Thursday, September 30, 2021

Hyper-responsibility Syndrome and Anxiety

A man disturbed from sleep by visions caused by guilt. Etching by Brocas. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark


I often feel responsible for others’ actions when I play no role in what they've done. Even if they’re only working off information I provided, my brain latches on to how I played a role and have to take responsibility. But I'm not alone in this. It's a phenomenon called hyper-responsibility syndrome. I wrote about the psychology and neurology underlying inflated responsibility and guilt elsewhere. In this post, I talk about the personal aspects of this mental health issue.

I’m the eldest child. Always felt responsible because I was held responsible. This origin is in agreement with the current working theories in psychology on the origin of the syndrome. 

The result: 

  • I’m hesitant to answer questions or provide my input because then someone goes off and does something ill-advised and I feel like it’s my fault.
  • If they do something cringe-worthy or inappropriate, I feel second-hand shame and embarrassment. 
  • I feel the need to correct people, if only because then it clarifies that I feel they shouldn’t go forward with whatever they planned to do, but it comes across as bossy. 

As a child my report card often reflected this and I was chastised for not allowing other kids to do kid things. But when I did that at home, let my younger brother do whatever he was going to do, I got into trouble. I look back now and see a connection. At the time I was frustrated by both the impulse to step in and the acts of those around me. As a teenager it would be seen as a sign that I wanted to take on leadership roles. I hate being a leader. I want to be a follower — give me a clear objective and clear expectations and I’m a happy camper.

When I have an offhand conversation with someone and then later they complain that they did what I said and it didn’t work and I need to rethink what I said, etc, it makes me panic. I didn’t know I was doling out advice. I didn’t know that conversation cemented its way into their head. I don’t want that responsibility! Why am I not allowed to simply think through things out loud?

This is why I often repeat myself in conversations, and I rephrase and explain what I meant to the point of “beating a dead horse”. My mother gets impatient with me in conversations and cuts me off. Other people think I either have a few screws loose or am not very bright.

That then feeds back into the anxiety, causing a feedback loop until my brain gets worn out and fixates on something else.

So what do I do? I've learned what this cycle looks like for me and I stop myself. I'm going to feel it either way, but I stop from reacting. I have control over my behavior, even if I don't have control over the emotions. I know from experience that it will pass once my brain gets tired, so I just wait it out. It's not easy and it's not comfortable, but it works for me.

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