Taking Fair Responsibility: It’s Not All Your Fault

it's not your fault

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

27 thoughts on “Taking Fair Responsibility: It’s Not All Your Fault”

  1. We must take responsibility for ourselves and our own actions, and let others do the same for their own lives.

    And it’s rare that people will take unsolicited advice, so I rarely give it.

  2. Great post, Ali and so true! I think that taking responsibility for others is a result of one or more of a variety of things – wanting the people around us to be happy and safe, the desire to control things (and the belief that we can) and the arrogance of thinking that we know best. At least that’s what it is for me… :)

  3. Great post, and I totally agree with it. Although I don’t suffer from this problem a lot, I can find myself in some of the examples you’ve mentioned.

    I really enjoyed reading it :-)

  4. Very well said!
    It is all too easy to feel responsible for others but rather more difficult to remember we have no control over them or their circumstances. As you say it is great to be of help but must not feel responsible for the sake of our own sanity!!
    Although there are times when we must remember to take responsibility for our own actions…………

    Many thanks,

  5. Hi Ali,

    Sometimes we tend to blame others for our troubles, which puts us in the role of victim. This post succinctly describes the other side – taking too much responsibility.

    If we feel responsible for others’ happiness, and blame ourselves for things we cannot control, the boundaries have blurred, and the result is unhappiness and inner struggle. One of the most generous things we can do for others is to let them have their own experience – to not try to fix or control it. When we stay in our own business, we get out of the way of other people’s path of transformation.

    Thanks for highlighting a common issue in such a useful way.

  6. Ali,
    Wow, this is a powerful post. I think women tend to do this especially well! If our children fail, we think we are bad moms. If someone is out of sorts, we think it’s our job to fix it. We really do others a favor when we allow them to take responsibility for their actions. That’s how they grow. We do ourselves a favor by not viewing the world through the lens of our fears or guilt. Easier said than done, right? I think we may be genetically predisposed to it.

    Thanks for a wonderful article.

  7. Nice post. I’ve been faced with something similar recently. My girlfriend moved 200 miles to be with me (that’s a lot in a little country like the UK) and she’s completely dependant on me for my friends, comfort and reassurance. I find it hard to tell her to take responsibility and every time I have, it gets worse because she thinks I don’t care about her and I want to get on with other stuff. It’s frustrating, but I know it’s the right course of action.

  8. Thanks very much for the comments, all; looks like this one resnated!

    @Barrie – I suspect it’s an especial problem for moms … and something I’ll probably need to hold myself back from doing once I have kids!

    @Craig – Sounds like a tricky balance there, where you need to encourage her but also reassure her that you do care about what she’s going through. (I live in the UK too; yes, 200 miles is a lot!)

  9. Hi Ali,
    My friend tells me off for doing this all the time! She says (and rightly so) that by taking the blame from others I’m cheating them of the opportunity to grow by accepting the responsibility for themselves. I also agree that it’s a way of putting yourself at the centre of attention, although until I read your words I hadn’t realised that. It’s sort of like the approach that any attention, positive or negative, is a good thing – I’m trying to teach my kids not to take that approach, so why do I do it myself??
    I’m going to have to have a good long think about this, thanks for raising this issue.

  10. When it comes to the people we love, it hard not to be responsible. It will take time and courage for us to pass the responsibility to them. I had my share and I’m still struggling to unburden myself of the responsibility for which I’m not responsible. :-)

  11. I believe absolutely that we are all responsible for our own experience. We are, in a sense, creators of our own reality, and who am I to interfere with another person’s creation? So I will dance my dance and let the world do the same.

  12. As productive personal development centred people we have to spend time with each other often. More than with those who haven’t seen “the light” yet. Otherwise we’ll get drawn back into their repetitive patterns. Nice post by the way, just thought I’d add that.

  13. With every action comes an equivalent reaction, hence taking responsibilities for what we do is part of how we make things works… We should learn to be humble and responsible be it good or bad that resulted from your actions.

  14. Accepting the things that are out of your control and then focusing that energy on things you actually can, for me was the best course of action.

    I believe this ties closely with learning that you cannot please everyone, and you have to learn to say no, for both your own sake and the other person involved (giving them the opportunity to help themselves)

    Great Post! :)

  15. I know that this article was posted a year ago, but I just wanted to let the author know that it’s still being appreciated :) I have been struggling with the guilt of not being able to fix my friends’ problems and it’s been having quite an effect on me. This article really helped me think things out and realize that it isn’t my responsibility to make sure others are happy all the time. So – thank you!! :)

  16. I’ve been playing with a concept of taking 100% responsibility for my actions. Based on my results, I think I’ve been misapplying the concept.

    When conflicts arise in my relationships I think about my part in the conflict, sit down with my loved one and tell them that I’m responsible, filling them in on what baggage of mine led to the conflict.

    Their response is invariably “Yeah, you’re right. You should do something about that.”

    Ugh – it’s not a very satisfying resolution to a conflict – and its no fun always being the messed up one. Help.

  17. Thank you for making this post. I came across it as I figure out how to deal with a situation at work. I’m stepping into an already messed up situation, and not only do I feel responsible for fixing it at the 11th hour, I need to also run it up the flag pole, and explain to executives that I tried to fix it and it didn’t work. I’m still learning……

  18. Wonderful advise, I just was stuck lately as I have put break in my life to solve others issues which are beyond me to solve.
    I took guilt, stop being happy as if that will make others happy too.
    This is in mothrs’s,friends and wife’s role.Can you imagine the stress and inner conflict I am going through.
    yes,powerful and practical. Simple advise but so often in the name of love I forget.

  19. i have taken two huge things on my shoulders recently. A friend asked me to go to the swimming pool to help him watch his kids. I already had plans, so I went with the other plans instead. That night his 3 yr old drowned at the pool. they buried her 2 days ago. I can’t help but think if I was there to help things might not be that way. I feel guilty for not being there for him. The day after the funeral my other friend quit working with the company I work for. I feel like if I could’ve taught him more he’d still be there or if I stood up to management he’d still be there. Honestly, that’s like leading the horse to the water and being mad at yourself for it not drinking( work situation) as far as the other situation, there were 70 parents and lifeguards at the pool, if I would’ve been there I could’ve been the one to jump in the water and pull her out, but there is no telling whether her fate would’ve been different. Those parents and lifeguards should feel guilty, not me. Obviously I’ve got a lot of moving on to do.

  20. This is good stuff, and helpful. But what about whenever it is you who suffers when someone doesn’t take responsibility? When you pay the price for their negligence, not just them? Do we just continue allowing those consequences to happen without saying or doing anything, hoping they will learn?

  21. My husband won’t stop being upset with me until I assume responsibility for him not being able to see his granddaughter for the first time on fathers day. He said i took that from him, cus I had to go to the emergency room. How do I accept something that’s out of my control

  22. I have a different perspective on responsibility. When someone experiences Co dependent parenting, a lack of healthy boundaries they will have issues with taking on to much responsibility.

    My personal bug bear are those who accept no responsibility for the consequences of their behaviour or actions, When stepping into their self created victimhood allows them to escape responsibility for resolving their emotions, leaving others to pick up the pieces.

  23. I have this type of thinking, but for me the major problem is that I don’t only feel responsible for others’ happiness, but also their unhappiness. In effect, I feel like the rest of the world is full of victims and that I am the perpetrator. I am unhappy most/all the time and have chronic anxiety. I try to hide it because I think that if people were around someone who was unhappy/anxious all the time it would make them unhappy/anxious. I then feel very guilty that I feel unhappy/anxious and I am very angry at myself for “stealing” from the world with negative emotions, because I think they kind of “suck positive emotions” out of the world. They also make me less reliable and less functional so then I feel like I’m letting everyone down.

    So I in general feel that because I am unhappy I am a burden to the world and I am constantly taking, taking, taking and not providing enough back. So I constantly try to seem as happy and “fine” as possible and try to never ask for help or support because it makes me feel so bad about myself to do so. I feel that I already owe the world a huge debt and that to ask for anything more will only make that debt inescapable and I will never be able to be “good enough”. I suppose I feel I do not deserve support until I have paid off my debt – like if I never ask anyone for anything and manage to be constantly happy for the “right” amount of time then the debt will be paid and I will be “allowed” to experience unhappiness without guilt.

    I know it’s absurd – more than that, I know that it is this very thinking that is causing the unhappiness I feel so guilty about in the first place! – and yet I can’t seem to convince myself out of it. There’s that pinch of truth there, you see. It is difficult to be around someone who’s unhappy/anxious all the time. It does bring you down. Because that is a fact it feels like everything I’m saying is true.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *