Are You Responsible for Others, or Responsible to Others?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between being responsible for others, and being responsible to others.

Feeling and acting responsible for others often reflects our struggle to tolerate another person’s distress. When we sense anxiety in others, a quick way to calm ourselves down is to calm others. To manage emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that do not belong to us.

How do you get caught up in feeling and acting responsible for others? When you pick the restaurant, do you need everyone to enjoy their food? Do you avoid bringing up an important topic in your marriage, because it makes your spouse anxious? Do you reassure your child, “It’s going to be okay,” before you hear their thinking about a challenge?

When our actions are more about alleviating anxiety than relating to one another, we don’t give people the space to express their thinking or show us their capabilities. It’s also easy to get locked into relationship patterns that can drain the fun out of a friendship, snuff out the creativity in a work partnership, or eliminate intimacy in a marriage.   

Being responsible to others is about expressing your own maturity. It’s about knowing your own thinking, embodying that thinking, and sometimes sharing that thinking with others. It is about directing self, rather than directing others. But here’s the tricky part— it also requires you to alleviate anxiety (or simply sit with it) in a different way than overfunctioning.

What does this distinction look like in real time? Let me give you some examples.

Responsible for: Calling your mother so she won’t get upset.

Responsible to: Calling your mother because you’ve decided regular contact is useful.

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Responsible for: Doing your kid’s homework so their grade won’t drop.

Responsible to: Letting your child know how you’re willing to help with homework, and what you’re not willing to do.

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Responsible for: Lying to a friend so you won’t hurt their feelings.  

Responsible to: Following your best thinking about when honesty is necessary.   

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Responsible for: Always replying “no worries!” when people apologize in an email.

Responsible to: Really thinking about whether you need to reassure them or not.

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Responsible for: Forcing people to share their feelings and thoughts about a situation.

Responsible to: Expressing curiosity about the thinking of others. 

If you observed yourself for one hour of interacting with other humans, how would you catch yourself acting responsible for others’ thoughts, emotions, and behaviors?  It’s only human to direct each other—we wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work quite well at calming things down. But what gets lost when this becomes our way automatic way of functioning?

Is there perhaps a different way to operate in a relationship that doesn’t require you to function for others? I suspect there is.

News from Kathleen

For Medium, I wrote about the cost of always being an anxious helper.

Check out the Russian translation of my book, Everything Isn’t Terrible, which came out in March. The Portuguese version is coming this July!

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