For as long as I can remember, I’ve been over-responsible. I’ve felt that I have to be strong and so avoid showing ‘weakness’ by asking for help, expressing needs or sharing my feelings. I’ve hung back and dimmed my light so that my brother and then others could shine and they wouldn’t feel the need to reject or abandon me for taking up too much space or making them feel inferior in some way.
Thanks to family who like to carry on as if they’re in an episode of Dallas/Dynasty/Sons & Daughters/Falcon Crest, I know how to read a room. I can feel the tension shift in the air without seeing or hearing what’s going on. By the time I started school, I understood that it was my job to be a mind-reader and that I must try to be as pleasing as possible even if it hurt. Being told that me being “pretty” and “too bright” caused problems multiplied my shame. I felt it best to not be too good at anything and instinctively blamed myself for other people’s everything. Experience taught me that I could be in trouble or be the cause of an issue, even if I wasn’t there or had nothing to do with it.
I learned that it’s my job to make people happy and that if I can do that, then I will be allowed to be happy.
I’m not alone.
Many of the people who struggle to forge and sustain healthy relationships, or have confidence issues at work, and/or grapple with feelings of low self-worth, are over-responsible. Whether trained or self-taught earlier in life, they’ve learned to be responsible for other people’s feelings, opinions, behaviour, needs, expectations and desires.
They are people pleasers who suppress and repress themselves to prioritise others and also to minimise or eliminate conflict, criticism, rejection, disappointment and loss. They do what are often good things but for the wrong reasons and it’s because, like me, they didn’t/don’t know any different.
Over-responsible people are often the eldest or an only child, but wherever they fall in the family, they assumed a role within it which they felt was their ‘job’. They fulfilled and often still continue to fill this role even when they’re long into adulthood because they want to do their part and ‘help out’. They also want to feel OK and get attention, affection, approval, love and validation. Sometimes being over-responsible is taught, so the child is frequently told that they’re responsible for something or someone. Even if there weren’t overt messages, parents/caregivers may have implied it. Sometimes it’s that they taught themselves and assumed more responsibility because of a change in circumstances. They also may infer. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are like me–a mix of the two.
If you get told off for stuff or blamed for certain things, you think you’re responsible for it even if you’re not. If your parent is inadequately parenting because they’re absent or they’re chronically ill or they’re dealing with addiction and other forms of codependency, or they’re abusive and neglectful, you grow up waaaay too soon.
You might feel as if you have to protect younger siblings, or protect one of your parents, or become a parent.
You might feel as if there’s no point in expressing needs if your parents/caregivers can’t/won’t meet them. Maybe you think that someone else has bigger needs or that your parents have problems and inadequacies. Being ‘low maintenance’ or ‘needless’ is your way of helping out but also protecting you from rejection. You might see certain things going on and decide to help out by being pleasing, never asking for anything, trying to be strong all of the time, and playing yourself down so that you can elevate a sibling or even one or both of your parents. You might fend for yourself because your parents aren’t around very much (they might be working very long hours) and so you walk with a sense of aloneness. Perhaps bad things happened to you but you kept them a secret to keep the family together while destroying your self-esteem.
One day you wake up in adulthood and realise that you’re still in this role. You might not recognise it until you consider where else you’ve felt similarly in life. It might take you doing the same thing that you’ve always done costing you your emotional, mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing.
You may have felt old before your time so that by adulthood, you were worn out. From there, you kept trying to get other people to take responsibility for you. It’s like, “When do I get my turn?”. Cue what might be a number of unavailable and possibly even abusive partners or other people in your life who you try to fill voids with. Odds are as well that you’ve tried to do this with people who you might not have realised allow you to play to the role that you’ve become accustomed to playing.
When it feels as if there is no you because your feelings, opinions, needs, etc., are indistinguishable from someone else’s, you’re over-responsible.
Mistreated in your relationships and blamed for their crappy, sometimes abusive behaviour and you’re editing and shaving you down to try to appease them while walking on eggshells through life? You’re over-responsible.
Grapple with chronic feeling of anxiety and dread because growing up around someone who used to take out their problems on you has made you hyper-aware of those around you? Convinced you’ve done something to upset them and that people are talking about? You’re over-responsible.
Have a sense of aloneness because you don’t let people in so that they can help you and are afraid of not being strong and needed? You’re over-responsible.
Not being you because you’re too busy taking care of everyone else and so running you into the ground? You being over-responsible is showing itself yet again and causing you to not meet your responsibilities to you.
If your ability to influence other people’s feelings and behaviour dictates your happiness, I urge you to consider whether you are over-responsible. Be curious about the origins of your over-responsibility so that you can learn better boundaries for you. Doing so will allow you to give and receive love, care, trust and respect instead of sacrificing you and mistaking it for ‘giving’.
It’s not your job to make other people happy and to manage their feelings and behaviour. That’s their responsibility.
If you’re playing a role that you learned/assumed, much as you’ve derived value from it, it’s causing you deep pain. Roles cut you off from yourself and they also cut you off from intimacy. Why? Because you’re pretending to be something you’re not. They hold you back, doing their part in keeping patterns alive that need to be released for everyone involved.
Whatever you think you’re supposed to have been responsible for and the job role you’ve created around that, it’s not and never has been your job.
Forgive the little kid inside you for what he or she didnt know back then. Forgive you for not being the person you were never supposed to be and for not being able to Jedi mind trick people. Acknowledge the kid you didn’t get to be. Endeavour to take better care of them with self-care.
It’s critical to relieve your younger self of this role to set you free of the patterns of unhealthy relationships and situations that you’ve encountered.
Think about the role you have played within your family. What were the specific habits you’ve adopted to fulfil this role? What have you believed that it’s your job to be or do? How has this manifested itself in adulthood?
And remember: you can’t stay in this role just so that someone else can avoid their responsibility. It’s not your job to preserve a lie that when it all boils down to it, blocks you from love, care, trust and respect.
You can choose to be and do things that feel more authentic to you. In doing so, you can really begin to heal and stop the repetition of past hurts. Take care of you.
The following podcast episodes are really helpful for diving deeper into this subject and taking care of you:
- It’s not that you’re not ‘good enough’; you’re over-responsible (ep 158)
- About feeling over-responsible (ep 33)
- Breaking free of roles (ep 128)
- About feeling guilty all the time (ep 192)