The phenomenon comes in many shapes, and often goes back to early childhood experiences and the role we played in the family.
One of my clients, let’s call her Rose, became aware of her own dynamic after a visit with her mother, who she hadn’t seen in many years.
She was the oldest child in the family and wasn’t just expected to take care of her younger brothers when she got older, she was also the designated person to sooth her mother, who constantly worried about the two boys and how they would make their way.
Later in life, Rose got used to taking responsibility for her siblings’ monetary problems, since they seemed incapable of holding a job and planning for their own financial security.
Her brothers’ inability to take care of themselves became a heavy burden, and it took years for her to develop the courage to end their emotional and financial dependency of her.
But the same kind of burden can arise even in families where one child was rejected and seemingly released of the responsibility to please one or both parents.
Farrah, an attractive woman in her mid thirties, had disappointed her father terribly: after her two sisters were born, she was supposed to be a boy and the heir of the family business.
Useless to her father’s agenda, he rejected her emotionally and neglected to pay much attention to her during her upbringing. She learned that he wouldn’t take any interest in what she achieved, and stopped looking to him for support.
Farrah grew up to become a fiercely independent woman who relied solely on her own emotional resources. She did not trust anybody’s judgement other than her own, and was incapable of negotiating compromises in any of her relationships.
Despite her seemingly independent existence, she unconsciously had always felt responsible for her father’s unhappiness and worked towards pleasing him. As a teenager, she dressed in boys’ clothes and imitated the way her male peers talked to each other.
Even though the relationship to her dad was never close, she picked a profession she knew he respected. Because he was never able to make a lot of money, she made sure that she was well off herself.
The pattern continued with all older men in her life. To her male professors, she was the hardest working student in the class. To her bosses, she was the most reliable employee. Even her tennis coach never had to complain about a lesson missed.
It took Farrah a long time to understand that she always felt responsible for the happiness of the men in her life, and rarely thought about what made herself happy, until a personal crisis forced her to look at her psychological conditioning.
In this way, a crisis turns into a chance to examine our own minds, and a potential turning point in our life to look out for our own happiness.
Schoen, G. (2012). Feeling Responsible. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 18, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/gentle-self/2012/05/feeling-responsible/