It is true that being a responsible human being is not always a good thing!

When you are someone who is good at taking responsibility, you can enjoy the feeling of empowerment and great levels of control in your life. However, those who are proactive responsibility-takers can sometimes end up taking on too much – especially when the problems they take responsibility for are not their problems to begin with!

Often we feel motivated by solving problems and this feeling can become attractive – maybe even addictive. Yet taking on other people’s responsibilities is often more tiring than resolving our own. Why? Perhaps it is due to the frustration of seeing our efforts are not appreciated. Or it may be due to burning out by taking on too much. If other people’s responsibilities get in the way of feeling free to live your own life it gets tiring and exhausting. Worst still, you may end up feeling guilty about stepping back or insisting that someone take on their own responsibilities instead of allowing yourself to step in and help.

What can we do about it?

If you are someone who has taken on far too much responsibility then I’ve got tips for you that are going to help you break that cycle and to get your time, energy, freedom, space and everything back into balance. Ultimately it’s important to have the space to live your own life and work on your own goals. As the air stewards say, always put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. 

I was once told about a training exercise that exists for doctors, for general practitioner doctors. When someone goes to visit their doctor, they’re often offloaded regarding their health problem but can you imagine what it’s like to be a doctor? You have a very short window of time to hear about somebody’s problems and to advise them appropriately. If you were to take on responsibility for that person’s troubles or spend too much time problem-solving for them, you would be burned out very quickly. By the end of the week, you’d probably feel exhausted and perhaps even unwell yourself! Therefore, doctors have to be very clear about setting boundaries about what they take responsibility for and giving power back to the patient to take the right problem-solving steps for themselves.

In this training exercise for general practitioner doctors, they are taught the skill of redistributing responsibility that is given to them by their patients. The trainer role-plays a scenario with the attendees where half of the attendees play the role of a doctor and half of the attendees play the role of a patient. All of the patients have a basket of fruit and every time they share a problem or ailment with the doctor, they give the doctor a piece of fruit. The goal of the doctor in this role play is to make sure that they are not left with any pieces of fruit (or the entire basket!) by the time the patient has finished discussing their troubles and illnesses.  

The goal of the doctor was to make sure that the fruit got redistributed so that they weren’t left with any on their desk. When the patient said “I think I’ve got high blood pressure” and symbolised this by handing over a piece of fruit, the doctor offloaded that piece of fruit to the blood pressure monitor and/or wrote the patient a prescription for some blood pressure tablets – in which case the pharmacist would receive the fruit. When the patient said “I’ve also got a lump on my leg” and handed another piece of fruit to the doctor, the doctor sent a referral to the hospital for the analysis that they might need. So the hospital received the fruit. Each time the doctors were given a piece of fruit they redistributed that fruit elsewhere or handed it back to the patient in some way so that they weren’t left with it. Those pieces of fruit are a symbol of the responsibilities that other people hand over to you.

When someone gives you their ‘piece of fruit’ think of it as your job to make sure that that piece of fruit doesn’t get left with you. Send it elsewhere, either to someone else or back to the person that’s given it to you in the first place.

If you struggle with giving responsibility to others because you genuinely think that you’re doing them a favour and helping them out then consider the fact that realistically, you’re probably holding them back from learning to be an amazing problem-solver themselves. This can ease up that feeling of guilt that you might otherwise have. Even on occasions when people want you to be the one who’s taking responsibility, you are preventing them from learning and developing the skills that they would benefit from having. Sometimes you may feel as if you are being cruel when in the long run you are being kind. Stepping back in order to let other people step up is a great way for you to get your own responsibilities back in balance.


By Gemma bailey