Many people suffer from what is sometimes called toxic or chronic guilt, which is closely related to a false and overwhelming sense of responsibility.
This stems from their childhood environment and is carried into their adulthood and adult relationships, be they romantic, work, or others. In this article, we will talk about all of this.
False responsibility and its origins
False responsibility refers to an attitude when you feel responsible for things that, objectively, you aren’t responsible for and shouldn’t feel responsible for. For example, as children and adolescents, people feel responsible for the needs and emotions of their parents, siblings, and other family members.
Usually this sense of responsibility comes from being overtly or covertly blamed and punished. “You’re making your mother sad,” “Why are you hurting me,” “You didn’t do what I told you to do!”
Parents and other authority figures often blame children for things that they themselves are fundamentally, responsible for. Or they hold the child to impossible standards and expectations where the child is punished for making mistakes or being imperfect and blamed for “failing.”
Since the children are powerless and dependent, they have no choice but to accept any treatment they receive from their caregivers. Since the children don’t have a frame of reference, they also tend to normalize their environment or even perceive it as loving, caring childrearing.
The aforementioned environments and situations instill certain emotional responses in a person: guilt, shame, anxiety, hurt, betrayal, disappointment, loneliness, emptiness, and many others. This false sense of guilt can even become a default state that is referred to as chronic or toxic guilt.
As a result, the person tends to take on unjust responsibility and feels overly guilty if things around them go wrong. They are quick to accept that everything is their fault even though it isn’t. They also often have poor boundaries, are emotionally enmeshed with other people, and try to manage other people’s emotions or generally feel overwhelmed by other people’s emotions.
Unlike people with strong narcissistic tendencies and similar dark personality traits who never take responsibility for their actions, people who suffer from false responsibility and toxic guilt are very quick to attribute what went wrong to themselves and blame themselves for it.
It may seem weird if you look at such a person without any psychological understanding of their situation. But if you understand how these tendencies develop, it’s clear that it’s very easy for them to blame themselves for something that they are clearly not responsible for.
After all, many children learn to blame themselves for being abused and mistreated. They are blamed for things, internalize it, and then blame themselves for things from now on. It happens so many times that it becomes their default mode.
So when they grow up, it’s only natural to continue doing it in their adult relationships, especially if they never took the time and effort to consciously and critically examine it.
Codependency and repetition-compulsion
A lot of people who suffer from toxic guilt and shame develop what is known as codependency. Codependency usually refers to dysfunctional relationships where one person supports or enables another person’s unhealthy behavior, such as addiction, acting out, irresponsibility, abusive actions, and so on.
This is because a self-blaming person is used to being in a dysfunctional relationship where they had to be responsible for the dysfunctional person’s dysfunctional behavior. And so when they grow up it all seems natural, even desirable, simply because it’s familiar.
This unconscious drive to replicate one’s dysfunctional childhood environment is referred to as repetition compulsion. It usually continues until the person becomes aware of it and is willing and able to stop it.
Susceptibility to manipulation and dysfunction
Since people who suffer from chronic self-blame constantly feel shame and guilt, they are exceptionally susceptible to manipulation. The manipulator can always appeal to their false sense of responsibility, or blame them for something, or shame them to get what they want.
That’s why you often find narcissism (or dark personality traits) next to codependency. These relationship patterns are frequently talked about in tandem. Narcissistic people tend to manipulate and abuse others, and codependent people tend to be manipulated and abused.
And so, in a dysfunctional way, these two personality types fit together and draw each other. Like a sadistic and masochistic person attract each other’s company. Like a person who likes to yell at and control another person’s life and someone who is used to being yelled at and controlled attract each other. People replicate and act out their childhood dynamics in their adult relationships. Some become more codependent, others more narcissistic.
Summary and final words
As children, many people are treated unfairly and cruelly. Many are routinely blamed for things that they are not responsible for or expected to meet certain unrealistic and unreasonable standards. As a result, they learn numerous toxic lessons:
- To blame themselves for being mistreated
- To have unrealistic standards for themselves
- To normalize and accept dysfunction
- To unconsciously or even consciously seek dysfunctional relationships
False responsibility leads to false guilt, and false guilt leads to self-blame. Over time, you internalize it. This makes you more susceptible to being manipulated and taken advantage of, where you sacrifice your own well-being and self-interest to please and take care of others. In other words, self-erasure.
However, this doesn’t have to continue forever. It is possible to overcome it. In the words of Beverly Engel:
“For too long we have been protecting the ones who have hurt us by minimizing our trauma and deprivation. It’s time to stop protecting them and start to protect ourselves. We have been told and feel that we are responsible for their emotional well-being. We are not. We are responsible only for ourselves.”
The first step, as always, is recognizing it. Then you can work on developing a more self-loving and self-caring relationship with yourself. You can learn to have healthier boundaries. You can learn not to accept unjust responsibility for others.
All of this, by extension, will help you have healthier relationships and social interactions with others.
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.