On False Responsibility: What Are You Really Responsible For?

burden and false responsibility

There would have been days where you had many things to get done. But some issues could have lowered your mood and productivity for the day. Perhaps it may be a memory, a fight with a friend, a below-your-expectation test result, etc. Did the fact that you felt low make you angry with yourself for not being able to lift yourself up? You felt annoyed and agitated that you could not “get over it” or “move on” to finish your tasks quickly?

On other occasions, we may encounter issues with friends or challenging interactions with people. Many times, we worry about our response to not hurt the other person. Maybe this is a rejection that hurts you for you do not want to break their heart, or hiding a truth they need to know because you do not want to see them upset, or suppressing issues that you may have with them, or overburdening yourself to be there for them or prioritize them over your immediate responsibilities because you feel like you need to do that.

These are all times where we felt responsible for things that we were really not responsible for. This phenomena is called a sense of false responsibility.

person carrying large rock up stairs. False responsibility.

What is False Responsibility?

Simply put, false responsibilities are things that you have taken up a responsibility for when you shouldn’t, needn’t, and didn’t have to, at all. While your feelings, emotions, and thoughts may feel like those responsibilities are real, thinking differently and putting a lot of other things in context will reveal the contrary.

Where Can I Feel Falsely Responsible?

Anywhere. It is possible to feel a sense of false responsibility in any context. This can be in specific cases like replying to a friend’s message in a way that pleases just them or about your general academic/professional responsibilities.

False Responsibility in Emotions

Emotions are meant to be felt and observed for the most part. Think of them as items on a conveyer belt at an airport and yourself as a passenger. As the “baggage” (pun intended) revolves around the conveyer belt, your job is to observe it from a distance without rushing anything. There will be some luggage that you can take off, but others are dealt with in a different way. By forcing actions, the outcome may not be the best. Of course, there is a lot in this analogy that shouldn’t be taken literally, but just focus on the observation part.

There are many strategies that can be used to deal with feelings and emotions. The least helpful one for many is to try suppressing those emotions and forcing yourself to feel good. One of the reasons toxic positivity often thrives is because of a sense of false responsibility to immediately feel good. The table below offers possible rephrasing to tackle toxic positivity and the false responsibility of being positive or instantly coping with issues.

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False Responsibility in Relationships

In friendships and relationships, false responsibilities usually surface in the form of weak boundaries and other dysfunctionalities, some of whose examples were cited in the opening of this article.

Often, we may feel like going out of our way for someone or prioritize them over other objectively more important things. For example, if a friend needs help for an essay, but we have an exam the next day, we do not need to take up that responsibility. In fact, their output is not our responsibility even otherwise. Yet, it is nice to help and that is undisputed; I’m not a staunch supporter of the “hyper-independence/individuality” argument. However, the other person needs to understand your circumstances, too.

This connects to another aspect of false responsibilities in relationships. If they do not understand your circumstance and project being upset, it is once again not your responsibility to fix how they feel if you have already clarified why you cannot help them at that moment. Failure to understand this makes us more susceptible to being gaslit (questioning ourselves because of something someone said that may actually be untrue or unfair) and manipulated. Boundaries are essential!

There are also moments where we may want to raise an issue with a friend. But because we don’t want to hurt them, we take up a [false] responsibility to make them feel nice and therefore stay quiet. But suppressing can be harmful in the long run. It is also important to realize that there are other more healthy ways of looking at this. If you think they are a good friend, wouldn’t they appreciate openness and resolve the issue that comes up? Wouldn’t they be more understanding of having that conversation instead of you hiding it? There may be some (very few…) exceptions, but that’s a different story.

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Can You Identify What Causes False Responsibility Yet?

Before reading ahead, try reflecting on the previous sections and identify what aspects cause false responsibilities? If you can identify and understand why you feel that way, you’ll be better at dealing with false responsibilities in almost any field.

Some common underlying reasons are:

  • Lack of boundaries
  • Lack of self-prioritization
  • Being susceptible to manipulation
  • Having dysfunctional ideas of how some bonds should work
  • May be because of a failure to see things in the short or long term, whichever is appropriate for the situation.
  • May be because of constructed expectations and goals that aren’t necessarily important or healthy.

Do you see any of these creating some false responsibilities in professional spaces or at your school/university?

False Responsibility in Professional Spaces and Academics

Well that wasn’t a graded test and there was virtually nothing that could have forced you to answer that question instead of just reading ahead. If you thought it was, you created a false responsibility. Kidding; reflection is always a good practice.

Not having communicated or enforcing proper boundaries at work spaces can result in feeling pressured to say “yes” to things as a result of feeling falsely responsible for something. If you are off-work hours and someone asks for an online meeting without a really good reason, saying ‘no’ to them does not breach your work responsibilities. Your co-workers need to respect your boundaries. It’s a different story if you put yourself in tricky situations by not getting your parts done on time, but that’s not the point here.

At workplaces and at schools, we can often feel like we need to maintain an ‘impression’ or be an ‘ideal’ student/worker. Wanting to be ‘ideal’ leads us to think that we need to satisfy everyone through several means that often disregard our boundaries and create responsibilities that only do not exist in our roles but are also unhealthy. For example, going the extra mile to become a “teacher’s pet,” suppressing disagreements to maintain “peace” or seem “goody,” or feeling like if you were a good worker/student, you should be able to do anything and everything.

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How to Prevent Taking Up False Responsibilities?

The first step to tackling false responsibilities is to acknowledge that you take up false responsibilities. Spending time to reflect how this may be manifesting in different parts of your life will help.

Apart from the several reasons discussed earlier, false responsibilities may also be a result of traumatic experiences and projections from one’s past; if you’re someone who has been blamed a lot for many things, you would have been cautious about everything naturally because you expect those patterns to repeat in the future if you don’t change your actions. But it’s important to know that it’s not necessarily true. Having a history of manipulative friends, or workers that did not respect your boundaries does not define you or mean that you should put more effort into everything and put yourself last; not everyone you come across will be like that and drawing up boundaries will still help in the long run and will even play a role in shaping your social circle.

After identifying the areas you take up false responsibilities in and understanding why you do so, although it may be hard, it’s time to start setting up your boundaries and reaffirming new beliefs for yourself. It may even feel wrong or “mean” to do at times, but trust that it’s not, and with time you will love yourself more than ever for breaking out of the unhealthy habits of taking up false responsibilities.

Although, when it comes to matters like these, it can be hard to break out of the cycles especially when you are in the moment. Hence, it might also really help if you reach out to a family member, friend, or even professional help for an accountability partner or the same, and just to have someone who can help you interpret scenarios, give you a relatively objective review of the situation, and help you see what you may not be able to see just yet. Another helpful strategy might be to reverse the roles and ask yourself what would you expect a friend of yours to do if they were in your position.


Have you noticed any reasons or strategies that I haven’t covered? Feel free to share them in the comments I’m sure it’ll help all of us! 🙂

Featured Image Credits: Getty Images

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