Feeling responsible for what goes wrong

September 8, 2011

You boss loses her car keys. You feel responsible to find them. Your neighbor’s cat is stuck in a tree. You feel responsible to rescue it. Your community center needs painting. You overextend your credit card to buy the paint.

Abuse survivors are notorious for taking on responsibilities that aren’t necessarily theirs to assume.

There’s a fine line between being a passionate and compassionate helper and carrying the weight of the world as if it’s yours to carry. Yes, sometimes we help people and causes because we genuinely care and want to make a difference. That’s a positive legacy of being neglected and abused: you’ve got a lot of empathy and want to help others. That’s noble and we need more people like that!

But if you haven’t done that important interior work of sorting out WHY you want to help, you can find yourself used, exploited, and burned out. If you’ve got an unhealthy need to be needed, or if you help others in order to create a debtor relationship, then you’re helping for unhealthy reasons that will eventually consume you.

The darker side of this tendency is when you not only take on responsibilities that aren’t yours to assume, but you actually FEEL responsible for anything that goes wrong. You believe it might somehow be your fault that your boss lost her keys or that kitty got stuck up a tree or that the community center is in need of repair.  For many of us, it can actually create a sense of horrific panic.

For most abuse survivors, the pressure to take on these tasks AND also feel responsible for anything that isn’t right goes deep. It stems from having to navigate across the constant shifting sands of an environment where abuse was possible. The way people cope when they’re threatened varies, but the one thing we all have in common at such times is our desperate search for ways to control the uncontrollable.

When you’re in an unsafe and exploitive environment, you’re scrambling to do everything you can to protect yourself or protect others you love. You do whatever it takes to accommodate, avoid, or overpower the abusive person. At very deep levels, you believe that if you hide enough or fight enough or run fast enough, the abuse will stop. Of course, that’s rarely the case, and when you discover your limitations, it feels like you could have – should have – would have done more . . . and then things would be different.

If you’ve been reading my thoughts for any length of time, I’m a firm believer in getting mouthy with false beliefs once you recognize them as false. The way you get to that point of recognition involves using pain as an ally (an archived series from last month.)

Being a kind, compassionate, and merciful person is a beautiful quality born from a pure heart willing to love and serve others. Feeling responsible for everything that goes wrong and trying to be all things to all people is born from a heart full of fear – old fear – that must be understood in order to become healthy.

The funny thing about doing the deep interior work of abuse recovery is that – on the outside – it may all look the same. You may still help your boss find her keys. You may still get the cat down from the tree. You may still help paint the community center – but not by overextending your credit card (but you might lead a community fund raiser to pay for the paint!). 

The difference is that you help and serve because you’re a caring person, not because you have internalized responsibility for these circumstances. You help – not because you hope you can make unreasonable people happy – but because you can help. There’s a sliver of distance between these actions, but there’s a world of difference between these motives.

You’re not responsible for everything that goes wrong. Yes, there are times when we are all responsible for messing things up – and when that happens, well  . . . that’s yours to claim and make corrections. The next time you feel that deep seated panic that you’re somehow responsible for things that go wrong, take a few minutes to really examine those thoughts. If that’s not the case, then do what you can to help – but not because you have to . . . because you want to.
Written by Sallie Culbreth, Founder
Committed to Freedom – Abuse Recovery Solutions – providing people with holistic empowerment and spiritual tools to move beyond abuse and sexual trauma. This communication is provided for education and inspiration and does not constitute mental health treatment.  This communication does not constitute legal or professional advice, nor is it indicative of a private therapeutic relationship. Individuals desiring help for abuse related issues or other psychological concerns should seek out a mental health professional.

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