I’ve struggled with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive tendencies for as long as I can remember. However, it was only when I started going to therapy and examining the root of my mental compulsions that I realized a lot of the behaviors stemmed from copious amounts of self-blame and feeling responsible for things out of my control. A new study published in the International Journal of Cognitive Therapyvalidates my experience and that of many others, finding a correlation between strong feelings of responsibility and the likelihood of developing obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Researchers sent out an online questionnaire to university students in the U.S. to understand their attitudes about personal responsibility and how much they thought about it, in addition to assessing their behavior patterns. The survey results showed people who had what researchers called “inflated responsibility” had an increased likeliness of exhibiting behaviors resembling OCD or GAD.
Inflated responsibility, according to the researchers, involves a sense of personal blame for negative outcomes, feeling responsible for preventing or avoiding danger or harm, and the embedded responsibility to continue thinking about a problem. All three behaviors, but particularly personal blame for negative outcomes and the responsibility to overthink a problem, were strongly linked to being susceptible to developing OCD and GAD.
These findings don’t signify that if you typically feel inflated responsibility in areas of your life that you will unequivocally develop clinical OCD or GAD. But anxiety and obsessive behaviors can feel all-consuming, regardless of diagnosis.
Why feeling inflated responsibility can be unhealthy.
The problem with feeling responsible for everything all the time is that healthy boundaries are often absent. According to positive psychology coach Diane Dreher, Ph.D., being compulsively responsible puts our nervous systems on red alert and causes chronic stress because the body and brain are in perpetual fight-or-flight mode. “Our hearts beat faster, muscles tense, and immune systems shut down to deal with a perceived threat,” Dreher writes on Psychology Today. “But the threat is only too much to do in too little time: a work deadline, complaining colleague, intrusive relative, an endless list of errands, and our own compulsive push to do ‘one more thing’ before leaving work.”
And this chronic stress doesn’t only predispose someone to OCD and GAD: “Chronic stress can undermine our health, leading to hypertension, inflammatory disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, cognitive disorders, and other serious illnesses,” Dreher explains.
How to stop being so hard on yourself.
Fortunately there are ways to work on not housing so much self-blame and not feeling responsible for everything. For me, it started with working on being more accepting toward myself and getting curious about the root of my compulsive acts. Aisling Peartree, an educator and song-healing guide, finds solace in a technique called the imaginal exposure story, “in which you write a brief, concise story of your worst fear being true,” she tells mbg. “Along with reading your story, you refrain from engaging in your compulsion. You expose yourself to your trigger and then prevent the response. It is meant to be uncomfortable, painful even.”
Getting curious by intimately sitting with your anxieties and compulsions isn’t meant to be easy. But if you’re willing to do the work, you might realize that you never were responsible for everything—and perhaps it will be the prelude to developing more self-acceptance.
Vedic meditation teacher James Brown recommends meditation as another way to sit with your anxieties and develop more self-acceptance: “We live in our heads and not in the world, and this is why we suffer. So how can we choose differently? First by getting out of our heads, i.e., by knowing ourselves as something other than our thoughts and feelings,” he writes at mbg. “One of the great gifts of meditation is that it allows us, twice a day, to know the truth of our essential nature: that beyond our thoughts, our ego, our doubts, and our frustrations, we are perfect, whole, and complete. We allow our mind to settle to quieter and calmer layers of consciousness, perhaps having an experience of that baseline level of transcendental consciousness at which there are no problems, no speculation, no thinking at all. Just pure, unbounded, blissful silence. And having had that experience, we re-enter the world of thinking and doing with a bit more perspective, a bit more of an ability to accept the situation, any situation, for what it is: temporary.”
To me, self-acceptance means holding space for myself and allowing myself to be here as I am, even when I can’t change my anxiety and compulsive tendencies. It’s also about practice and having awareness of my inflated sense of responsibility and innate “need” to control things: knowing that I have the power to change that narrative through things as simple as my breath, getting curious, meditating, and sustained, gentle reminders that there are many things out of my control.