I keep telling myself it’s my fault?

The idea that you are responsible for things beyond your control, and becoming obsessive with this sense of responsibility for others, is sometimes linked with actual Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The intersection with OCD is much more severe, and can include recurring obsessive thoughts about how others might come to harm/into danger, and feeling the weight of responsibility that you, personally, prevent this.

B you can tell you’re overly responsible because you are probably near the edge of burnout rather a lot. You’re scheduling your life and everyone else’s. You get annoyed by how irresponsible others seem. You keep reminding others of their responsibilities. You keep reminding yourself of all the things you should be doing. You resent those who seem to feel entitled to your generosity. The moment anything goes not-to-plan, you feel the entire weight of that outcome on your shoulders.

While OCD is a much more particular diagnosis, involving severe ticks which can be difficult to manage, there are levels of responsible feelings that can still be difficult to deal with, that can be detrimental to everyday life, or keep you from living the way you’d like to. It doesn’t have to involve performing ticks, like over-washing your hands or praying compulsively. Even without those, you can still feel problematic aftereffects of being overly responsible.

An overly heavy sense of responsibility can manifest and affect you in the form of:

  • Guilt (e.g. strong sense of having failed at something you couldn’t have foreseen, but still feel as though you should have known to act differently)
  • Self criticism (e.g. telling yourself you had better get things right or else, that you’re an idiot if you don’t succeed, that whatever went wrong was your fault, because you’re deficient, etc)
  • Anxiety (e.g. constant concern about whether or not things go perfectly, and if not, what you will or won’t be able to do about it — imagining future negative possibilities)
  • Low self esteem (e.g. feeling yourself to be incapable or deficient in some way when things go wrong, and therefore extrapolating this as a ‘general rule’)
  • Depression (e.g. thinking you’re responsible for all failures, therefore you’re a failure)

And potentially many other ways. PsychologyToday says:

Overly responsible people have overscheduled lives. Responding to others’ demands and expectations, we pile one commitment on top of another, frantically rushing from one thing to the next, pushing our personal needs aside.

The article also points out how easily manipulated the overly-responsible can be, utilising their propensity towards feeling guilty or internalising not-helping as a huge personal failing. That means that it is easy for the manipulator to utilise this, to get you to do things for them, and have you answer their demands. A really vicious cycle to get into.

For me, this idea really shifted my perspective. I realised that my sense of responsibility for others, for everything that happens to me and my loved ones, was actually starting to create knock on effects. Other emotions, and even pushing me to enter a depression mode, as a result of my sense of responsibility wheeling out of control…

The way we talk to ourselves matters. If every time something less than desirable happens, I sit down and say to myself, “You complete and utter moron, this is your fault,” you do internalise this. You do start to believe yourself to be the problem. And maybe, eventually, you stop even asking yourself or acknowledging that there were other factors in play.

Our internal narrative is important. The way we define ourselves and our lives is reflected in our thoughts, which affects our behaviour, our emotions, our physiology…

It’s hard to pinpoint where a sense of over-active responsibility really comes from. It varies person to person. Dr Colm O’Connor says:

If someone is an over-responsible person it is quite likely that this developed from childhood. If it is quite extreme then it probably developed in response to someone else in their original family being under-responsible.

This is just one way it can come about. Internalising trauma, abuse, and other more severe instances of behaviour, can certainly contribute. However, regardless of the initiating cause, it seems that the process for becoming over-responsible goes a little like this:

  1. You learn, somewhere along the line, to deny your own needs. This might be because you feel you can’t have any, or there isn’t room for any.
  2. You develop the sense that you and only you can be relied upon. This might be in relation to others, but it can also be in relation to yourself. In other words, the belief that everyone else lets you down eventually. Or you can’t ask for help. In that case, you are the only reliable party.
  3. You have a chronic sense of inadequacy. You’re always plagued by not being good enough. Maybe you were only ever appreciated when taking care of someone else. Maybe you only feel you are worthwhile when demonstrating how responsible you are.

I feel in my case that I did a lot of ‘emotional parenting’ as a child. I had an under-reliable parent. Couple that with a tendency towards low self esteem, with moving to the other side of the world on my own (and therefore definitely not having anyone to rely on), and finding it hard to ask for help… well, here we are.

In therapy recently, my own therapist had me do an exercise. I was really in a low mood, and she was concerned, naturally. In particular, I’ve been trying to move house, and this was really affecting me negatively, as things became a little complicated and difficult to resolve. In thinking through my housing situation, and how anxiety-ridden I was in making it a successful move, we did the following:

The Pie-Chart Exercise

  1. Take a piece of paper.
  2. Draw a circle on it. This is your pie chart.
  3. Next to your circle, list anyone and everyone you can think of who is involved in a situation you are dealing with/feeling responsible for. In my case, this included my new landlord, the agent, my partner, the builders (the house needs some renovating!), the neighbours, etc etc… and me.
  4. Once you have your list, it’s time to allocate. How much responsibility does person A have over the situation? Repeat down the list.
  5. Once you’re finished, tally up. What’s the remaining percentage?

Congratulations, what is left over is your real percentage of responsibility.

It might seem overly simplistic but doing this really shifted my focus.

In my case, being conservative with my estimates for the others (typical), my “sliver” of the pie came out at 7%. Potentially bigger than needed but even so… I felt I was carrying 80–90% of the responsibility in making the house move go smoothly. In reality, only 7% of the responsibility is mine.

What an incredible relief.

I walked out of that session thinking, “Yeah, okay… I have done a tonne of work. I have stressed myself to death. I have definitely more than done enough for my 7%!”

The beauty of this exercise is that it leaves you with a very clear percentage of responsibility. It’s not a complete answer forever, but it helps to reframe the reality you’re struggling with in the moment.

In my head, I was taking on responsibility for dealing with the landlord, for reminding the agent to do his job, for making sure the work got done, for keeping my partner happy/carefree in the process, for aligning every bit of admin and every date and everyone else’s feelings and…

I was completely crushing myself in the process. And it’s a house move, for god’s sake. It’s important, to be sure, but it’s not everything.

That’s just one small example in my life. But imagine repeating these thought processes for far more severe things… including for really difficult, bad experiences. Multiplying the effects makes it easy to see how you can go from functional to severely depressed through one over active sense.

Reframing my situation, I am better able to step back and tackle the root causes. I have to tackle those one by one, and they are part of a much bigger process. But identification was a huge step on my way towards a more balanced perspective of myself.

I’m going to say something now that I honestly didn’t even think up at all by myself:

You need to give yourself the chance to take a mental break.

I know, I know. It’s simple. But honestly, it never occurred to me, in my constantly over-responsible brain. Why would I ever need a mental break?

Uh, because I’m not a machine. And I’m not actually responsible for everyone else’s needs. Revolutionary.

Easing up on the throttle of life is the first step to reframing what is within your control/potentially your responsibility, and what is not.

Give yourself the chance to cultivate interests and activities that have nothing to do with your big over-responsible to do list. Find things that definitely bring you joy and a sense of satisfaction.

Protect that space. Your activity, your interest, your pleasure, is essential and not to do with anyone else — it answers your need. And your needs are important. Do not cancel. Do not avoid.

If you are an overly responsible person, like me, I strongly encourage you to try the pie-chart exercise in the immediate. Dealing with long term self esteem issues is a much bigger thing to tackle, but providing yourself an opportunity to just take a mental break for a second… It’s really powerful.

I hope that something in this speaks to you. I would love to know what else people have tried in the pursuit of balance.

And in the immortal words of a certain famous film that I know I don’t need to go on about… it’s not your fault. Not everything that happens or has happened to you is your fault.

Think about it.

Emerging fiction author, London Writers Award 2020. Working on my debut novel, rep’d by Kate Evans @ PFD. Podcasting on Author Not Present.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store