OCD and Hyper-Responsibility

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Janet Singer's son Dan suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) so severe he could not even eat. What followed was a journey from seven therapists to ...Read More

One of the driving forces behind OCD is an inflated sense of responsibility, or hyper-responsibility. Those who suffer from hyper-responsibility believe they have more control over what happens in the world than they actually do.

When my son Dan’s OCD was severe, he dealt with hyper-responsibility in relation to other’s feelings. In his mind he was responsible for everyone else’s happiness, thereby neglecting his own. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I remember one of his elementary school teachers commenting, long before he was diagnosed with OCD, that Dan was very well-liked, but she worried about the cost to him. He was constantly being pulled in different directions by his peers, not wanting to upset or disappoint anyone, always wanting to please and accommodate everybody. Fast forward about ten years, and Dan’s OCD and sense of hyper-responsibility were so intense that he felt he had no choice but to isolate himself from his friends and peers. He was responsible for their well-being, and since something might go wrong or someone might get hurt under his “watch,” his solution was to avoid others.


On a broader scale, Dan gave an inordinate amount of his money to charity. Any appeal that came in the mail was answered with a check, and when I once commented that it was great to care about others but he should cut back on his donations to save for college, he became uncharacteristically agitated and insisted on continuing to donate. I now realize he felt responsible for saving the world, and if I forced him to refrain from what had become a compulsion, he would have experienced tormenting guilt.

These are just two of the countless ways hyper-responsibility can manifest itself; most OCD sufferers will have their own unique examples. But who and what we are responsible for is not always clear-cut, and this can make the issue of hyper-responsibility difficult to deal with. I recently came across the popular Serenity Prayer, and it struck me how these words sum up what those with OCD struggle with in regards to this issue.

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God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

While there is no doubt we can all benefit from accepting the things we cannot change, it is especially important for those with obsessive-compulsive disorder, as this acceptance is necessary for recovery. In Dan’s case, he needed to accept the fact that not only was he not responsible for the total well-being of others, this goal was out of his control.

To me, the next line, Courage to change the things I can, is so meaningful in regards to OCD. I know how difficult therapy was for my son, and I have connected with many other people who have talked about the immense challenges that come with treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder. I can honestly say that those with OCD who are fighting it head-on are some of the most courageous people out there. Because I do not have OCD myself, it is hard to comprehend the depth of suffering that comes with the disorder. But I know it is real. To engage full force in therapy, whether in regards to hyper-responsibility or any other aspect of the disorder, is nothing short of courageous.

And wisdom to know the difference. Ah, now this can be a tricky one, especially in regards to hyper-responsibility. There are those in our society who don’t feel any connection to others, and may not even take responsibility for themselves. Theirs is an “every man for himself” attitude. Many of those with OCD, as we know, are at the opposite end of the spectrum, feeling responsible for everyone and everything in the world. So how do we know where that “happy medium” lies? How can we care about others and be contributing members of society without feeling totally responsible for everyone? How do we find that wisdom to know the difference between what we can and cannot change?

This is not an easy question to answer. With OCD, the true meaning behind actions is not always easy to decipher. While most of us feel it is important to work toward a better world and make meaningful contributions to society, the impetus for our actions should not be tied up in obsessions and compulsions, or based on our fears and anxieties.

Therapy can help those with hyper-responsibility, and as Dan’s OCD improved, he did learn to accept the things he could not change. He came to realize he was not responsible for the happiness or safety of others; indeed, he could not control these things even if he wanted to. He could not keep his friends safe, and he could not prevent world hunger, animal cruelty, or the myriad of other wrongs he tried to right. Once he became more aware of what he couldn’t control, he was able to pay more attention to what he could control: himself.

Hyper-responsibility can be complicated, and even if we achieve that wisdom to know the difference, it won’t be the same for all of us. Maybe the best each one of us can do is to truly care for all aspects of ourselves, including fostering and nurturing our relationships with those around us. When we do this, perhaps serenity will follow.

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