Hyper-Responsibility & OCD: What Does It All Mean?
You see a nail on the floor, so you pick it up before someone accidentally steps on it. You pick it up not just for yourself, but also for anyone else who could step on it. You feel like it is your responsibility to look out for everyone – to ensure that everyone is safe. If someone was injured because of that nail, the guilt would eat you alive because you left it there.
This is called hyper-responsibility and it is common in people with OCD.
Because you were the first person to see the nail – protecting others has become YOUR responsibility. So, if you don’t pick up the nail and someone steps on it – it is YOUR fault. YOU saw the danger and did nothing.
You truly believe that if you do not act immediately, you will be blamed when someone gets hurt. What if the nail becomes so deeply lodged in the person’s foot that he or she needs surgery to remove it? Or, what if the person doesn’t feel the nail in his or her foot, causing an infection and leading to gangrene?
Those scenarios most likely will not happen, however, the mere thought of it terrifies you, triggering extreme anxiety. You quickly pick up the nail and place it on the kitchen counter.
Of course, the world will not shatter if you don’t pick up the nail, because most likely if you don’t pick it up the next person will. But, in the mind of someone with OCD, a tragedy will occur if you don’t do something (like pick up the nail).
OCD-based hyper-responsibility involves feeling responsible for others all of the time. It is an involuntary urge to avoid disasters – all day long. This urge consumes your mind every minute of every day.
OCD fears permeate your mind until you remove the stimulus (the nail). To you, the danger feels real, even if it’s not entirely realistic or plausible. You become obsessed with the fear then the anxiety rushes in and the only way to calm your nerves is to engage in compulsions (ritualistic behaviors).
Although hyper-responsibility is more prevalent in people with OCD, we all experience forms of it from time-to-time. For instance, most of us would pick up a nail, if we saw it to prevent injuries. This is instinctual. Most people would also feel some degree of guilt and shame if they did not do something to prevent someone from getting hurt. But, this is especially true if you struggle with OCD.
People with OCD perform ritualistic behaviors to try to ease their stress and anxiety and avoid feeling guilty for their feelings. Unfortunately, this reprieve only lasts a short time. Once, these individuals are exposed to one of their OCD triggers, the cycle of obsessions and compulsions repeat. And, yes, the feeling of hyper-responsibility can return with a vengeance.
The fear of danger, harm, or death infiltrates your mind (obsessions), so you spend most of your day extinguishing “small fires” (averting disasters). It’s time-consuming and exhausting, yet, you feel it is YOUR responsibility alone to prevent these tragedies. Taking responsibility for yourself and others becomes the sole focus of your life. It is an insistent urge to protect everyone from devastation, however, what actually happens is you end up devastating your own life.
Is it possible to end this never-ending hyper-responsibility cycle? Yes.
You can stop feeling like you’re responsible for the world, but it will not be simple or easy. It involves confronting your fears and guilt and fighting your urge to “fix” the person or situation. Understand that this urge to “fix” every possible problem is a compulsion. So, if you can change the way you perceive (see) a situation, the urge to perform actions to “remedy” the ills of the world will lessen and hopefully, go away altogether. But, it will take work and help from a qualified mental health specialist (i.e. counselor, therapist, or psychologist).
Imagine what you can do once the obsessions and compulsions are gone. You’ll have more time to engage in the things that actually bring you joy. You’ll also have the ability to really help others by volunteering at domestic violence, animal, or homelessness shelter, helping a friend work through personal, social, or work issues, spending time with the elderly, donating your time to a charity, etc. There is so much good you can do once you get your OCD under control.
You can’t make the world a better place until you realize that you are not solely responsible for everyone’s safety and happiness.
Check out our video on hyper-responsibility!
What Exactly is Hyper-Responsibility?
Note: To fully understand “hyper-responsibility, you must first understand the definition of “responsive” and “hyper-responsive.”
Merriam Webster Dictionary defines responsive and hyper-responsive as:
- Responsive: To give a response: To constitute a response: To answer. To quickly respond or to react appropriately or sympathetically: To be sensitive towards the matter at hand.
- Hyper-Responsive: To have an abnormal degree of responsiveness to a physical or emotional stimulus.
So, ultimately, hyper-responsibility involves feeling overwhelmingly responsible for someone else’s thoughts, beliefs, actions, safety, and happiness. Hyper-responsibility feels like it is your responsibility to solve all the ills of the world, and if something happens on your watch, it is your fault, even if you played no role in it. Hyper-responsibility is often termed a “savior complex” because of the need or urge to “save” others from impending danger.
What is the Relationship Between OCD and Hyper-Responsibility?
Doubt and fear are the main hallmarks of OCD. But, this isn’t your normal everyday fear and doubt – when you have OCD, it’s more intense and persistent. For people with OCD, hyper-responsibly involves incapacitating and paralyzing fear and doubt. And, the only way to stop these intrusive thoughts (obsessions) is to “remedy” or “fix” the situation (compulsions). It is an urge to solve any problem that crosses your mind – or path. It’s assuming responsibility for others – on steroids.
It feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, because you’ve become a real-life superhero – preventing disasters and saving lives. This hyper-responsibility impacts every area of your life, because when a problem pops up, you feel the need to resolve it. If you don’t act or you try and fail, guilt and shame sit in – even if it was an impossible feat. Should you feel guilty and ashamed? No, but that doesn’t stop you from feeling that way.
Hyper-responsibility threatens to take over your entire life, controlling your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Understand that people with OCD are fearful and doubtful of almost everything. The reason why they are so fearful and doubtful is still largely unknown. One thing is for sure is that OCD can cause you to doubt others are safe.
Although it is common for people with OCD to obsess over the fear that something bad is going to happen, this fear is often focused on the safety of others – not necessarily themselves. Many with OCD neglect their own health, safety, and happiness, focusing on what is happening with other people. This is a prime example of hyper-responsibility.
It’s not just that people with OCD-based hyper-responsibility feel the need to assume responsibility for others, the problem is that when it occurs, it’s extreme. These individuals don’t just feel partially responsible, they feel entirely and solely responsible for others. They also believe that they are capable of doing much more than they actually are.
For example, if a non-OCD person accidentally bumped another car while backing out of a parking space at the mall, he or she would jump out of the car, examine the damage, and apologize to the other driver (assuming the person was around). Anxiety may initially set-in; however, once it is deemed that no damage occurred, this person relaxes.
This person would then get back in his or her car and go about his or her day. End of story. However, if a person with OCD-based hyper-responsibility would react quite differently. This person would immediately assume he or she caused extensive damage to the other person’s car – damage that required a tow truck. If the owner of the other car was not present, this person would frantically scour the mall looking for him or her.
Although neither car suffered damage, the person with OCD would become “fixated” on the idea that he or she totaled the other person’s car, even though it was just a slight bump and no damage. A person with OCD would also offer to pay for any work missed because of the incident. To relieve his or her guilt and shame, the person with OCD would also offer to pay any damage.
This person would assume that the other driver would have to miss work and, as a result, not be able to pay his or her bills. He or she would also ask the other driver for a contact number, so he or she could check up on him or her daily.
This person would obsess over the incident for weeks, only relieved after the other driver allowed him or her to pay for everything. Calling to check on the other driver and paying for the day he or she missed at work, along with any car damages would relieve the person with OCD because he or she “fixed” the problem.
Hyper-responsibility can also cause some people to shun or avoid their friends and loved ones out of fear of hurting them. These individuals tend to self-isolate as a way to protect the people they love and the world around them from any pain they could cause them.
Others donate exorbitant amounts of money to charities or acquaintances as a way of “fixing” individual and world problems. Donating all of one’s funds can lead to financial ruin. But hyper-responsible people have a hard time just donating half or a part of their money to charities.
These individuals go beyond what is needed or required, even if it prevents them from being able to pay their bills. Why? Because they feel responsible for what happens in the world. These individuals feel it is their duty to solve problems. However, many aren’t quite sure why they feel this way, which makes treating this aspect of OCD challenging.
Manifestations of OCD
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can manifest in a variety of ways, such as lying and being too honest. Hyper-responsible individuals tend to either lie to protect others or tell the truth because they fear if they lie “bad things” will happen. People with OCD tend to become “fixated” or “obsessed” with this fear or danger and harm, which causes them to engage in ritualistic behaviors (like fixing the problem) to combat the intrusive thoughts. As a result, these individuals remain conflicted on what they should do.
Listed below are the two main manifestations of hyper-responsibility:
Lying is a manifestation of OCD, primarily because people with this condition typically try to “hide” their obsessions and compulsions from others. For example, people with hyper-responsibility may lie about how they are truly feeling, so not to worry their supervisor and/or co-workers. As a result, they may come into work ill and possibly with a communicable disease. Why do they do that? Well, because they are afraid that their supervisor will write them up or fire them if they take a “sick day.”
These individuals aren’t so much worried about themselves – they are more worried about how their partners will react to a loss of income. If they get fired, their partners may have to get second jobs to cover the loss. This may, in turn, cause their partners to become overwhelmed and depressed. It could also lead to health problems like headaches and high blood pressure.
As a result, they could face foreclosure on their home – all because the person with OCD stayed home sick. Is this unrealistic? Absolutely! There are protections against being fired for being sick; however, to the person with OCD, it is a plausible and terrifying possibility.
So, what does this person do? Lie when his or her boss and/or co-workers ask, “Are you feeling okay? Because you don’t look so well.” This person would tell a very concerned supervisor and co-workers that he or she feels fine, when that’s a lie. The truth is most people with OCD are too ashamed to share their concerns with others, especially doctors.
The following questions would probably consume their minds if they even thought about telling others about their condition:
1. What would people think about me if they knew how utterly afraid I am all the time that something is going to happen to me, others, or the world around me?
2. How would they treat me?
3. Would they still talk to me or want to be around me?
4. Would they consider me a doomsayer?
Thus, ultimately, OCD sufferers tend to become “fibbers.” Maybe, the stigma associated with mental illness prompts them to lie or perhaps, it’s simply a part of the condition. The truth is the cause most likely varies from person-to-person. Regardless, the outcome is always the same – the person with OCD will usually do whether they can to hide their symptoms and cover their tracks. Thus, OCD can turn these individuals into some of the sneakiest and most deceptive people on the planet.
Honesty is another manifestation of hyper-responsibility. OCD sufferers may struggle with being too honest. These individuals are afraid that if they lie, then something bad will happen to someone else because of their deception. They also tend to review their words and actions throughout the day to make sure they haven’t inadvertently lied about something. This review process takes up all of their energy and time.
If these individuals feel like they accidentally said or did something to someone else, they’ll obsess over it until they can “right the situation” by telling the truth and/or apologizing for their actions (compulsions). People, who have an “honesty complex” believe that it is their responsibility to protect their friends, loved ones, and the world around them – by always telling the truth.
These individuals also tend to feel strongly about their morals and values, so they try not to deviate from them, regardless of the situation. For example, a non-OCD individual may pick up some change that someone dropped on the ground and put in his or her pocket.
However, a person with hyper-responsibility may refuse to pick up the change because they view it as being “dishonest” and if he or she pockets the change, he or she will fret that the person, who dropped it, may be unable to pay their bills or purchase something from the grocery store. In this person’s mind, the right thing to do is to either leave the change there or try to find its owner.
This belief system occurs even if there is no way to find the person who dropped the change. If by chance, this person pockets the change, he or she would obsess over it until the charge could be returned or donated to a worthy cause (compulsion).
Thus, the main goal of this hyper-responsibility is to always be honest and do the right thing, because that is the only way to keep people safe. Ironically, telling the truth is extremely important for most OCD sufferers, except when it comes to being honest about their condition.
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Real-Life Experiences of Hyper-Responsibility in OCD
Listed below are real-life experiences of hyper-responsibility in OCD.
Note: All names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.
For all intents and purposes, Michael was a good child – always truthful and direct. He was good about doing the right thing and being honest. He rarely lied to his parents, friends, or authority figures. He did this because he knew that if he lied, it would eat him up inside. Therefore, he was known as the go-to person for the truth.
Then, OCD entered the picture. And, everything changed.
During adolescence, Michael began lying – a lot. So, much so that his parents, teachers, friends, siblings, and anyone else in Michael’s life started to characterize him as a “liar.”
For example, in his senior year of high school, Michael started being late for school each morning. By now, he had his own car and could drive himself. Yet, he was continuously late. His parents left for work each morning while he was still asleep, so they relied on him to get to school on time.
When teachers alerted Michael’s parents of his chronic tardiness, he lied and told him he was late due to traffic every morning. The real reason Michael was late was because of OCD. He was terrified that if he left the house without re-checking the house 10 times, something “bad” would happen.
More specifically, he was afraid that if he didn’t check the stove and lock the door 10 times, the family dog, Rufus, would burn up in a house fire or robbers would ransack his home. The only thing that provided him with relief was checking and rechecking the house. Unfortunately, doing so made him late for school, so he lied to cover up his obsession and compulsion.
But, even after he was diagnosed with OCD, he still lied about what he was feeling and experiencing, especially to his doctor. When his doctor asked him how he was feeling, he always said, “Fine.” That was a lie.
Truthfully, he was a wreck. He didn’t understand what was happening to him but was too afraid, to tell the truth, because of how people would see him and his condition. So, he continued to lie. He lied about his feelings, if he took his medications, and even about his thoughts and actions. He lied to everyone. He was just too embarrassed to share his true thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with loved ones, friends, and most importantly, his doctor. So, he pretended that it wasn’t happening.
The lies continued into adulthood. Because he was always late, it impacted his self-esteem and self-confidence, romantic relationships, friendships, work performance, etc. They simply couldn’t rely on Michael to be on time or tell the truth. Michael was a liar. What they didn’t know, however, was that Michael was secretly struggling with OCD and didn’t feel like he could tell the truth. If was honest about his condition, he believed that would cause people to shun him. However, in actuality, his secrecy was already causing people to shun him. OCD was ruining his life.
Michael also believed he was responsible for other people’s happiness, which was another reason why he kept his condition a secret. He was afraid that if other people knew they would feel responsible for him and he didn’t want that. He didn’t want them to be sad because of “his problem,” so he lied because he felt he had to protect his loved ones from the truth. He didn’t want to upset or disappoint anyone and was desperate to accommodate everyone. He also didn’t want anyone to be hurt under his watch, so he lied – pretended – and hid things from others.
On the flipside, Michael also had an innate desire to “fix” everything wrong in the world, so he began to donate large sums of money to multiple charities. Because he was donating most of his income to non-profit organizations he was unable to pay his bills. He didn’t realize how much his “kind gestures towards others” was hurting himself. He wanted to save the world – do the right thing.
Ironically, the urge to be honest and do the right thing didn’t apply to his own condition. He wanted to save others, not necessarily himself. When he didn’t donate, he became obsessed with it. He felt guilty and considered himself a “bad person.” These intrusive thoughts continued until he did the honorable thing and donated. It didn’t matter that it was at the expense of his own happiness. It brought him relief and ultimately, that was all that mattered to him.
It was hard for Michael to accept the fact that he was not solely responsible for everyone else’s happiness, security, and well-being. Some things were simply out of his control. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helped Michael address his hyper-responsibility. But, it took time, commitment, effort, and acceptance, before he learned how to effectively manage his obsessions and compulsions.
Michael eventually realized he was not solely responsible for the safety and happiness of others and that there were some things he couldn’t control, even if he wanted to. He couldn’t protect his place of employment, loved ones, or friends from “bad things” all of the time. It was impossible and it was causing him to be anxious and stressed. Therapy taught him that all he could do was focus on himself – his life, his situations, his feelings, his thoughts, and his behavior. He was taught to focus on the things he could change instead of fretting on the things he couldn’t.
Jane, 30, is a “stickler” for following the rules in her personal life and at work. She is a department manager, who is responsible for 100s of employees. She doesn’t “bend the rules” because she doesn’t think it’s the right thing to do. Most of the employees do not like her because she’s a micro-manager, who goes strictly by the book. She doesn’t accept excuses and tends to discipline the workers if they fall out of line. She also nit-picks minor mistakes.
Jane never misses an opportunity to point out errors or infractions to the rules. The thing is, she can’t help herself. She has OCD. More specifically, she has hyper-responsibility, where she feels the need to be honest and right – no matter what. She goes over every single detail of her words and actions to ensure she has given her employees the right instructions and that they are performing their jobs as required.
She is deathly afraid that one of her workers will mess-up because of her. For example, Jane has a dilemma. She has to decide if she is going to let an employee off to visit a relative in another state. She frets over whether or not to allow it because she hasn’t been doing that for other employees. This particular employee wants to see his aunt, who is in the hospital, but the rules say this is the busy period. Technically, Jane should deny it.
But, what if his aunt dies and he doesn’t get to see her because she refused to let him off. Or, on the flip side, what if she gives him the time off and they get swamped with work? She worries about what she should do all day. It’s a serious dilemma for Jane, so she refers the matter to her superior for guidance. She’s afraid of making the wrong decision.
She decides the right thing to do is to treat all of the employees the same, so she declines the request. Her actions (compulsions) provided her with some much-needed relief. But, this relief only lasts until another “moral dilemma” arises in her personal life or at work. Then, the cycle repeats.
The truth is there is a significant “disconnect” between reality and what people with hyper responsibility can actually do. In their minds, they are responsible for the world around them, but in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. These individuals tend to be dishonest when it comes to their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors for fear that it will change how others see and interact with them.
Conversely, many of these same individuals feel a profound duty to do the right thing at all times. They pride themselves on being honest to a fault and typically do not believe in “bending rules” for any reason. So, on one end it’s okay to lie if it’s about their condition, but not okay to lie if it affects others and the world around them. These individuals are walking contradictions, courtesy of OCD. They don’t want to think, feel, or behave this way, but they can’t help it.
But, ultimately, people with OCD want what everyone wants – to feel safe and happy, but their minds tell them the only way to attain this is by ensuring everyone else is okay. It’s a big responsibility, but one that people with OCD, feel they must undertake to feel better.
The struggle is real and OCD can ruin lives, so it is important to seek help if you think you are experiencing hyper-responsibility. You don’t have to allow OCD to wreck your life. Don’t allow OCD to win the battle – you are stronger and more resilient than that. Psychotherapy (CBT, ERP, or ACT) can help you regain control of your life.
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