OCD and Hyper-responsibility

One of the driving forces behind OCD is an inflated sense of responsibility, or hyper-responsibility. Those who suffer from hyper-responsibility believe they have more control over what happens in the world than they actually do.

In my son Dan’s case, I think a lot of his hyper-responsibility had to do with other’s feelings. He felt he was responsible for everyone else’s happiness, thereby neglecting his own. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I remember one of his elementary school teachers commenting, long before he was diagnosed with OCD, thatΒ  Dan was very well-liked, but she worried about the cost to him. He was constantly being pulled in different directions by his peers, not wanting to upset or disappoint anyone, always wanting to please and accommodate everybody.

Dan also used to give an inordinate amount of his money to charity. Any appeal that came in the mail was answered with a check, and when I once commented that it was great to care about others but he should cut back on his donations to save for college, he became uncharacteristically agitated and insisted on continuing to donate. I now realize he felt responsible for saving the world, and if I forced him to refrain from what had become a compulsion, he would have experienced tormenting guilt.

These are just two of many situations that reflect Dan’s sense of inflated responsibility, and I’m sure all those who suffer from OCD have their own unique examples. As is often the case, I can relate to this aspect of OCD, to a certain degree, even though I don’t have the disorder. When I was young, if a store clerk gave me back too much change and I didn’t say anything, I’d wonder if something bad might happen to me or a family member. My worry was fleeting, not torturous as it would be for those with OCD, but the premise is the same:Β  I was in charge of keeping everyone safe.

Through therapy, Dan addressed his hyper-responsibility, and learned to accept the fact that he was not responsible for the happiness or safety of others. Indeed, he could not control these things if he wanted to; his goals were unattainable. He could not prevent world hunger, animal cruelty, or the myriad of other wrongs he tried to right.

Of course, it is important for us to all work toward a better world, and make meaningful contributions to society. But the impetus for our actions should not be tied up in obsessions and compulsions, or based on our fears and anxieties. With OCD, the true meaning behind actions is not always easy to decipher, and that’s where a good therapist can help. Hyper-responsibility needs to be addressed, so that more attention can be paid to who we can really control: ourselves.

I’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences with hyper-responsibility and how you’ve dealt, or are dealing, with them.

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28 Responses to OCD and Hyper-responsibility

  1. Janet, A very good discussion of hyper-responsibility. I had a big sense of responsibility to keep my loved ones safe through prayer. Prayers had to be said, repeated, and “right” in order to protect them. I also used to watch the ground religiously, looking for sharp sticks or rocks or glass that could possibly be harmful to someone else walking by.

    I got over a lot of this through medication and using the Brain Lock steps and through ERP that I’ve learned. But I still have a hard time drawing the line between what is my responsibility and what isn’t. And sometimes, in order to make the world a better place, it’s necessary to go into territory that isn’t “our responsibility.” So it’s still a struggle sometimes.

    • 71 & Sunny says:

      Tina, I love what you said at the end. Yes, I too struggle because sometimes we do need to step into a situation to help others and it’s out of our responsibility zone. There are no easy answers, are there?

  2. ocdtalk says:

    Thanks for sharing, Tina. I can see how it’s a fine line between wanting to contribute to the betterment of the world, and taking responsibility for that as well. Thanks for your insights.

  3. 71 & Sunny says:

    Oh, Janet, I cannot tell you how many conversations my psychologist and I had over hyper-responsibility. She constantly reminded me that I just did not have that kind of power over the world. I was convinced, of course, that I did have this power. But the power was only for bad things, never for good things.

    Just the other day, I was in the store and I saw a child drop something on the floor and then walk away. I had to tell myself to keep walking as well. I really wanted to pick up the item, because I felt that someone would slip on it, and then if they got hurt it would be my fault. I knew, though, that if I picked it up, it would be a compulsion, so I told myself to keep walking. I don’t like doing that. I feel like a mean, uncaring person. But, I also understand now that I have a serious mental illness and that I have to be a little less “caring” than I used to be, in order to fight this hideous OCD.

    • ocdtalk says:

      You bring up an interesting point, Sunny. If I were to witness that same scene in a store, I wouldn’t think twice about picking up the item. Or, if for some reason I decided not to pick it up, I may feel bad for a second, but it wouldn’t be a big deal. Because you are aware of your hyper-responsibility, you know exactly what you needed to do and you did it. It’s interesting that this might make you seem “uncaring” as you say, when the truth of the matter is you are “too caring.” Thanks for sharing your insight!

  4. Brooke says:

    Hyper-responsibility is one of my biggest problems OCD wise. Most people classify me as a person who has Contamination OCD, but the thing is I could care less if I was dirty, got sick, or was contaminated. I can’t stop caring though about accidentally contaminating someone else. If I feel like I didn’t wash my hands well enough after say using the bathroom (which I always wash my hands well…but when my OCD was severe I was always convinced I didn’t wash them well enough) and then I find out that someone was sick… I ended up blaming it on myself. Over the past year I have basically had to learn how to “not be the world’s condom” lol because that is essentially what I was trying to do. I still struggle with the fear that somehow someone is going to get sick or hurt because of me. I saw a stick in the middle of the sidewalk today… I am now currently freaking out that even though it was only a small stick that because i didn’t move it, someone is going to trip, get hurt, be inconvenienced all because I wasn’t a good enough person to move the stick. I feel horrible every year that I get christmas presents. I’ve tried to convince my parents not to give me any because there are children in the world starving. The money that went towards my presents could have saved a child.. so is it all my fault that a child is starving in Africa b/c I couldn’t convince my parents to give the money to charity?

    I can’t express to you how hyper-responsibility defines my life. I don’t want my presence in the world to inconvenience anyone… which also makes me have harm obsessions because what if I accidentally do something completely on accident to hurt someone emotionally or physically (such as not moving the stick) just because I am alive? One of my greatest fears for example is peanut butter. What if I ate a peanut butter sandwich and got some peanut butter on my shirt and didn’t realize it. Then I went out in public touched the spot on my shirt that had the peanut butter on it without realizing it and then get it on something and then someone with a peanut allergy comes along and touches the peanut butter I accidentally put somewhere in public?? Then is it all my fault that this person was inconvenienced… had to use their epicene or just got sick in general?

    I struggled greatly when my OCD was severe (and do somewhat do now) with the point of my life. Don’t worry I’m not suicidal… but sometimes I like to avoid my life just so that I don’t inconvenience anyone.

    I’m getting better though πŸ™‚ Baby steps!

    • 71 & Sunny says:

      Brooke – I worry obsessively about peanuts too! Until now, I’ve never heard of anyone else who did that. I’m always afraid that I will have some peanut residue on me and then if I go sit on the subway or something, someone will die. Hmm . . . I think I’ll have to do a blog about this!

      • Brooke says:

        No one has ever understood my fear of peanuts until now either Sunny! My family just thinks I’m crazy… but seriously if I can avoid peanuts… I will at all costs.. I’m sooo afraid I will get peanut residue somewhere and someone will die or be inconvenienced by being sick… I don’t want to be the cause of either! I’m glad it is just not me! lol

  5. ocdtalk says:

    Brooke, thank you so much for sharing. I feel like I understand hyper-responsibility even more after reading your comment. It can manifest itself in so many ways. Dan also was always uncomfortable receiving gifts……..maybe for the same reason??
    Your admission that “I don’t want my presence in the world to inconvenience anyone” seems to be common in those with OCD. I wish you could see that not only are you not an “inconvenience,” you are a blessing and a gift. Just sharing as you have is sure to help many people. Thank you!

    • Janet,

      Thank you for posting about this and encouraging others to tell their experiences. I think hyperresponsibility couples with self-criticism to make it difficult for me to ask for or accept help in many situations. I also have a difficult time accepting presents as I never feel worthy of them, and feel that I’ve been an unnecessary inconvenience. I think it’s very possible that similar thoughts trouble your son when he receives gifts.

      • ocdtalk says:

        Thanks for the comment, and I think you are right. Dan happily receives presents now, though he does say “thank you” a million times! It also makes sense to me, as you say, that hyper-responsibility is tied up with self-criticism. I just wish those with OCD weren’t so hard on themselves!

  6. postpartumandpigtails says:

    Since finding your blog, I am realizing a lot about myself. I am also learning a ton about OCD. So glad I find your blog πŸ™‚

  7. I can so relate to this post! I’ve been feeling responsible for so much that I have tended to disregard some of my own needs. The habit’s a bit difficult to change πŸ™‚

  8. ocdtalk says:

    Thanks for commenting, Elizabeth……you’re so right. Hyper-responsibility can keep us from caring for ourselves.

  9. steve says:

    I’m Steve middle aged and live in the deep South and as an evangelical Christian was taught it was my (our) respOnsibility to Witness to others about Jesus so they wouldn’t go to Hell
    You can imagine where this led a person with the roots of OCD

  10. Grackle says:

    Thank you so much for writing this blog entry…it could have been about me. I live with constant guilt and hyper-responsibility and though I am better off now–I have a CBT doctor who has helped me identify this aspect of my OCD–it continues to be a major, major struggle. Just reading this post made me feel a little better. πŸ™‚

  11. Renate says:

    That is exactly how I feel. I have the hyper-responsibility thing going on in my life. My husband is always telling me not to donate so much money but I feel such compassion for suffering people and especially animals that I just have to help. The world is a horrible place and somebody has to make a difference, even in a small way.

    • Thanks for sharing, Renate, and I think it’s good that you recognize you are dealing with hyper-responsibility. It can be a fine line between being caring and compassionate and carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders…..surely something a good therapist could help you out with. Wishing you all the best.

  12. healthier me says:

    Hi! I just now came across your blog because I was reading online about hyper-responsibility. I have never been professionally diagnosed with OCD, but I probably should have been over ten years ago when I started college and began reading my Bible. In it, I read about an all-powerful God who saw through my near perfect grades and *perfect* personality to a prideful, intensely socially fearful teenaged girl who didn’t have a real heart-to-heart relationship with anybody although I desperately wanted and needed to. I had many friends I could relate to intellectually, but the God I read about in the Word saw all of me, including the emotional me, and I was TERRIFIED. Like other commentators here, I felt deep down like I was an inconvenience to the world. I was so scared of affecting other people on a deep level because I feared I might damage them emotionally, say something hurtful, devastate them or that they would do likewise to me… My parents divorced when I was very young, and it was pretty traumatic for me. I’m not sure but I think I picked up some of those notions during that time. Now, in college, reading the Bible and attending church for the first time ever, add to my existing issues what I understood at the time to be the *pressure* to evangelize the world, to “pray without ceasing,” to have a *perfect* heart toward God 24/7, etc. I felt like my brain was sick from the constant pursue to save the world. And to stay out of hell. Lol. I obsessed about scriptures and Constantly needed reassurance that my understanding was right. Eternity was on the line, so it was extremely important to me, and in addition to the true obsessions and compulsions, I really made the CHOICE to not relax and to worry instead much of the time. I wish I’d had family, friends, and resources to help me through this scary and draining time, but I didn’t open up much because I learned in the Bible that we are accountable for our words, and I didn’t want to say the wrong thing or trust the wrong person.

    Thankfully, by the power of God and by developing a REAL, heart level, grace-based relationship with him instead of just exhausting, fear-based, compulsive spiritual activities, I am on a much healthier track nowadays. My mental habits aren’t healthy all the time, hence I’m reading up and getting stronger. I’m realizing more that there are thoughts that I simply must not give the time of day to, like “Do I really love people?” and “Am I really saved?” I need to stop trying to convince myself of things that I already know the answer to like that and ending up in a mental spiral.

    Well, I just wanted to say thanks for setting up a community where people can be open and honest about what’s happening behind the scenes. I am excited to read through other entries and comments.

  13. healthier me says:

    *pressure, not “pursue” to save the world. (And it took me a while to realize Jesus is the Savior and not me or my performance. I believe we all struggle with a works mentality to an extent, but OCD is like a caricature of the norm.)

    • Thank you so much for your heartfelt comment. I think it’s pretty amazing that you were able to pull yourself out of such a tough time in college. You definitely are not alone, and I appreciate your sharing. I wish you all the best and hope to hear from you again!

  14. healthier me says:

    Thanks for the kind welcome! Working through this sure has been a messy and ongoing process at times as I’m sure you can relate to, but understanding my mind habits better and experiencing real love have helped a TON. I’m working on self-acceptance a lot right now.

  15. Inuit says:

    Oh, mother of OC Dan — ‘ello! –, methinks that you are mixing things up here.

    “I think a lot of his hyper-responsibility had to do with other people’s feelings. . . . He was constantly being pulled in different directions by his peers, not wanting to upset or disappoint anyone, always wanting to please and accommodate everybody.”

    What you describe here may have nothing to do with hyper-responsibility, but only with peer pressure and such. Thus:

    Please write some more about inflated or hyper-responsibility (I’ve also seen it being called ‘overcommitment’) — giving examples and context of responsibility obsessions and compulsions –, and about this OCD symptom’s relation to ‘people pleasing’, if there is any (maybe your son’s case has been merely an exception, not the rule).

    There is also the problem that different persons may have a different concept/understanding of what sort of curious creature a ‘people pleaser’ actually is, and what he isn’t. Without a clear definition, it can mean nearly anything anyone wants it to mean. So what’s your definition?

    “[H]e would have experienced tormenting guilt.”

    They’re not genuine feelings of guilt, but of neurotic guilt. (But you probably know this).

    “[O]r the myriad of other wrongs he tried to right.”

    How? Seriously, how did your son try to right various wrongs? Only by sending (your? πŸ™‚ ) money to charities?

    That said, you encourage OCD sufferers to advocate and raise awareness about their condition, yet since many of us suffer from responsibility O/Cs, do you think that’s wise? Why doesn’t your son advocate himself? (Not saying that he should).

    • Hi Inuit, I share my and my son’s experiences with different aspects of OCD in the hopes of helping others. I don’t believe I used the words “people pleaser” in my post. I do encourage those with OCD to advocate for themselves but advocacy and awareness can be achieved in many different ways – everyone has to figure out what’s right for them. Of course my son didn’t solve the world’s problems by giving HIS money to various charities, but as you probably know, OCD is not a rational disorder and he believed at the time, that this is what he had to do.

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