Inflated responsibility – I think, therefore… nothing. Thinking it doesn’t make it true.

An excessive or inflated sense of responsibility occurs when you interpret your thoughts in terms of whether they can cause distress or harm to yourself or others. That is, having the thought in and of itself gives you a sense of guilt or responsibility.

Examples include:

  • I have the thought that I could have cancer or an STI. Does that mean I do?!? And, I feel anxious and uncertain. What does that mean?!?
  • I had the thought that I don’t love my partner. Does that mean I don’t?!? And, I feel anxious and uncertain. What does that mean?!?
  • I had the thought that I might have hurt, murdered, assaulted, offended someone in the past. Does that mean I did?!? And, I feel anxious and uncertain. What does that mean?!?
  • I had the thought that I could have done more to help someone. Does that mean I should have?!? Am I bad because I didn’t act on that thought?!? And, I feel anxious and uncertain. What does that mean?!?
  • I had the thought that I could work harder at something that I value. Does that mean I must?!? And, I feel anxious and uncertain. What does that mean?!?
  • I had the thought that my anxiety might kill me, make me go crazy, or embarrass me. Does that mean it will?!? And, I feel anxious and uncertain. What does that mean?!?
  • I had the thought that someone judged me. Does that mean they did?!? How do I know they didn’t?!? And, I feel anxious and uncertain. What does that mean?!?
  • I had the thought that I’m not good enough. I also feel worthless and hopeless. It must be true.

Notice that the content of each of these examples are different, but the process is the same.

Here’s a recap of the anxiety/OCD process:

  • You are already sensitized.
  • An unwanted intrusive thought (that is, an obsession) or worry arrives in your mind with a whoosh of anxiety.
  • It seems important so you search for what it means.
  • The search gives you more anxiety and you search for what that means.
  • The thought becomes more prominent in your mind, which appears to give it more meaning.

Content areas that are maintained by inflated responsibility typically seem meaningful. Part of overcoming inflated responsibility is challenging or letting go of the meaningfulness of the content as it operates in the anxious process. The trick is to hold to seemingly contradictory ideas in your head at the same time: the content of my thought might be or is meaningful, but the process I’m using to discover and work with the meaning is problematic, unhelpful to me, and/or driven by anxiety and OCD.

Examples include:

  • It’s important to me that don’t harm children, but avoiding children in response to the thought that I could hurt them is OCD.
  • It’s important to me that I uphold confidentiality and security standards at work, but triple checking or avoiding work related to security is OCD.
  • It’s important to me that I act conscientiously, but replaying every social interaction makes me less likely to spend time with the people I love.

The content in all of these examples is meaningful. We can identify it as OCD because of its process – how it feels and acts. If the content is important to you, you should be able to choose to think about it. You shouldn’t have to think about it, because it happened to arrive in your mind.

There are two scenarios where inflated responsibility may not follow the process outlined above.

1. Depression – The voice of depression is hopeless, helpless, guilty, and worthless. If you are experiencing depression, your hopeless, helpless, guilty, or worthless thought might not arrive with a spike of anxiety. Rather, you might already have those feelings and then the content of your thinking arrives in your mind with a ruminative texture that reinforces the depressive mood. This is also inflated responsibility. The nature of depression is that helpless, hopeless, guilty, and worthless thoughts and feelings arrive in your body and then you behave as though those thoughts and feelings are true, giving them more meaning than they deserve.

Recovery from depression involves understanding the depressive pattern and attempting to bring flexibility to depression reinforcing behaviors. As an example, if you are feeling worthless and helpless, your behavioral urge will be to give up. Any problem solving behavior (to which you do not add self-criticism) has the opportunity to shift your feelings of worthlessness and helplessness.

2. Positive outlook towards responsibility of thoughts – The belief that what shows up in your mind has special meaning and is important for its own sake creates experiences that may not involve a spike of anxiety, but maintain inflated responsibility nonetheless. The following specific beliefs will keep you stuck in your thoughts, regardless of content:

  • If I worry about something, that means I care. Or if I don’t worry that means I don’t care enough.
  • Worry protects me from surprises, from having expectations that are too high, or from bad things happening to me.
  • I would feel too uncertain or anxious if I didn’t worry. Or, if I’m feeling anxious or uncertain, I should worry to figure it out.

To overcome your positive outlook about responsibility of thoughts focus on choice and values. 

  • Am I choosing to think about this? If given the choice to think or act on this idea, is what I’m doing the best strategy to get a real answer?
  • Do I value the time I spend on this?
  • Would I choose to think about this and stay with this regardless of how I feel?

Questions for reflection about inflated responsibility of thoughts:

  • What content areas of sticky thoughts seem meaningful to you?
  • What do you typically do when your thoughts get stuck because they feel meaningful?
  • How does inflated responsibility interact with some of your other mechanisms?
  • Which of these thinking patterns resonate with me?
  • Are you sure that the presence of a thought means something special about you or means that you have to think about it?
  • What are some reasons to be willing to be uncertain about the meaning of your thoughts?