I remember her so well, my maternal grandmother: eyes searching our faces, her hands brushing each other as if smoothing a silken cloth into bare threads. She was always worried about something. Was the ice water cold enough? Was the bath water warm enough? Did we get enough tomatoes for our pimento cheese sandwiches?
My mother echoed the same pattern, adding into it an expression of self-blame. Somehow when things went wrong, especially with her children, the fault lay squarely on her shoulders like the harness of an ox. Somehow she could never get free of it.
I write of an archetype, not confined to gender. Many men feel this sense of over-responsibility as well, whether it is to their children or to their corporation. I am searching to articulate an energy embedded in the dark side of the Feminine. Believing that you are responsible for the happiness of others is a distortion of Eros, the principle of love, which, in its pure state (and when is human love ever in a pure state?) it is free of these leaden convictions that erode the self.
At its heart the culprit seems to be what modern psychologists call “Enmeshment”, the melding together of two or more people in a family or a close relationship where it is difficult to tell where the identity of one person ends, and the other begins. This happens in marriages, lover to lover, parent to child, child to parent. Unraveling the coils of enmeshment is slow, often painful work, complicated by the fact that it almost always comes alongside real feeling, secure attachment, and the fact that people simply enjoy each others’ company.
Another complication is the fact that the mistakes of a parent, their reactions, decisions, and behaviors do have a profound impact on the psyche of the child. I was deeply impacted by the anxiety and over-responsibility of my mother and grandmother. When I had my own children, I wasn’t even aware of how deeply I held the conviction that it is my job to create a secure and happy life for them, indefinitely. I have come to realize that I am in the grips of this over-responsibility complex, handed down, generation to generation. It goes further back that that. Greek myths are replete with the dramatic over-reaction of mothers when something goes wrong with their kids. To the extent that women have been oppressed –and still are, especially in some parts of the world –a core aspect of this oppression is this belief that females (or the feminine principle in a male) are responsible for the health, nurturance and happiness of the family, and, by implication, of society as a whole.
Like feminists before me, and so many women today, I want to be free of this. I am weary of carrying a stone in my heart that turns to the branding iron of self hatred when something goes wrong. It is not rational. Often the choices of adult family members is far removed from my influence or even my values. Yet, when there is suffering in others, I cannot abide it. I have made a profession of helping people take responsibility for their emotions, actions, and inner life. Yet, I believe in large part because my over-responsibility conviction runs so deep, I exempt myself from this aspect of wholeness which I nourish in others.
A paradox, you say? Indeed.
So, how are we to free ourselves from this menace? If I were a person coming to my office, what would I tell him/her?
Awareness. Begin there. See this over-responsibility complex for what it is. Imagine the face of the grandmother and mother who inspired such a torture. Did they deserve it? Didn’t you grow terribly weary of watching them writhe and beat themselves up? Aren’t you sick of it in yourself?
Can you pronounce yourself “Guilty” for choices you made years ago, when you were young, unaware, reactive, unenlightened? Do you judge others that way?
Can you see the grandiosity in this? Believing you have so much power over others, even your children? Especially your adult children.
If you embrace humility, and a grounded perspective on your whole, flawed humanity, it suddenly seems ludicrous to believe that a choice you made years ago, or yesterday, has that much influence on anybody, Even those close to you, or those who admire you.
What about respect for yourself. In most cases, you did the best you could. It is delusion to think you could have done more. Why is it so hard for so many of us to like ourselves, much less love ourselves? Yet that is what is required for psychological wholeness, health, and freedom from the over-responsibility curse, and her cousins worry, guilt, anxiety, and depression.
I tell my people self love requires a three-pronged approach: love your qualities, what shows in the world and in your relationship with others; love your essence, the very core of the goodness-seeker within; receive love from the divine within you, making a place in your busy life to listen, reflect on, and remember the sacred.
The first one is at least somewhat empirically verifiable. The second, sensing your personal essence, is more subtle, a movement beyond ego to record and remember, and value your character. What are the values you hold, the principles you believe in? What do you respect, in yourself and others? It is no small thing to bear an allegiance to the good, the true, and the beautiful.
And the sacred? It comes in so many forms. Speaking of grandmothers, I recently heard a story of a woman in her 90’s who spends most of her time either singing or praying. One of her children witnessed her saying the Lord’s prayer, then, when she came to the word “heaven”, she burst out in song, “Heaven, I’m in Heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak!” – When she finished a stirring rendition of Cole Porter’s “Cheek to Cheek”, she returned to the Lord’s prayer, right where she left off.
She found beauty, joy, and a sense of “Heaven” in both.
Awareness. Humility. Learning to love yourself, for what you do, who you are, and for your relationship to Universal Love.
This is the approach I would lay out for a person coming to my office to heal themselves from the curse of over-responsibility. Can I apply this prescription to myself? Time to embrace my own humility and embrace the confidence that I can do this, not just for others, but for myself.