How to Stop Taking Responsibility for Others' Happiness
Taking responsibility for others’ happiness is a big cause of anxiety (Anxiety Causes: What Causes Anxiety?). People who are highly sensitive, caring individuals naturally want the people in their lives to be happy, to experience wellbeing. Caring for others is a character strength. However, it can easily morph into something unhealthy, where rather than wanting to contribute to others’ happiness and wellbeing, we find ourselves being people-pleasers in order to make them happy. Feeling as though we have sole responsibility for others’ happiness causes anxiety.
How Taking Responsibility for Others' Happiness Causes Anxiety
It often begins innocently enough: for myriad reasons, we care, and we want others to be happy. This responsibility for others’ happiness ultimately causes anxiety.
- We believe the responsibility for others’ happiness rests on our shoulders.
- We do everything we can think of to make sure others are happy.
- Others aren’t always happy because that’s just the way life is.
- We feel a sense of guilt when others aren’t fully happy as if we have failed them.
- We feel anxious because we’ve failed.
- We almost feel a sense of perfectionism about this, that others must not only be happy but be perfectly happy because we did our happiness job perfectly. This impossible standard increases our anxiety.
- Often, we believe that if we cater to what everyone wants, they’ll be happy and we can avoid unpleasant conflict. Conflict increases anxiety, but ironically, trying hard to please others in order to avoid conflict actually causes greater anxiety.
- We worry about others, and we blame ourselves for their unhappiness. We come to fear the imagined consequences of this, and we increase our fear and worry with an endless stream of “what-ifs.” This causes more anxiety.
And so the cycle goes. Feeling solely responsible for the happiness of others, no matter how well-intended, causes anxiety.
Stopping the Anxiety-Causing Feeling of Responsibility for Others' Happiness
Feeling responsible for others’ happiness is a complex relationship of interrelated thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an approach that focuses on our thoughts and actions, is effective in reducing the anxiety caused by responsibility for others’ happiness.
- Start tuning into your actions. Notice when you are catering to the needs of others. (A clue that you’re doing this is neglecting your own needs and desires.) At first, all you have to do is notice and increase your awareness.
- Pay attention to what you’re thinking. A great time to do this is when you’re feeling anxious and worried about someone’s mental state. Again, just notice thoughts to become more attuned to them.
- Challenge your thoughts. Once you’ve noticed your anxious thoughts, question them. Are they realistic? Are your worries completely justified?
- Replace your thoughts with more realistic ones that help you internalize the fact that you can’t be fully responsible for someone else’s happiness and that worrying won’t change this.
- Use your newly forming beliefs to shift your actions away from people-pleasing and more toward people-supporting (and you are a “people” to support, too).
Taking responsibility for others’ happiness causes anxiety. Shifting your thoughts and actions reduces anxiety. Give it a try. You just might eliminate this cause of anxiety and create inner peace.
NCC, T. (2016, May 5). How to Stop Taking Responsibility for Others' Happiness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, July 20 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2016/05/big-cause-of-anxiety-responsibility-for-others-happiness
Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
You are not alone in this! It is such a common pattern of thinking, feeling, and doing, and you're right - it causes problems. (I've done this, too.) Group therapy is great for this. You're ahead of the game, too, in wanting to learn strategies on your own at the same time. As common as this is, there isn't a lot of literature dedicated specifically to this topic. There should be. There is a book that is broader than this specific topic but has wisdom that applies to taking responsibility for others' happiness. It's Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears by Pema Chodron. I find her work in general very helpful for living peacefully with yourself. Your local library might have this book, as she's so well-known. It's always nice to be able to look at a book and start to read it before buying it just in case it isn't for you. :) Stick with your process. You've got great insight and motivation -- two of the most important ingredients for making positive changes. Another ingredient is patience, because the process takes time!
It absolutely is possible to break this cycle later in life. We have a lifetime of habits built in, but that's all they are -- habits. Habits do involve thoughts and feelings (very much so), but they also are strongly behavior-oriented. It can sometimes be easier to start with behaviors/actions. Making small changes, step by step, fuels confidence in ourselves, which in turn begins to affect our emotions and thoughts. You could try small experiments. Use a little bit of his empty shelf space for a few of your things, finish the show you're watching when he comes in the room, etc. And you don't have to try a bunch of stuff at once if it makes you uncomfortable! Pick one thing to start with and build from there. Maybe you'll find that you enjoy being in this relationship when you can be true to yourself, or maybe you'll discover that you want to live on your own again. Don't even think about either outcome. Live each day, and each day do something little for yourself.
No, you are not misunderstanding this! It seems like it is your husband who misunderstands. Not taking responsibility for someone's happiness is much different that not caring about others' feelings, thoughts, etc. With the first one, you have empathy and are kind to those in your life, but you know that you can't make them happy at their core. Each person is responsible for his/her inner contentment and happiness. But being uncaring is being selfish. When someone is selfish, they care about themselves and don't have regard for others (this borders on narcissism, but narcissism involves other traits as well). When you don't let yourself become anxious and stressed trying to make sure that everyone is happy but are still kind, you are caring about yourself and about others. Behavior like your husband's involves caring about himself but not others. So basically, you do understand and are right on. :)
Please don't give up! It can be very difficult when you're going through what you are going through. These two resources might help. One is an article on how to find mental health help, and the other is a list of hotline numbers. https://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/mental-illness-overview/how-to-find-mental-health-services-in-your-area/ and https://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/resources/mental-health-hotline-numbers-and-referral-resources/.
You sound like a very caring person. Your family members are lucky to have you. Don't forget to care about yourself. You don't have to people-please and experience anxiety in order to care about your family. Be as kind to yourself as you are to others!