Internal pressure is often externalized and disavowed.
Most of us have a strong tendency to blame others for how we’re feeling. Consider the moments in which you chastised your friend or spouse for making you feel angry or for guilt-tripping you. In our minds, the lever that controls our emotions resides elsewhere, with others, as though we aren’t, to some extent, agents of our own thoughts and feelings.
And much of the time, our own agency largely remains unconscious. But think about feelings and their relationships with our interpretations and expectations. What if you didn’t expect yourself to constantly cater to a co-dependent partner? What if it isn’t your duty to resolve all of his problems? The internal pressure to become someone else’s savior matches with the external pressure to resolve another’s problems. Individuals who chronically complain pull for sympathy and aid, but there’s also a hard-wired part in many of us that pulls us in that same direction, the voice in our heads that tells us we’re bad friends or worse, bad people if we don’t.
A client of mine with the tendency to take on too much responsibility told me about how upset he gets with his friend when his friend exaggerates his own struggles. He told me that he just wants to yell at him to snap out of it. When I told him that his friend’s chronic complaining triggered a sense of guilt because he didn’t want to continue to problem solve for him, he couldn’t believe that, fundamentally, he was actually scared; his friend’s complaints posed a threat to his self-image. For if he refused to again jump in and save him (even from his own internal critic by validating his beliefs and choices), he had to, consequently, contend with his oversized conscience.
This was a profound revelation, as he realized that his anger precluded sympathy. He had continued to allow himself to carry someone else’s burden and, therefore, felt nothing more than contempt and resentment. I then asked: If you weren’t responsible for taking care of him, would you feel sorrow for him? The answer was a resounding “YES!” Here was this seemingly helpless individual who refused to take the risk of making his own decisions. My client acknowledged how challenging that must have been for an adult, replacing his anger with compassion.
When you’re a kid and convinced to feel responsible for your parents’, and even siblings’, well-being, you can grow up to believe that your duty is to lift others’ spirits, regardless of their actual needs. And, when you can’t, you’ll oftentimes (when you aren’t reprimanding yourself) conveniently blame the other for making you feel obligated to meet their needs. But, the truth is that you’re the ultimate guilt-tripper. Like a con-man who needs an already receptive audience, one that has already bought what he’s trying to sell, guilt-tripping only works well when the victim is already overly harsh on herself. My client believed that he possessed a fundamental badness that others could see. So, when he felt threatened, when that badness was apparently exposed, he simply fought it by deflecting blame – it wasn’t he who was making himself feel guilty, because, to him, his guilt stemmed from an external source. In his world, he’s either good, and always accommodating or bad, and selfish.
In dealing with a tendency to personalize, or take on too much responsibility for other people, it’s often helpful to explore the arguments for why you should, and those for why you shouldn’t, be responsible for someone else’s well-being, especially when little of what you do actually works. My client, after working for years to help his friend, finally realized that the help his friend wants (i.e. for someone else to fix his problems for him), my client can seldom provide. And if he can rarely provide it, or even want to, he, thus, isn’t required to try to do so. If anything, by maintaining their relationship as it was, my client wasn’t helping his friend at all. So, if he wanted to be of real service, to help his friend in the long-run, he had to learn to let go, at least some of the time.