Being a responsible person is usually a good thing—it means you’re committed, dependable, accountable, and care about others. It’s the opposite of shirking responsibility by pointing fingers or making excuses.
But it’s easy to go too far. Do you take on everyone’s tasks? If someone you love is grumpy, do you assume it’s something you did? Do you apologize when someone bumps into you?
Owning what’s yours—mistakes and blunders included—is a sign of maturity, but owning everybody else’s mistakes and blunders, not to mention tasks, duties, and emotions, is a sign of over-responsibility.
But here’s the twist: being overly responsible isn’t just the realm of control freaks or earnest Eagle Scouts. Over-responsibility can work for you, building trust and even currying favor.
For example, a fascinating joint study out of Harvard Business School and Wharton examined what happens when we apologize in the absence of culpability—that is, when we take responsibility for something that’s clearly not our fault.
Specifically, on a rainy day, the researchers hired an actor to approach travelers in a busy train station and ask to use their cell phones. Half the time, the actor led by taking responsibility for the weather: "I’m so sorry about the rain! Can I borrow your cell phone?" The other half of the time, he simply asked "Can I borrow your cell phone?"
When he took responsibility for the weather, 47% of the travelers offered their phone. But when he simply asked, only 9% of the travelers acquiesced.
The findings lined up with previous research showing that people who express guilt or regret are better liked than those who don’t. 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.
But at a certain point, over-responsibility stops working and starts getting in the way. Looking through a completely different lens, over-responsibility is often a core symptom of OCD. For example, one of my clients felt overly responsible for potentially harming others as he drove—every bump in the road, in his mind, was a pedestrian or cyclist he had thoughtlessly run over. Another client was 100% convinced she was responsible when a tree fell on her car during a massive thunderstorm—she insisted, “I shouldn’t have parked it there—I should have known.”
But what if there’s no OCD in the picture? Where does non-diagnosable but toxic over-responsibility come from? Like many dysfunctional beliefs, it often starts in childhood. Kids who get blamed for things they have no power over, like their parents’ emotions, finances, or relationships, start to believe they are indeed responsible. Examples include, “Look how upset you made your mom,” or “Buying Christmas presents this year is really making us broke,” or any variation on the classic mindbender, “Look what you made me do.”
So is over-responsibility helpful or toxic? The answer—a little of both. To illustrate, here are 4 ways it plays out in life: