Robert and Dave dive right into this week’s episode with something Robert likes to call, Neurotic Responsibility. This term refers to someone who takes on the problems around them more than is rationally warranted. It occurs when your partner is upset and you focus mostly on what you might have done to cause it, even though you already have likely admitted it outwardly and inwardly feel guilty, inadequate, and critical of yourself. In these situations, the key is not seeing the other’s contribution to the situation in a balanced way. Are you showing up immediately for them and not having the same standards of wanting them to be there for you? This is hard for most people who suffer from this to see because they usually feel like it is part of their love. In Robert’s extensive work as a psychotherapist, he notes how incredibly common this is in relationships but the awareness of it is rare.
Neurotic Responsibility is not on the Introspective Guides chart that Robert so often refers to. If the Guides are new to you, you can go to awarenessthatheals.org and download them for free. Neurotic responsibility is experienced most frequently as guilt, inadequacy, and failure, which can be found on the chart. It feels so good to be loving towards others that it sometimes becomes difficult to recognize that what is also going on here is a form of self-abandonment. Join us as Robert and Dave share their personal stories about recognizing how they have disregarded their needs to make others happy or more comfortable. Robert provides tools and a process of caring for your needs and your partners in a balanced mutual way. This new awareness can awaken a deeper sense of love where it empowers the person that has been receiving to learn how to give and empowers the person that has been giving to learn how to receive.
Resources related to this episode
Robert Strock Website
Robert’s Book, Awareness that Heals
Free Downloadable Introspective Guides
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Awareness That Heals, Episode 86.
Robert Strock: This is for people that feel that the problems that are around them are much more their responsibility than they rationally are. In these situations, the key is not seeing the other’s responsibility in a balanced way so it reinforces a role where one is overly responsible and the other is not responsible enough. This is hard for most people that suffer from this to see because they usually feel like it’s just a part of their love.
Announcer: The Awareness That Heals podcast helps its listeners learn to develop the capacity to have a more healing response to emotions and situations rather than becoming stuck. Your host, Robert Strock, has practiced psychotherapy for more than 45 years. He wrote the book “Awareness That Heals: Bringing Heart and Wisdom to Life’s Challenges,” to help develop self-caring and the capacity to respond in an effective way to life’s challenges. Especially at times when we are most prone to be critical or to withdraw. Together, we will explore how to become aware of our challenging feelings and at the same time find alternative ways to live a more fulfilling and inspiring life.
Robert Strock (01:16):
A very warm welcome again to Awareness That Heals where we focus on bringing heart and wisdom to our life’s challenges. We start again and again with being aware of what is most difficult for us, and these difficulties are universal for all of us, whether we recognize them or not. And we also look to see how we can care for ourselves at these crucial times. This double awareness sets up the ideal conditions for us to be fulfilled in our individual lives and to contribute to the world by finding and living from our best selves. Today we’re going to be focusing on the Introspective Guides and something that is very subtle, which is seeing how we each deal with something that I see as a very common pattern that I refer to as neurotic responsibility. This is for people that feel that the problems that are around them are much more their responsibility than they rationally are.
It occurs when your girlfriend, wife, boyfriend, husband is upset and you focus mostly on what you might have done that caused it, even though you already have likely admitted it outside or inside and you just feel guilty, inadequate, critical of yourself, or pit in your stomach, unhappy with yourself, down, anxious, trying to excessively please. In these situations, the key is not seeing the other’s responsibility in a balanced way as to the degree that it actually is happening. This is hard for most people that suffer from this to see because they usually feel like it’s just a part of their love and it feels like a part of their caring. And of course, to some degree it is. In my experience, this is active as a significant part of about one out of three people. In other words, it’s incredibly common, but the awareness of it is extremely uncommon. It frequently isn’t out in the open, but it’s palpable inside. When it is out in the open, it reinforces the partner to feel more entitled. So, it reinforces a role where one is overly responsible and the other is not responsible enough. This would be very valuable if you are on either side of the pattern with you or your partner, or you can see it in your history. Before we go deeply into this, I’d like to introduce Dave, who’s my partner at The Global Bridge Foundation and my closest friend for over 50 years.
Robert, thank you. This particular pattern is, uh, I wanted to use a phrase near and dear, but it’s, it’s near and not so dear. Uh, it’s more like near and oh dear <laugh>, uh, to, to be in this situation and over and over and over again and, and actually variations on the theme of this, which I know you’re going to get into. So let’s, let’s go for it.
Robert Strock (04:26):
Yeah, so it’s important I think, to try and understand this, for those especially of you that have been listening to prior episodes. That neurotic responsibility is not gonna be on the Introspective Guide chart that we refer to so much that if this is new to you, you can go to awarenessthatheals.org and look and download the Introspective Guides for free. Neurotic responsibility actually is experienced most frequently on the charts as guilt, inadequacy, failure. Those would be the ways that you would usually identify it. And in my life, interestingly, the way I would frame it as well is that it’s also near and dear and not so dear to my heart because it’s been a key part of my coming into my adult life and it really having a serious effect on relationships. And it’s, it’s a common thing with people who generally have a pretty good heart, but they don’t realize that they don’t really represent their own needs very well, but they’re really hyper attentive to people outside themselves.
There’s frequently a deep sense of innocence in this pattern, and it’s often hard to separate it from the innocence and to see where there’s actually a form of self-abandonment because it feels good to be good towards others. And when I have interjected this in sessions through the years, the first response is almost always like, how dare you judge the best part of my love? You know, this is, this is fantastic, this is, I love to love my partner. And of course I, I then go into, as clearly as I can that loving your partner is all good, but it’s not loving yourself or not seeing that you have needs too. And in addition to that, you’re carrying an extra load of guilt and disturbance when your partner’s unhappy. Another way of saying this is you’re always unhappy when the other is unhappy. So there’s a certain kind of, as we would use in the trade of psychotherapy, codependency, because you’re actually dependent on your partner being happy more than is natural.
So, one of the examples early in my years with my first wife was when I was out with friends and was coming back about 45 minutes late, and it was a hot button for her that I had so many friends and I would say I’d come back at a certain time and I was gonna be late. So I was driving home and I was going, oh shit, she’s gonna be pissed off at me. She’s gonna really, really rip me a new one and I’m, I’m really gonna be in bad shape when I get home. And I was going on and on inside myself. I walked in the door and she said Hi. And then I realized, oh my God, it’s my neurosis. Here I am, I’m upset. And she’s not even upset right now, and I’ve just gone through 25 minutes of berating myself. So as I speak about this, I’m asking you to see what’s your pattern.
And in a way it is sort of like which end of the spectrum are you on? Because it’s not like you’re either neurotically responsible or you’re not, or you’re self-centered or you’re not. A better way to look at it as if it’s you’re on a zero to a hundred scale and maybe it’s 70/30 or 80/20 that you have a tendency to take too much responsibility or not enough responsibility. So when I looked at where did this originate, how did I become this way? And I look back at my childhood and I saw that my mother would be very devoted to me, all the way through my childhood, but she was really fairly bitchy and complaining a lot. She didn’t like the fact that I didn’t have better habits at school and studying and my, my manners were not as good as she wanted.
I wasn’t as clean as she wanted and I rebelled, but I felt bad inside and I tried to make it up and to prove myself that I was good. So, I was really the kind of friend that was always asking people how they were and I was looking to try to compensate for it in my friendships. And then it really even entered my love life in my early adulthood, as well. So what I really learned later in life was, okay, I wanna be aware when I feel guilty, I wanna feel aware when I feel responsible, when I feel inadequate with my partner, when we’re in a fight and I’m saying, God, why am I giving her such a hard time when in reality it may very well have been because she didn’t do something that she had promised me she would do that mattered a lot to me.
But I wasn’t aware of that until I started to focus on, you know what, when I feel guilty or inadequate, maybe that’s not accurate. So that’s when I add, and again, for those of you that are familiar with the prior episodes, I added the intention to care and both to care for myself and to care for my wife or any significant other and say, is this guilt or is this inadequacy really my responsibility or am I laying an extra trip in myself? And I wanna find a way to be balanced. So, the third step after the awareness and the intention to care was asking myself the question, is this my responsibility? Is this really me? Or how much is this really me? How much of this is really her? What are my needs? What are her needs? What are both of our needs? How do we take care of both of us?
And that started to begin the healing of this pattern in me. And it’s very important to realize that this is hardwired inside us, even when you intellectually understand this, which I intellectually understood this when I was in my early twenties, but it still is activated in my life and I’ve been working on it for over 50 years. So when you become aware of this, don’t have the illusion, please, that this awareness is going to solve it for you. You’re gonna see if you look closely, that you’re gonna still have feelings where you feel excessively responsible. But if you can have that awareness and if you can have that intention to care for yourself, and then you ask yourself the question, is this really seeing the responsibility accurately? That leads to a certain kind of discriminating, as well. You need to ask and explore, how much is this mine and how much of this is theirs?
And you seeing that this is a lifelong practice it’s a very critical element or else you’re gonna be dominated by this throughout your whole life. And as I mentioned earlier, the key things you wanna look out for are guilt, inadequacy, anxiety, a strong desire to please. And when you have the strong desire to please, that can just seem like such a great thing. Or when you feel guilty cuz you’ve done something wrong, that can just seem like you have a good conscience. When you feel inadequate, that can just seem like, well, of course I feel inadequate cuz I didn’t please the person. Or I’m anxious. Well of course I’m anxious cuz I, I don’t trust myself that much. But the real root of it is a neurotic responsibility. Now, when I’ve shared this with clients through the years, I usually get a laugh, because the person recognizes, you know what, I’ve been doing this.
I never would’ve labeled it like this, but I’ve been doing this with my wife or my husband forever and what, what a relief it is to see that I have a right to needs too. And that this is what’s really created a lot of the imbalance and I’ve been reinforcing it. It’s not just that my wife or my husband or my boyfriend or my girlfriend is self-centered, although they might be. It’s that I’m reinforcing it cuz I’m showing up immediately for them and I’m not having the same standards of wanting them to be there for me. Now, some relationships, as a matter of fact, many relationships survive even when this is going on because the person that feels unentitled to have their needs and feels neurotically responsible feels like, well, they’re just doing their thing and the person that’s receiving it, well of course I’m gonna receive it.
I’m just having my lover love me. They’re not noticing that they’re not giving the same thing back. They’re more than happy to receive it. As a matter of fact, I’ve gotten into a fair amount of conflicts with a couple where both of them tell me I’m wrong. They, they both say, what are you talking about? And then when we get into more detail, then the person that’s receiving the caring from the neurotically responsible person starts to see, oh, it’s true, I don’t really ask them how they are. Oh, it’s true, I’m not really very empathic. And it starts to, for the couples that really wanna grow, it starts to really awaken a balance where it empowers the person that’s been receiving to learn how to give and it empowers the person that’s been giving to learn how to receive.
Just to amplify one of the points you just made in contrast to your clients, just because I am one of those people that I would say for decades notwithstanding that I knew about this pattern, like you very early in my life, nonetheless, got a lot of gratification from being the pleaser to the point where it wasn’t a problem and there was no need for therapy because I was pretty happy with being the pleaser, and as long as I was appreciated, which I generally was, and it took sadly as I why I said, oh no, uh, before, but it’s, it, it took decades, uh, to come to an understanding, yeah, I’m in here too. Even though I knew intellectually it, it still became my go-to move, it still became my go-to pattern in life. And a lot of people, and I know me being one of them, saw no, there’s no reason to get help because I was, it was a successful pattern. Unfulfilling, didn’t see any of my own needs, but my need was to be needed. My need was to be a pleaser. That’s, that’s how I unconsciously dealt with it all.
Robert Strock (15:17):
Aren’t you glad you’re over it?
Robert Strock (15:21):
<laugh>. So, I’m gonna move from the humor to actually a very difficult situation that is one that I generally don’t talk about and debated whether I was really gonna bring it to the show or not. Dave and I were on the verge of opening up a residential treatment center for Department of Social Services and Probation and it was the night before our open house and my father had just received a kidney transplant and was on severe medications and was going in and out of being exhausted and even visiting some psychotic features. And my mother basically said, no, Joe, I don’t think you should go there cuz you’re gonna be a downer. And my father didn’t go. And what happened the next day of the open house, my father made kind of a faint suicide attempt and my mother came back that night finding him out of it and had to rush him to the hospital.
And as I said, it was just the opening of our boys’ home. And my mother and my father were on the rocks and it was clear they were on the verge of divorce. And my father being in the condition he was in, it was a very, very, very dangerous time. And so Dave and I got together at that point and said, you know what, let’s with our third partner of the boys’ home, let’s get together and do a 24-hour-shift with my dad for a couple weeks cuz we had this long wing on the boys’ home and we knew that it was gonna take months to fill it up. So we did this 24-hour-watch, and I, I went through this incredibly terrifying feeling like, oh my God, what if my father makes in another attempt, or actually succeeds in an attempt to commit suicide when we’re watching him?
And he sneaks out somehow. So I had a consult with a psychiatrist, and it was a psychiatrist actually, that my mother was saying. And his words to me was, don’t let your family pattern of horrible responsibility affect your incredible innocence. And I, I cried, I mean, I, I just cried. It was, it was such a moving moment, one of the most profound moments of my life really, where I realized that I was turning my innocence into guilt and that obviously my intention was so protective, but even then I was turning it inside. Now that was kind of an extreme example of what can happen if you are taking that much responsibility. So moving a little bit lighter, this is a pattern that frequently isn’t discovered until you’re in your fifties, sixties, because as Dave said, it works. It’s like, who doesn’t like a pleaser?
Who doesn’t wanna be pleased? What pleasers don’t like pleasing? That’s why they’re doing it. So it’s a functioning, it’s a high functioning habit, and it doesn’t become clear until you’re with somebody or you, you’re with a series of friends for a lot of years and it kind of dawns on you, you know what, I asked them for something that I give to them in a heartbeat and they’re not giving it in return. And you start to feel empty or you’ve been feeling empty and you didn’t notice, or you, you feel like you’re being shortchanged. And that’s typically when this pattern dawns on most people. Now, frequently even then, it is suppressed. And basically many times it goes through death. And the reason why it’s so important is it, it’s a killer of deep intimacy. It does create some intimacy, but the problem is, it’s a one way valve.
For me, I wanna reflect on one circumstance that I don’t know how many people will identify with, but I would, I would say a fair amount where I, as a pleaser, as a person that was, uh, truly protective of my mother in this case, who had cancer and who was in a huge amount of denial to the point where as the pleaser, as the person trying to fulfill her wishes, which was my job in life, is to fulfill her wishes to protect her in the way she decided she wanted to be protected. I had to go in advance two doctors and I had to pave the way to let them know, notwithstanding her dire diagnosis, really terminal diagnosis, that she didn’t wanna know about it. That she didn’t want to have any inkling of what was really happening in her body. And it was extremely stressful. And so my burnout from that, which it did go past her death, but it was really an eyeopener for me to see how my pleasing and how my protectiveness of her just burnt me to the core. It was just so, so stressful
Robert Strock (20:09):
And I being a close witness to it, it was a time that was in all of our years, the second most stressful time I’ve ever seen in your life. And just to show you how severe it was, I’ll tell the short little story. Dave asked me to go in to visit with his mother. And you know, she, she wasn’t saying goodbye. She was planning a trip to Hawaii and all these other things, wasn’t saying goodbye to her, to Dave’s dad, her husband or the other kids. And so I went in there to see if there was any way that I could soften the denial, give an indication of the importance of maybe saying goodbye. And Dave didn’t have the ability to talk or have any closure at all. It just had to be a slip out with no acknowledgement all the way through.
And for somebody that’s a communicator like Dave, that’s a nightmare. Much easier to face it directly. And that’s an incredible understatement. So I walked into the room and was trying to be cool, and I, as I walked into the room, she broke into song and, and she started singing, I’m not listening, I’m not listening. And she saw in my eyes that I was gonna be asking her that and she could sense that she was gonna be violated by being asked to face reality. So that’s how severe it was as to what Dave and his whole family had to go through. And it’s even more severe than Dave could possibly communicate because his family is like no other family I know where they are so bonded, they are so close, they are so committed. There’s been three people that have died and everyone is brought into a house and everybody is caring for that person. Not only the doctoring, we’re talking about the feeding, we’re talking about everything.
I just wanna say in retrospect, and of course my father passed 10 years after that in a completely different way. Of course, he was a completely different person and was facing it straight on. And these are choices. This was a choice I made, not consciously, to be there in that way, unhealthy for me, certainly, uh, one can make the argument either way, what was healthy for my mother. But for me, certainly it was very unhealthy and, and very, very much not what was in my best interest. And it was a choice that I wasn’t aware I was making.
Robert Strock (22:35):
Exactly, so maybe another case example would be helpful, hopefully will be in illuminating this pattern. But again, as you’re listening, the most important thing isn’t just listening to what we’re talking about. The most important thing is how does this apply to you? Are you on the giving end, receiving end? And frankly, if you’re looking at, at the subtlest levels, there might be certain areas where you’re one area one way and a certain areas where you’re another way. So it’s helpful to break it down and say, maybe I’m overly responsible here and underly responsible there. So if you look at this closely, you’re going to be able to identify with some element of it. So the example is a couple, where there were a lot of promises made and they were on the verge of getting married. And what happened, let’s say about six months before they were gonna get married, there was a sexual breakdown and the sexual breakdown was on her part and she just wasn’t able to function and wasn’t able to enjoy it anymore.
And he continued to ask What’s wrong with you? You know, what, what, what’s happened to you? You know, what, why, why have you stopped being interested in sex and why aren’t you not enjoying it anymore? And he kept giving her a hard time about it. And what he wasn’t looking at were all the promises he had made that he had reneged on. And she had asked him, please give up your borderline addiction to alcohol. Please stop flirting with your ex-girlfriends. Please reconsider, we were gonna have a child, and now you don’t wanna have a child. And so the reality was all of these issues where he changed, made her start to feel ambivalent, but she wasn’t able to see that she was feeling neurotically responsible and basically forgave him for all those things and didn’t realize all of these needs had not been met. And so, what ended up happening was when I entered the picture in the therapeutic scene to see what was going on, it was very clear both of them were blaming her when it was really dominantly his responsibility.
And this is a very common occurrence where the person that has the neurotic responsibility is the one that’s gonna receive the blame and identify with the blame. So, it’s so important as you look at your relationships that you ask yourself when you feel like somebody’s guilty or somebody’s innocent, that you inquire and say, are we seeing this clear? Because it’s, it’s very easy to assign a one-sided blame when in reality it may be a joint responsibility. So the key in neurotic responsibility is one person takes too much responsibility, the other one doesn’t take enough. And when you share the responsibility, and more often than not, it’s dual. Although in this couple it was about a 95.5 and, and sometimes it’s quite extreme and sometimes it’s quite subtle. So we’re gonna have another episode on neurotic responsibility. But keep looking and seeing whether you yourself are that way and understand what this means. If you’re the neurotically responsible person, you need to explore your needs. You need to look at those Introspective Guides or some list of needs and see what needs am I suppressing. And if you’re on the other end of the spectrum, you need to look at, how do I develop myself to become more capable of giving? It’s a very, very important pattern and it flies so easily under the radar and that’s why we’re highlighting it today. So thanks so much for your attention.
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