Reducing overwhelming sense of personal responsibility
June 30, 2020 8:10 AM   Subscribe

I've realised recently that I feel a deep sense of personal responsibility for fixing problems that couldn't possibly be my sole responsibility to fix (e.g. problems at work or in society that go beyond the remit of any single individual). This often leads to intense feelings of guilt that I wasn't able (/wasn't responsible enough) to solve the problem. I suspect I would be happier and less stressed if I could let go of some of this sense of responsibility. But how?

This is something I've always struggled with. At school I would feel immensely personally guilty every time there was some kind of collective punishment/reprimand, even though I never had anything to do with whatever trouble we were all in. I struggle with the same thing as an adult (e.g. frequent feelings that I can't possibly be happy or live a good life when I know that so many of my fellow humans' lives are constrained and oppressed in various ways; feeling like I'm personally responsible for fixing diversity issues at my company of 300+ people when the company's actual leadership is disinterested in addressing these issues). I tend to feel pretty viscerally stressed when the things I feel this level of responsibility for aren't going well, even when it's not plausible that I should be personally responsible for outcomes in those areas.

As a lower-stakes example, I also feel personally responsible for everyone having a good time when I'm interacting with them in a social setting. This ramps up even harder when I'm hosting, but I get shades of it even when I'm just along for the ride as a participant in someone else's social event. I often fail to enjoy my own experiences because I'm so anxiously preoccupied with whether or not everyone else is having the best time they could be having.

I also ave a separate-but-related fear that this deeper-than-average sense of responsibility is what has driven all of my personal success, and if I take my hypervigilant foot off the hypervigilant gas even temporarily, my life is going to fall apart. I realise that this is unhelpful distorted thinking but haven't had a lot of luck in addressing it.

It's not all bad - gravitating towards responsibility has been good for my career, I'm generally very diligent and conscientious, I've had basically zero issues with failing to take sufficient responsibility for the things I actually am responsible for as an adult (everything always gets paid on time, I don't leave people hanging when I've committed to something etc.), but it just feels like my default internal responsibility bar is set way too high.

I'd like to spend more time relaxing and enjoying my life and less time constantly worrying about things that are not really my problem to worry about (driven at least partly out of fear that the people who should be worrying about these things aren't worrying about them diligently enough, e.g. the current COVID clusterfuck approach of the UK and US governments). I am very aware at a conscious level that worrying is not an insurance policy against things going wrong, nor is it the same as activism/doing something about the things I am worried about. The worrying is not helping this cycle as it takes away energy I could be putting towards activism.

I have a pretty good idea where this pattern comes from - my parents were emotionally/verbally/physically abusive and emotionally/socially/medically neglectful when I was growing up. They expected me to solve problems on my own that were totally developmentally inappropriate with zero support, and I would get shamed, blamed, made fun of or punished whenever I asked for reasonable, appropriate help with things I was struggling with. This parenting approach made me incredibly resourceful in some ways. I'm very (arguably too) independent and very good at problem-solving. But it's like my brain has no sense of the scope of what a reasonable problem for me to solve is, and then I beat myself up for not succeeding at the impossible. Unsurprisingly, I also have strong perfectionism and people-pleasing tendencies and a reasonable level of background anxiety; I suspect all of these issues reinforce one another on some level.

I'm specifically looking for anecdotes and resources (preferably books/blogs/articles as I'm more of a reader than a watcher/listener) on how ratchet down my internal sense of responsibility to a more manageable level. I'm specifically not looking for therapy as a recommendation. I've done a lot of therapy, particularly trauma-focused therapy around my early life experiences. It's accessible for me and always an option on the table, and I'm already aware that it's one thing that could help in this area; what I'm looking for from this question is what else beyond therapy might help me reframe my thinking or reset my early programming when it comes to disproportionate feelings of responsibility.
posted by terretu to Human Relations (14 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Wow - I could have written this almost word for word, down to the childhood trauma, all the way up to the guilt at the top. In fact, I think it's investigating the guilt that will point your way. I had a revelation recently that my two-year-old self felt guilty that my parents were arguing...was it my fault? I certainly felt like maybe if I wasn't so needy (food, shelter, love) that maybe it would be better somehow. Therein starts the responsibility-taking. Trying to change myself to make it all right. If *I* can just be right, then maybe everything will be.

So, thinking/painting/feeling/talking through these old feelings have helped hugely. On a more practical note, I also just read the 7 habits of highly effective people. It's got a lot of practical work about how to keep your attention on your circle of influence, rather than on your circle of concern which I think would benefit you as well.

And one final note on your feeling that if you lose this overdeveloped sense of responsibility it will all fall apart - well that's just your coping mechanism panicking that you're going to do away with it. You don't need it, you're clearly fabulous anyway. Of course you can be successful without it. You might even be more successful, now you can sleep properly and enjoy your life more.
posted by london explorer girl at 8:28 AM on June 30 [5 favorites]

What you describe usually goes along with a strong need to always be in control and therapy (or allowing any kind of help from another, for that matter) requires surrendering control to some extent. For this reason, any solution that doesn't involve another person will have limited effect. You already have lots of insight into your situation and reading will only, at best, give you more of what you already have. The only thing I can think of that you could do alone (i.e. that will count as answer to your question) is some form of meditation in which you watch your thoughts without getting involved in them or identifying with them.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:54 AM on June 30 [3 favorites]

Well, one small aspect of this that stood out for me: your first responsibility as a guest is to relax and enjoy yourself if you possibly can so that your host is gratified and doesn't worry about you having a bad time. That's also one of your top responsibilities as a host: you must have fun so that your guests don't feel like they're being a bunch of needy jerks preventing you from having fun. Probably you have the best time when you're helping others have a good time, and that's fine, but you cannot in good conscience prioritize other people so much that you pay more attention to your fellow guests' or your hosts' experiences than you pay to your own experience.

Nice adapting, by the way. My childhood was similar, but I overcorrected in the opposite direction so that I consistently fail to do anything on time like a huge querulous infant. Here I am frolicking on MetaFilter when I should be paying my credit card bill, watering the fig tree, answering e-mail, cleaning the kitchen, writing my aunt a letter, endless other shirked responsibilities. My life is a forest of dying figs. But please just be glad those are my miserable figs, not yours, and that yours are all lush and green. Whatever you do, do not pity my figs or me. You cannot lighten their burden or mine by trying to take on the suffering that is mine to do.
posted by Don Pepino at 9:18 AM on June 30 [9 favorites]

on reframing:
One of the approaches that I personally find useful is to cultivate the thought: If the situation or problem is such that it can be remedied, then there is no need to worry about it. In other words, if there is a solution or a way out of the difficulty, you do not need to be overwhelmed by it. The appropriate action is to seek its solution. Then it is clearly more sensible to spend your energy focussing on the solution rather than worrying about the problem. Alternatively, if there is no solution, no possibility of resolution, then there is also no point in being worried about it, because you cannot do anything about it anyway. In that case, the sooner you accept this fact, the easier it will be for you.
posted by aniola at 9:18 AM on June 30 [11 favorites]

I posted a link to Other People's Problems in response to a recent question What can I do to not try to fix every problem at my company? It's focused on concrete heuristics to decide when to get involved in a situation, which is perhaps not exactly what you're looking for, but I do think you might find it helpful to read about where someone else draws the line in a work setting.
posted by caek at 9:51 AM on June 30

While this might be considered therapy in the context of your question, it is outside of the normal therapy options that I think it would apply: Finding a therapist that specialized in psychedelic assisted therapy helped drastically with changing perspectives like this that I had, and unlike other therapies in the past, resulted in very some deep, persistent changes to patterns like the ones you're describing.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:52 AM on June 30 [3 favorites]

Personally (after a lot of therapy) I went to a place where people starve on the streets, sat down across from a sleeping beggar girl who would be dead of disease or forced into prostitution in a few years, and dealt with the fact that I wasn’t going to do anything about it. I wasn’t going to buy her from her beggar’s guild, I wasn’t going to pay to move her to a safer location and provide the psychiatric help to get her past being dragged away from home and having tutors thrust on her. I wasn’t going to pay for her upkeep and schooling and if you’re wondering why I keep saying "pay for" it’s because I certainly wasn’t going to divert my life to do these things myself.

It was the capstone of a long process of admitting that not only was I not going to save the world but that I couldn’t even bring myself to save one person. I do what I can now – that is my responsibility, to do what I can. The responsibility to fix everything is no longer on my plate even in theory.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:54 AM on June 30 [1 favorite]

Some nonjudgmental research into codependency might benefit you ❤️
posted by stoneweaver at 12:55 PM on June 30 [2 favorites]

Be the person whose problems you fix, be the person you are kindest to, find your inner soft parts, and make sure there is room for them, make sure there is room for quiet, and acceptance of self, all along your timeline. Go back and forth, find yourself at various ages, hover indulgently about your memories and get to know how you arrived where you are, from the point of view of you, not in response to others. Offer yourself the security of absolute acceptance. It is a good point to start from in any endeavor. There is plenty of room to do effective good, just have to find it.
posted by Oyéah at 1:16 PM on June 30 [11 favorites]

I could have written most of this post, from the overdeveloped sense of responsibility to the "probably stemming from a neglectful childhood" aspect.

I still struggle with this quite a lot but I've gotten a lot better at it over the past year -- primarily because I had several things in my life go quite badly, in part because I took too much responsibility and tried too much to control things that never were properly within my scope to control. Nothing makes you as wary of taking responsibility as seeing something you tried to help go terribly wrong because of your meddling.

Obviously I don't recommend learning this the hard way, through an experience like mine. But I think it might do you good to recognise not only that you can't be responsible for everything, but also that the attempt to do so can do more harm than good. Other people need to have agency in their own life, and part of recognising their agency is recognising that they might make choices or do things that you disagree with. It's okay if they do. You might have been wrong about what they needed, but even if you weren't, it's their life and their choice, and trying to take on too much responsibility for someone else robs them of that agency.

It's kind of funny, because being willing to take on responsibility for other people feels like a really unselfish thing to do. But when it's really a way to meet your own needs -- like those stemming from childhood neglect -- then it's actually kind of selfish. I realise that now. I only wish I hadn't hurt people on the path to that realisation. But I'm trying not to beat myself up over that, either, because it again is a manifestation of me taking responsibility for their feelings rather than my actions.
posted by forza at 4:24 PM on June 30 [2 favorites]

Wow, you've just given me a lot of insight into a very dear friend of mine who also comes from what I would call an emotionally abusive upbringing. He also takes on a lot of responsibility for many things and is a perfectionist with a strong fear of failure. He often wants to solve problems for friends when it's not even clear the friends regard those things as problems or that they want his help. A lot of this is about control. I guess the idea is that the more he can control his surroundings, the safer he feels? And being "perfect" at things means he doesn't get the abuse he got in childhood (though of course that wasn't his fault, and different behavior from him wouldn't have changed that).

We found a few articles on control that were helpful. Maybe they will give you some insight.

But the thing is, people don't always want your help, and they might not like it. I'll give you one very small example from my friend, as an anecdote. I can't guess if you will relate, but maybe it will be helpful.

My friend has a nice garden and grows a lot of veggies. I wanted to start a small garden too and he gave me several ideas. I pursued one of them to grow some things indoors while I figured out the outdoor set up. So it was his suggestion but then I did a bunch of research of my own. I was able to use some recycled containers and came up a simple and cheap approach. And it worked! I was pretty proud of it all and pleased with what I grew. I proudly showed him what I had done. A few months later, he let me know that he had some equipment to give me to make my home set up better. Because of his experience, he knew that my situation wasn't optimal. This seems like a really nice gesture, right? My friend gave me a suggestion, and I pursued it, and then he wanted to help me make it even better. But you know what? I liked my set up. I liked that it was cheap and simple. It was working really well for me, and I felt really good about it. I didn't need to optimize anything because it was working just fine. I felt terrible when he wanted to give me different equipment because he took some of the joy out of my feelings of accomplishment. If I was doing something on a larger scale, I likely would have taken his equipment. But instead it just made me feel bad (briefly). He was taking responsibility for a problem that didn't even exist, not at that scale.

All of this is to say: sometimes, often times, people want to solve their own problems.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:37 PM on June 30 [3 favorites]

If you don't mind a spiritual approach, read Henri Nouwens book The Inner Voice of Love.
You might find the Adult Children of Alcoholics Red Book helpful even if alcoholism isn't an issue in your family.
And this website by Vince Gowan
posted by SyraCarol at 10:14 PM on June 30 [1 favorite]

I have recently found the book Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski very helpful. It's explicitly about stress and overwork, but they talk a lot about how some folks are "human givers" rather than "human beings" because of how society (and families and trauma) train us when we're young. And ways to stop giving ourselves away so much! It's written from and for a cis/het white woman lens, but broadly applicable for a lot of folks.
posted by faethverity at 9:08 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]

I just finished reading The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment. It feels very similar to the situation you describe. Not so much about a narcissistic parent, but a family system that puts the emotional needs of the parents over that of the child; puts responsibility on the child that is age-inappropriate. These therapist found that many symptoms of adults who grew up in alcoholic households also come from narcissistic parenting systems.
posted by Sreiny at 3:36 PM on July 5

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