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, that 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: 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.