When you make a mistake, admitting it and making amends is generally the best course of action—but sometimes it’s not really your responsibility.
Some people may not even realize that they’re taking responsibility for stuff, but consider how often you apologize when someone else bumps into you, or say, “I’m sorry,” in response to somebody’s complaint about traffic. The Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, wrote about the ways taking responsibility can go overboard for Quick Dirty Tips, but surprisingly she starts out with how it can be good.
Hendriksen shares a study from the Harvard Business School and Wharton in which people asked to borrow someone’s cell phone on a rainy day. In some cases, they would first apologize for the weather, then ask to borrow the phone; in others they just asked to borrow the phone. When starting with an apology for something entirely not their fault (rain), they were able to borrow a phone 47 percent of the time. If they just asked for the phone, there was only a 9 percent phone borrowing success rate:
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.
I’d also venture that in this weather case, it’s indicating that you’re all experiencing something together—terrible weather. It creates a bond in just a few simple words, though that could be achieved without the actual apology, by saying, “Terrible weather today!”
You can use taking too much responsibility as a way to get people to like you, neutralize bad feelings, and set folks at ease. But that’s about all the good it does.
The previous example indicates that the person apologizing has some larger motive and understanding of what they’re doing. However, constant apologizing can become compulsive. You’re not in control of it, you just feel chronic guilt for things that are legitimately out of your control. Guilt is only appropriate when you’ve actually done something wrong.
Hendriksen says she treats some clients with OCD who take responsibility for everything to the detriment of their lives. As an example, Hendriksen mentions a patient who was having difficulty driving because they felt responsible for every bump in the road. If feelings of guilt are interfering with your ability to function on a daily basis, it might be time to assess where these feelings are coming from, perhaps with a mental health professional.
This is sort of on the fence; sometimes avoiding conflict is not only necessary, but less emotionally taxing than apologizing when you did nothing wrong. It might make sense for you to apologize to your boss for a mess up so you can move forward with your meeting or say sorry to someone fuming over you bumping into them at the grocery store.
Sometimes, though, avoiding conflict with an apology becomes a pattern, because you’re too scared to say how you really feel. This can become a problem, especially within close relationships:
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.
Sometimes an honest conversation will benefit a situation far more than an apology, if you are brave enough to admit that it wasn’t your fault.
Admit it—there’s something pretty narcissistic about taking responsibility for everything. Are you omniscient? All powerful? You must be if everything happening on earth has to do with you. Maybe you need this sense of power in your life, but keep in mind how it might be diminishing the people around you and their agency. A parent who never lets their kid responsibility for their actions isn’t allowing them to grow. A partner mired in guilt over accidentally choosing a lousy restaurant isn’t a good date. You can’t be in control of everything and probably no one you know wants you to be.
If you can see where taking too much responsibility is harming you, here are some ways to start breaking the habit. Hendriksen recommends three strategies for learning to healthily step away and respond to situations more realistically:
Look at the things in your life you don’t need to be in charge of and hand over the reins. The best way to do this is through communication—an example Hendriksen gives is letting a teen kid know they’re now responsible for getting themselves up in time for school, not just letting them sleep in with no notice:
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.
Help can be defined as delegating tasks to people who offer to pitch in, but also learning to accept “a compliment, accept tomatoes from your neighbor’s garden without worrying that now you have to give her a cucumber.” Think of it as sharing that feeling of competence and importance of responsibility rather than as placing a burden on another.
That shift in thinking is key. You’re helping someone by allowing them to take responsibility for their own life and behavior. And if you consider sharing responsibility as helping others, you still get to feel important.
How to Stop Feeling Overly Responsible | Quick and Dirty Tips