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.
Let's connect. I blog here. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Pinterest. My mental health novels, including one about severe anxiety, are here.
Peterson, T. (2016, May 5). How to Stop Taking Responsibility for Others' Happiness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, March 26 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2016/05/big-cause-of-anxiety-responsibility-for-others-happiness
Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS
I was abused by my mother. As an adult, I feel responsible for my wife's happiness. When our daughter argues with her, I get triggered and upset. I think this might be stemming from the fact that when I was growing up my father always took the role of being the mediator. I'm not sure though. I am working through a CBT workbook on anger and talking to my wife about this. I am also working with a therapist.
Hi Todd. It sounds like you've been through a lot starting when you were very young and carrying that into adulthood. You're chosen a solid resource when it comes to CBT and working with a therapist can do wonders. Talking to your wife will, in my opinion, benefit both of you as you work through this. Thanks for reaching out.
I identify with this a lot, and it has come to the point where it is starting to cause problems in my relationship. I am trying to 'fix' my partner in an uncomfortable way, and when he is unhappy or down, I take it all personally, as if it is a reflection on me. This does of course not help him nor me. What I wonder is if you know of any literature I could read to support me in making the small incremental changes you mention above? Or books on this topic specifically? I am hopefully starting a group therapy process soon, but would like to find something to support me along the way. Thank you for a great article.
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!
Thank you so much for your reply, Tanya. I will go and borrow the book from my library today, that sounds great. Agree that there should be a whole body of literature on this, I was surprised when I struggled to find any! Again, huge thanks for taking the time to reply to this question and for your caring response.
You're very welcome, Maria! I hope the book is helpful. When you're there, check out the books surrounding this one, too. You might find something similar that you like, too. :)
Is it possible to break this cycle later in life? I've always been a people-pleaser, the mediator, the one in the room who tries to see it from the fringe perspective. (I think its because I grew up with a loving father, who had massive mood swings, but he could be charmed out of them - My sister would cry, my brother would more often than not, be the target, but I was the one who could alwyas talk/joke him down.) As a result I've always been a little extra "sensitive" to people's moods, and behaviors. As a consequence I tend to focus on them and what they need. I really need to break this behavior. I'm living with a man right now, and I'm driving him crazy, because he says I don't "live" in the house with him. He pointed out that I shut off the TV when he comes in, (he hates TV, I love it) I don't change the music I'm listening to when he comes in and I won't even use the shelves he's cleared off as storage for me, instead I pay a storage facility. I cried the other day because I bought steak to try and cheer him up and he decided to skip dinner. (he's in a pretty dark place right now, I'm employed, he's not). He is caring enough to notice that I sometimes flinch around him and he's worried. I don't want to lose this relationship but I'm starting to wish I lived on my own again, where I could just be myself and enjoy my trashy tv and goofy music.
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.
My husband has taken this thought process to the extreme, or at least it feels that way. His therapist has been trying to get him to understand that he can't be responsible for anyone else's emotions or happiness and he's interpreted it to mean he's free to do and say whatever he wants without consideration of how his actions are affecting others. I really don't believe that's the intention of the thought, but maybe I'm wrong? For example, he no longer feels any need to rebuild trust after an emotional affair because he feels it's not his job. I was told that he's not responsible for my emotional reaction because he cannot help that I was hurt. I'm not saying he needs to announce what happens to the world, but I don't feel that asking for some sort of closure can be asking too much. Am I just completely misunderstanding?
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. :)
My anxiety triggered from a bully in authority I don't remember a lot of what he said but I remember saying over and over again to stop mind-messing me and you don't know who I am hours of this went on I have never been the same so much of the past which was locked tightly away the flood gates were open and I don't know how to close the gates I try for help but I'm so mixed up no one seems to know how to help me I am giving up and letting myself fall through the cracks of the system I'm too tired the battle within my brain wins this time
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… and https://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/resources/mental-health-hotline-numbers-and-refer….
The above soooo describes me. I have always been a people pleaser. In the last year I have had many an some very serious reasons to worry about an try to help family members. I am now having anxiety attacks worrying about them an trying to figure out how to help them.
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!