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Are You Too Responsible for Your Own Good?

Then it’s time to review your priorities

Diane Dreher
Source: Diane Dreher

I grew up as a responsible older sister, assigned to take care of my brother, set the table, do the dishes, dust and vacuum the house, polish the furniture, and clean the bathroom. When I’d finished my chores and would sit down to relax with a book, I was told, “Don’t be lazy. Go pull the weeds, sweep the deck, and make yourself useful.” Otherwise, I was “being selfish.”

What I was being was compulsively responsible. Taught that my purpose was to please others, I didn’t learn to set healthy boundaries. When I was 20, I got a job, moved out, and worked my way through college. I thought I’d left the daily demands behind, but I brought along that old, compulsive pattern.

Overly responsible people have overscheduled lives. Responding to others’ demands and expectations, we pile one commitment on top of another, frantically rushing from one thing to the next, pushing our personal needs aside. I’ve seen too many of my “responsible” colleagues work through lunch and into the night, rushing from one meeting to the next, fueled by adrenaline and caffeine, hardly giving themselves time to go to the restroom.

Does this pattern sound familiar? Are you too responsible for your own good?

Overly responsible people get used—by demanding people, desperate people, and people psychologist George Simon calls “covert aggressors,” who manipulate others with flattery, guilt, threats, playing the victim, and superficial charm (Simon, 2010). They often use phrases like:

“You’re so good at this.” (Flattery)

“I’m counting on you.” (Guilt)

“I really need you to do this.” (Playing the victim)

“You’re the only one who can do this.” (Exaggeration: there are over seven billion people on the planet)

But really, would the world fall apart if we set healthy boundaries and began to say no?

Being compulsively responsible has negative consequences. Putting our nervous systems on red alert, overscheduling causes chronic stress because our bodies and brains register rushing as fear. Our hearts beat faster, muscles tense, and immune systems shut down to deal with a perceived threat. 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. Chronic stress can undermine our health, leading to hypertension, inflammatory disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, cognitive disorders, and other serious illnesses (Lehrer, Woolfolk, & Sime, 2007; Lupien, McEwen, Gunnar, & Heim, 2009).

Diane Dreher
Source: Diane Dreher

The way to a healthier life begins by setting priorities, a lesson I’ve learned from my garden (Dreher, 2002). Dandelions and oxalis grow among the roses in my yard, weeds that sap water and nutrients from the soil, depriving the roses of what they need to thrive. So I pull the weeds to support the roses.

The same practice applies to our lives: supporting what we value by setting priorities and removing the weeds.

  • What do you really value? What do you care about most? UCLA researchers have found that simply focusing on what we value can reduce our body’s stress level (Cresswell, Welch, Taylor, Sherman, Gruenewald, & Mann, 2005). Take out your calendar and highlight the activities that bring you joy and meaning. Then take a deep breath as you feel what they mean to you.
  • Then look at the others—the “shoulds,” “have to’s,” and external obligations. How many of them are really necessary? Which ones can you say “No” to—deny, delay, or delegate—to make room for the roses in your life?
  • Finally, as you go through your day, make it a point to stop and savor the roses, the moments of joy and beauty. For savoring too, relieves stress, bringing greater peace and meaning to our lives (Bryant, 1989, 2003).


Bryant, F. B. (1989). A four-factor model of perceived control: Avoiding, coping, obtaining, and savoring. Journal of Personality, 57, 773-797.

Bryant, F. B. (2003). Savoring Beliefs Inventory (SBI): A scale for measuring beliefs about savoring. Journal of Mental Health, 12, 175-196.

Cresswell, J. D., Welch, W. T., Taylor, S. E., Sherman, D.K., Gruenewald, T., & Mann, T. (2005). Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses. Psychological Science, 16, 846-851.

Dreher, D. E. (2002). Inner gardening; a seasonal path to inner peace. New York, NY: HarperCollins Quill.

Lehrer, P. M., Woolfolk, P.M., & Sime, W. E. (2007). Principles and practice of stress management. (3rd ed.) New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Lupien, S. McEwen, B. S., Gunnar, M. R., & Heim, C. (2009). Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour, and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10, 434-445.

Simon, G. (2010) In Sheep’s Clothing. Little Rock, AR: Parkhurst.


Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, positive psychology coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.

Visit her web sites at


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