I’ve seen women insist on cleaning everything in the house before they could sit down to write… and you know it’s a funny thing about housecleaning… it never comes to an end. Perfect way to stop a woman. A woman must be careful to not allow over-responsibility…to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. –Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Are you familiar with the insistent tug of over-responsibility?
Most us can relate to it in some way. To paraphrase Clarissa Pinkola Estes, we routinely try to do all the things before we make space for our own needs.
And although you may not be a writer (like in the quote above), I’m sure you have your own particular version of creative rests, riffs and raptures.
Whatever they are, they replenish you and fill you up. They could be anything from climbing mountains to peaceful napping, and everything in between.
Whatever your needs, over-responsibility can get in the way.
No doubt you want more time with the things that replenish and renew you.
But if you’re like most of the women I counsel and coach, you’ve experienced the push-pull between taking care of your own needs and the daily grind of getting everything done and taking care of everyone else.
Unfortunately, getting it all done doesn’t happen very often in the 21st century. As a result, you might be really tired of feeling responsible for everything and everyone.
There are many reasons why women feel responsible for everything.
At an early age, we’re often taught that other people’s needs come before our own. Sometimes that happens when we have to take on adult roles and responsibilities long before we’re adults.
That said, if you’re wondering why you in particular tend to feel responsible for everything, please know that over-responsibility is a common experience for women in general.
And it’s safe to say that responsibility that begins with us, that focuses on our needs first then flows outward toward others, is an ongoing journey for many women.
The reasons why we take on too much responsibility vary.
But the themes I often hear women repeat include:
- Feeling pressure at an early age to be the perfect “almost grown-up”
- Experiencing shaming for not “doing enough” or not “doing it right”
- Retreating from trauma through over-responsibility (which can feel safe)
- Being harshly criticized for not fitting in if you veer from female stereotypes
- Expectations directed at females to look, act or behave a certain way
- Being told that you won’t be successful unless you’re more responsible
- A long history of women being expected to do all the work at home
- Conflicting workplace messages about women’s roles and “attitudes”
You could make a case that over-responsibility is related to biology too.
Certainly this is part of it, since women give birth and the role of caregiving, nurturing and raising of children often falls to them.
Additionally, over-responsibility is sometimes part of the bigger picture of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Still, it’s much more complex than that for most women, especially because you may feel compelled to be super responsible yet not truly believe you are a responsible person. You keep pushing forward but don’t get ahead or think that you’re falling behind.
In fact, a sense of heightened responsibility can make you feel like you’re spinning your wheels, leading to overwhelm and anxiety. You might even feel bad or wrong for not being able to juggle it all: both your responsibilities and your personal needs.
And then there’s the reality that over-responsibility is often thrust upon women, with no choice in the matter. Clearly, there are huge structural inequalities in our society around women’s roles, rights and responsibilities that sometimes seem unsolvable.
So this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you how to stop feeling over-responsible.
I wish I could say there’s a quick fix. But from my vantage point, personally and professionally, there’s usually deeper work to be done.
By that I mean it normally takes time and practice to continue walking away from the hook of responsibility.
In fact, you may need to redefine what walking away means.
And you may need to call on other parts of you for assistance with walking away. Parts like your inner Wild Woman, who probably knows exactly what you need and when you need it.
Wild Women: They know instinctively when things must die and when things must live; they know how to walk away, they know how to stay.–Clarissa Pinkola Estes
How I walked away from over-responsibility.
You know the quote above and the quote I began with? Well, I’m familiar with both of them. But I’d never seen them right next to each other before, almost touching on my laptop screen.
That happened one recent morning when I was sitting on the bench in the kitchen, gazing back and forth between the words I was typing and the plum tree outside the window.
But then the plum tree and the words on the screen seemed to merge: over-responsibility, wild women, walking away or staying, life and death, nature, the turning of the seasons. All of it. It was like they were banding together to get my attention.
Or, like they were trying to tell me something important. And remind me of what I know deep down about staying or walking away, but rarely connect with.
Usually I tend to think of deciding to walk away or deciding to stay as big and dramatic.
When I consider them, I remember back to a beloved Mary Oliver poem (The Journey)…
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
But this time, in that instant of watching the two quotes coalesce on my computer screen, I understood something more.
I understood that it wasn’t always about big stuff like walking away from jobs or relationships or homes or the sky falling.
Instead, I had a flash of how small it could be. And I saw how pushing that instinct away was directly related to over-responsibility.
The opposite of over-responsibility isn’t under-responsibility.
Instead, I believe it’s about knowing how and when to walk away, sometimes in minuscule moments.
To leave the kitchen and go outside. To sit in the presence of the plum tree’s leaves, turning all shades of gold, brown, orange.
Instinctively knowing to walk away as we stack the breakfast dishes in the sink. Or tally up the emails to be answered. Or prepare for the day’s appointments.
Letting them all die for a brief spell, trusting that we have the magic to bring them back to life in a flash.
This instinctive knowing is a true gift from the inner Wild Woman.
We all have access to this gift. We might need more practice, but it’s definitely there.
I believe it’s deep-rooted, unrehearsed, spontaneous.
You’ve felt it, haven’t you?
That automatic knowing in your bones.
That mysterious pull to drop everything and walk away, right now.
So I did it: opened the door and walked away.
And there they were, a family of deer.
I sure wasn’t expecting the deer, and neither were they expecting me. We were all startled, and they got very still like deer do, ready to leap away at any second.
I had an urge to move toward them but instinctively knew to stop in my tracks and be still with them. And breathe. It was kind of like the five of us were breathing together, actually.
Soon after, they relaxed and went back to grazing. At one point they began grooming each other, something I’ve never seen before. It was like a grooming train, noses to back ends, the littlest deer bringing up the rear.
Finally, both the deer and I were ready to move on.
We’d been together for 45 minutes, when I’d only planned to stay for ten.
So I gathered up my coffee mug and journal, now ready to bring the dishes and emails and appointments back to life.
I’m happy to tell you they were easy to revive, with absolutely no ill effects from their tiny deaths.
For several years I’ve been writing about a deeper layer of self-care.
It is intimately related to over-responsibility. But I’ve struggled to name it, calling it the self-care of being with for lack of other words. I recognize it when my clients talk about it, but still the definition has been hard to come by.
So far I’ve described it this way:
- A deep yearning to collect our missing pieces and give space to all the parts of ourselves that are longing for more from us.
- An internal rebellion, requiring women to stop and let go, in the moment, often without planning.
- Opening up to the wisdom of small, personal uprisings, without knowing the outcomes.
Wild Woman assures me that this layer of self-care is an antidote to over-responsibility.
After my encounter with the deer and the dishes, I have more clarity about naming and claiming it.
But I still don’t quite know it fully with words. Instead, I know it with feeling, sensing, instinct.
And I know it’s about life and death in some way, about being able to make the decision to walk away or stay even in the smallest of moments.
Because, after all, life is short isn’t it? And over-responsibility can rob us of so much life.
I hadn’t quite felt that so viscerally before.
Now, I can more confidently say that at a core level, releasing over-responsibility is related to:
- nurturing your inner life
- releasing agendas in the moment
- holding the paradox of both life and death
- holding the paradox of both walking away and staying
Writing prompts to explore your relationship with responsibility
My own journaling practice during the past 10 years has been healing and has helped me to follow my instincts to walk away more often from over-responsibility.
And one of the best ways you can begin or continue your own journey is to experiment with these writing prompts:
- Write for about 10 minutes about a time when you were in tune with the instinctual part of you, the part that knew what you needed in the moment. Write in the present tense, as if the experience is happening right now. Pay particular attention to your senses: the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, feel of the experience.
- Respond to these sentence fragments/questions and write for five to 10 minutes:
- My relationship with over-responsibility is…
- My inner Wild Woman wants to tell me…
- What tiny opportunities do I have to walk away in the moment?
Practice listening to your intuition, your inner voice; ask questions; be curious; see what you see; hear what you hear; and then act upon what you know to be true. These intuitive powers were given to your soul at birth. –Clarissa Pinkola Estes
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