Taking Fair Responsibility: It’s Not All Your Fault

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Do you blame yourself for other people’s problems? Are you constantly apologizing for things which aren’t your fault, or your responsibility?

Some of us have a tendency to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. We worry about our partners, our friends and our children, trying to do everything in our power to ensure that they’re happy.

When something goes awry for someone close to us, we blame ourselves:

  • A colleague forgets a deadline, and we think I should have reminded him!
  • Our partner is stressed by her tax return, struggling (like every year) to get her figures together, and we think I should have done it for her!
  • A child is upset by an argument in the playground, and we think I should have chosen a different school!

The list can go on, and on, and on. There are all sorts of ways in which we’re great at blaming ourselves for situations which were outside our control and which weren’t our responsibility in the first place.

You Can’t Make People Happy

Before going any further, it’s crucial to remember that we can’t make other people happy. Some people will reject our efforts, spurn our help and turn their backs on our friendship. There’s no point wasting energy thinking I should have tried harder. Although we can often help to cheer people up, and support them with our friendship, we cannot take responsibility for their happiness.

We can’t make them change, either. As Mark explained in Five Myths About Change:

“Other people cannot be forced to change under any circumstances. To try to change another person by force is a waste of time and energy. A wise man once observed that you shouldn’t try to teach a pig how to sing: it doesn’t get you anywhere and it annoys the pig.”

De-centering Yourself

I’m going to be a little bold in writing this section, because I know that I suffer from this problem myself. When we try to take on responsibility for everyone else’s happiness and success, there is a strong element of egotism here.

I know it may feel like it should be the opposite – after all, we’re concerned with other people, not with ourselves – but the truth is, trying to take too much responsibility is a way of putting ourselves at the center of everything.

If you feel that it’s your job to make sure that your friends are happy, you’re trying to frame yourself as the most important factor in their lives.

If you blame yourself whenever your spouse forgets a birthday or loses his keys, your mental model of the world has you as the “responsible adult” and them as the “irresponsible child”.

To end the guilt-tripping, you need to start de-centering yourself. Of course you’re important, loved and special – but you are not the source of all your partner, friend or kids’ happiness.

Letting Others Take Responsibility

If you really want the best for your loved ones, you’ll let them take responsibility for themselves. Not just because that ends your self-recriminations (“Oh, I’m so sorry, if only I’d thought to check that you really had posted that letter when you’d said you were going to…) but also because it lets them grow up.

I’m sure you’ve come across kids whose parents did every little thing for them – and who struggled when they left home. Although it might feel like an expression of your love to be your kids’ personal taxi service, to do their chores for them, and even to complete their homework for them … it’s not helping them to learn anything.

Similarly, if you’re constantly chasing around after your colleagues, tidying up mistakes or loose ends so that they don’t get into trouble, are you really doing them a favour in the long term?

There’s a difference between taking on someone else’s duties to help out during a brief busy period (which is a perfectly valid and loving act), and trying to solve all their problems for them. The latter is likely to build up your resentment at the same time as preventing them from ever growing or taking responsibility for their own lives.

It can be particularly hard if you know that a loved one is unhappy. Perhaps your friend is awful with money, and it’s really difficult for you to see her stressed out about her overdraft and credit card payments. You might be tempted to blame yourself – to think I should have stopped her buying that. You may even want to help out by loaning money. But is that really going to help her in the long term?

Of course, there’ll always be times when, out of love, we’ll do something kind and unexpected for a friend or relative. That’s a great thing. But if you’re taking on the responsibility for the smooth-running of someone else’s life, or if you’re blaming yourself for problems which someone else should be facing, then it’s gone too far.

Whose problems are you taking an unfair share of responsibility for? How can you ditch the guilt and allow them – and you – to move on?

Photo by Tiago Ribeiro