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Adding to Our Stress: The Responsibility Trap

Over the years I have talked with a large number of people who feel extremely responsible for everyone and everything in their lives. They falsely believe that it is their responsibility to make their own lives and the lives of their families run smoothly and happily. God has called us to love and care for one another. He has not called us to fix everyone’s problems and be responsible for how their lives turn out.

Women in particular can easily confuse their God-given inclination for care, nurture, and concern with their responsibility. They are not the same. Part of the problem for women who are mothers is inherent in the job of motherhood. When children are very young, moms are responsible for their children. They are responsible to keep them clean and fed, safe from running into the street, and to take them to a doctor when they get sick. Moms of young children are responsible for helping their children make good friends and wise choices. Understandably, mothers easily get used to having to control things because their children are totally dependent on them when they are young. As children get older and need to learn to make more of their own decisions, mothers find it challenging to back away from those inherent responsibilities.

What Are We Responsible For?

The principle is simple: The person who has control is the person who is responsible. The more we have control of things, the more responsible we are for the outcome. Thus, when a person feels responsible for something, it is because they have an underlying belief that they have control of how things should turn out. Even when they do not have control, if they think they do, they will feel responsible for the outcome.

Because many people believe they have control over things they really don’t have control over, they feel responsible for more things than they should. This is what creates the unnecessary stress and pressure that causes us to feel overwhelmed. For example, as a counselor, if I wrongly think I have control over my clients, I will soon come to the wrong conclusion that something they did wrong was my fault. Likewise, if parents confuse control with influence, and believe they have control over how their children turn out, they will feel responsible for the choices their children make, and feel unnecessary pressure to make sure they do the right thing. Such incorrect thinking is very common, and produces “false guilt.” Since we are not in control of the universe, it would be unfair for God to hold us responsible for it. Our job is to love others. It is not our job to be responsible for the decisions and actions of others.

A Compulsion to Fix Things

As sad as it is, many people would rather run themselves ragged trying to control things than to trust God. Controlling other people and trying to fix their problems gives us a feeling of power that feeds our thirst for self-fulfillment and self-protection. In our twisted sinful thinking, it’s both fulfilling and comforting to continue to try to control and fix things, rather than trust God with our emotional needs and pain. As a result, I talk with many people who are worn out by what I call a “compulsion to fix things.”

People who are controlling “fixers” struggle greatly with the idea of living in a world where things are not just as they would want. The thought of anything in their world being “not right” is unacceptable. If a friend has a problem, a child is bored or unhappy, a spouse is not living the way he should, they think they have to fix it. Rather than trusting God with the pain of living in a world that is broken, their need for things to be a certain way forces them to become controlling. They become compulsive “fixers”. Being able to fix things makes him feel powerful which makes him feel better about himself, and safe because he has eliminated a source of pain.

Ironically, we believe that going on a campaign to fix the world will get rid of our stress, but we actually increase it. The more we try to control things, the more emotional, physical and spiritual stress we create. We become more a part of the problem than the solution. When someone comes into my office overwhelmed with frustration and stress, control is usually adding to the problem.

Several months ago, I received a call from an old client. She said she needed to see me right away. She wasn’t sleeping and was feeling uptight, stressed out and anxious over her husband’s job situation. When we talked in the office, Beverly explained that her husband had been laid off from his job the month before and had been going through the process of finding a new one. She said to me, “My husband and I are spending hours every day looking for places to apply. I need to help my husband find a job! It’s exhausting me.”

As we talked, it became clear that Beverly was unknowingly adding to the stress of job hunting. Rather than focusing on the process and trusting God for the outcome, she was trying to control the outcome. She wasn’t just helping her husband look for a job. She believed it was up to her to help him find a job. She felt responsible.

Her added stress was coming from assuming responsibly for something she did not have control over: making sure that her husband found a job. Instead of focusing on an outcome she did not have control over, I encouraged her to focus on the process. She did have control over that. She could not make sure things turned out a certain way, but she could focus on simply assisting her husband as best she could in the process of job hunting. She could be helpful and encouraging. She could pray. She could make suggestions and run needed errands for him.

What seemed like a very subtle change in her thinking and in her goal made a tremendous difference for Beverly. As she left my office, she was visibly relaxed and relieved. She seemed rather excited about trusting God with this burden and no longer having to be responsible for the outcome of her husband’s job search.

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