Do you take on too many tasks? Maybe you worry about problems that aren't yours to solve. Or you feel guilty when you logically know there’s no reason to feel that way. These are all signs of what’s known as over-responsibility.
People who juggle too much often feel like they have to fix or handle everything, even when it's out of their control or really someone else's job. They might get super anxious or feel guilty if they're not carrying all these extra loads and find it tough to just say “no” or to set limits for themselves.
Being responsible is a positive and essential trait, but over-responsibility can be detrimental to our well-being.
Over-responsibility is caused by various factors, such as experiences in childhood that led to being a perfectionist or a people pleaser or certain social or cultural expectations. It can lead to chronic stress, burnout, resentment, and more. For many of those who struggle with binge eating, they take care of others and food is the only thing that takes care of them.
Melanie* always did everything she could to help others. Whenever there was a group project at school, she did way more than her share. She stayed up late to put the final touches on the presentation, stressed about every tiny detail, and often did parts of the project that were supposed to be someone else's job.
She felt like she was constantly carrying a heavy backpack filled with tasks, problems, and worries that did not belong to her. As an adult, she continued to fill that backpack and felt as if she was Atlas holding up the world. She was stressed, upset, and resentful, and she became what she called “a big time stress eater.”
In Melanie’s case, her sense of over-responsibility started when she was a child and the oldest of four girls. Her mother suffered from postpartum depression and her father was a workaholic. She helped out with the younger siblings and that became her role in life. As an adult, she expected herself to take care of other people and felt like she was letting others down if she did not do anything she could to lift their burden.
Melanie had difficulty getting in touch with her resentment toward other people for not doing their share. She made excuses for their lack of responsibility and never got upset at them for failing to be responsible. Instead, Melanie took out her frustration on herself, berating herself for eating bags of chips and getting upset at herself for gaining weight. “I know I shouldn’t eat those chips,” she said. “It’s all my own fault. I’m so mad at myself.”
She consciously disavowed her frustration toward others yet took it out on herself for bingeing and gaining weight. When we challenged this sense of over-responsibility and also processed her unresolved childhood conflicts about having to parent her own siblings, she healed that emotional wound and was able to set boundaries with other people. After that, she stopped eating her emotions and was able to normalize her relationship with food and lose weight.
Too much of a good thing?
Let's explore the difference between being responsible and being overly responsible. When you're responsible, it means you're dependable and reliable. You get tasks done on time, you show up when you're supposed to, you acknowledge your mistakes, and apologize when necessary. Being responsible means you know your limits and can set boundaries when needed.
Being overly responsible is like being responsible on steroids. Instead of handling your own tasks and obligations, you're taking on everybody else's.
Overly responsible people often feel they have to fix everything, even when it's not their job or not within their control. They find it hard to say “no” and can end up feeling stressed, burnt out, or even resentful because they're shouldering too much. It’s like trying to keep all the plates spinning all the time, even plates that aren't theirs to spin.
What’s the cause?
Childhood factors can play a significant role in the development of over-responsibility. Let's look at some common ones:
1. Parentification: This refers to situations where children take care of their parents in some way, instead of being taken care of by their parents. The term describes situations where a child is made responsible for tasks that are ought to be done by the parents. This could include caring for siblings, like Melanie, managing household chores, or emotionally supporting a parent. This early exposure to heavy responsibilities can set a pattern for taking on too much in adulthood.
2. High Expectations: Some children grow up in families where high achievement and perfection are highly valued. This results in children feeling they have to take on more and more responsibilities to meet these high expectations, leading to a tendency towards over-responsibility.
3. Modeling of Over-responsibility: We learn by watching the adults in their lives. If we see a parent or caregiver constantly taking on too much, not setting boundaries, or struggling to delegate tasks, we may adopt these behaviors and become overly responsible, too.
4. Childhood Trauma: Traumatic experiences or adversity such as physical abuse, neglect, or emotional dysfunction can lead to being overly zealous as adults. In response to these situations, a child may take on too much in order to cope, manage the environment, or to protect themselves or siblings.
These situations can create certain traits or patterns of thinking and behaving that make people more susceptible to taking on excessive responsibilities.
Here are some key traits:
1. Perfectionism: Perfectionists often have high standards and fear making mistakes. They may take on extra responsibility to ensure tasks are done to their exacting standards. Trying to eat “perfectly” can lead to an all-or-nothing mentality, so if you eat one thing that’s on your forbidden list, you feel like the day is ruined, so you might as well eat everything else on that list, which leads to bingeing.
2. People-pleasing: Those who are eager to please others often struggle to say “no” and may take on more than they can handle to avoid conflict or maintain harmony. This can lead to feeling empty or depleted, and food fills the void.
3. High Conscientiousness: Conscientious people are reliable, organized, and detail-oriented. While these traits can be strengths, they may also lead to over-responsibility if the individual feels they are the “best” or “only” person who can do a task correctly.
4. Anxiety-prone: People who worry or feel anxious might take on additional responsibilities to alleviate their anxiety or maintain control over a situation. Eating carb-heavy food can also be a way of managing anxiety, as carbs can have a sedative effect.
5. Low Self-esteem: Those with low self-esteem may take on excess responsibilities to seek approval or validation from others. Food can also provide comfort and soothing when we feel bad about ourselves.
6. Need for Control: Some people have a strong need for control and struggle to delegate tasks to others. They may believe that they must do everything themselves to ensure it's done right. That need for control is a result of many factors. It’s not about “being controlling” but about feeling anxious and vulnerable, so control is the solution. When we feel out of control in aspects of our lives, we may displace that onto feeling out of control with food, too.
7. Empathic: Highly empathetic people or those who are attuned to others' needs and feelings may take on additional emotional burdens or tasks to help other people feel better. They deplete themselves, feel empty, and food fills the void.
Societal & cultural factors
Societal and cultural factors can also influence the development of over-responsibility. Here are a few ways these factors can come into play:
1. Gender Roles: Traditional gender roles often place a heavier burden of responsibility on women, especially with caregiving and household duties. This leads to women feeling over-responsible not only for these tasks but also for the emotional well-being of family members.
2. Work Culture: In work cultures that value constant productivity and availability, employees often feel obligated to take on extra responsibilities and work beyond their capacity, leading to a sense of over-responsibility in other areas of their lives.
3. Cultural Expectations: Certain cultures put a strong emphasis on duty, obligation, and self-sacrifice. People from these cultures may be more prone to taking on too much because they've been raised with the idea that it's their duty to shoulder burdens for the sake of others.
4. Socioeconomic Factors: People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds often need to take on excessive responsibilities to survive or improve their situation. Poverty necessitates early maturity and responsibility, such as needing to work or care for siblings at a young age.
5. Comparison Culture: Social media can create unrealistic standards that we feel we need to meet, from our personal achievements to our physical appearance and even social activism. The pressure to “do it all” can lead to a sense of over-responsibility.
Effects of Over-responsibility
Over-responsibility can affect you physically and emotionally. When you have too much on your plate, you start feeling super stressed and tired all the time. That's because you're burning yourself out. Your body's like a car – it needs fuel and rest stops; otherwise, it'll eventually break down. Over-responsibility is like revving that engine all the time without letting it cool off.
When our bodies are stressed and we need rest, we may turn to food–especially sugary food–to give ourselves a boost. This leads to a sugar crash, and then more food, and the cycle continues.
For Melanie, taking on the weight of the world led her to struggle with feelings of anxiety, guilt, and inadequacy. Emotional eating was her way to cope with these emotions. She ate for comfort, to turn resentment inward, and to escape herself. To create change, she had to address the root cause of these feelings.
Over-responsibility can also cloud self-awareness. If we’re always focused on external tasks and problems, we may not spend much time reflecting on our own thoughts, feelings, and desires. We might not even realize how much stress and exhaustion we’re under because we get so used to putting other people's needs before our own.
Over-responsibility doesn't leave much room for self-care, exploration, or relaxation – all of which are crucial for personal growth and well-being. If you're always busy and stressed, you're likely not taking the time to relax, pursue hobbies, learn new things, or just be with yourself. These activities are not just enjoyable, they also help you learn more about who you are and what you want in life.
While being responsible is important, it's just as important to make sure you're not taking on too much. Remember, it's important to say “no” sometimes and to let others handle their own responsibilities. You deserve time and space to focus on yourself, too.
How to create change
So many of our behaviors and feelings are driven by what’s hidden from us. There may be unconscious beliefs or feelings that are pushing you to take on too much. Maybe deep down, you believe that you have to be perfect, or that people will only like you if you're helpful all the time, or maybe you're trying to control things to manage feelings of anxiety.
By understanding and resolving the deep-seated issues that are driving your over-responsibility, you create permanent change. As you gain insight into your hidden motivations, you can start to question and change the beliefs and feelings that are driving your over-responsibility. Then you can practice doing things differently. You set better boundaries, and feel less stressed and more fulfilled.
Melanie examined how her childhood experiences were influencing her expectations of herself in the present. She worked through the pain of being left to care for herself and her siblings, and came to terms with the mixed feelings of understanding why her parents allowed this to happen, along with compassion for herself. When she dealt with what was eating “at” her she stopped focusing on food. She developed an appetite for life, set boundaries, practiced self-care, and stopped binge eating.
Over-responsibility is when you take on more tasks, problems, or emotional burdens than you need to, extending beyond your own responsibilities to those of others. It's not just about being a good friend; over-responsibility can lead to stress, burnout, and impact your physical and emotional health.
How do you end up here? Again, there's no one-size-fits-all answer. It could be because of experiences in your childhood, like taking on adult responsibilities too soon. It might be tied to perfectionism or people-pleasing. Or societal and cultural pressures could be at play, pushing you to do more and be more.
If you're reading this and thinking, “Yes, that sounds like me,” there is hope for change. You're not alone, and there's plenty of help out there. Therapy, particularly approaches like depth psychology, can help you dig into what's driving your over-responsibility and find new ways to approach life.
Over-responsibility isn't a life sentence. It's something you can manage and overcome. With time, self-awareness, and the right strategies, you can set boundaries, delegate tasks, and prioritize self-care. That creates a shift from feeling overwhelmed to being empowered.
If you're interested in exploring the topic of over-responsibility in more depth, these resources can provide further insight:
“The Disease To Please: Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome” by Harriet Braiker offers practical strategies for people who struggle with the need to constantly please others.
“Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life” by Henry Cloud and John Townsend is a helpful guide to understanding and setting healthy boundaries.
“The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brené Brown provides insights into embracing our vulnerabilities and imperfections, and could be particularly useful for those with perfectionistic tendencies that lead to over-responsibility.
“Overcoming Over-responsibility: When Helping Isn't Helping” by Sherry Gaba (Psychology Today)
“Over-responsibility: Are You Doing Too Much?” by Mindy Smith (The Recovery Village)
The Self-Compassion Project (https://self-compassion.org/) by Dr. Kristin Neff. This site offers resources on cultivating self-compassion, an important skill for those dealing with over-responsibility.
Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a psychoanalyst, author and radio host specializing in binge eating disorder. She is the author of The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating and Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders, and co-editor of Beyond the Primal Addiction. She hosts The Dr. Nina Show radio program on LA Talk Radio.