Wednesday 6 December 2023

Self-Help For Cynics #16: Great Responsibility

With great power comes great responsibility. So goes the mantra by which our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man lives his life. It's a lesson he learned at a terrible cost. When Peter Parker first receives his spider powers, he treats sees them as a selfish opportunity to achieve fame and fortune. Why should he use them to help other people? 

Let’s be honest, I think most of us would do exactly what he did – look after ourselves first. And to a degree, there’s nothing wrong with that. You can’t help others if you can’t help yourself. Self-preservation is hot-wired into our brain as its most important function, and that’s why the amygdala takes charge so often. The monkey brain is our protector.

Peter’s lesson about responsibility comes when he has the chance to use his powers to stop an escaping criminal and doesn’t…

As you’re probably well aware, this act of selfishness comes back to bite him in a very big way when that same criminal later shoots his Uncle Ben dead in a bungled robbery attempt. After that, young Peter dedicates himself to using his powers to help others…

…and this is where the third of Dr. Jennifer Shannon’s three assumptions kicks in: Over-Responsibility”. Along with Fear of Uncertainty and Perfectionism, which we’ve looked at over the past couple of weeks, Over-Responsibility is another big stress-factor for our over-protective amygdala.

When we fall victim to Over-Responsibility, we put other people’s happiness and well-being above our own. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Don’t we do that automatically with people we love? Maybe… but if we end up resenting them for it, we need to think again. Or if we ourselves end up suffering in the process of helping someone else, couldn’t that be construed as counter-productive? In her book Don’t Feed The Monkey Mind, Dr. Shannon’ advises…

Bottom line: if taking care of your own needs is a casualty of taking care of others, you’re being over-responsible.

The story of Spider-Man is not merely a metaphor for Responsibility – it’s also a warning about the dangers of Over-Responsibility. Peter Parker continues to disappoint friends, let down loved ones, lose jobs and fail to take care of his own well-being because he’s so obsessed with helping others. I’ve read stories where he’s taken this to an extreme, pushed himself to the point of mental and physical breakdown, trying to be Spider-Man 24/7. Just in case he’s not available that one time when he could have made the difference. And because Spidey is the one fictional character I relate to more than any other, maybe I end up acting a little Over-Responsible myself from time to time. 

Dr. Shannon lists some of the problems that arise from an Over-Responsible mindset… and I reckon I could tick off a good few of them…

“…working harder than others (no), taking on other people’s problems (sometimes), poor self-care (trying to address that right here!), burnout (been there), constant worry and rumination about others (er…), giving advice to others to the point of pushing them away (probably not, because of the last item in this list), blaming yourself for things that are not your fault (definitely), difficulty setting limits (the fact that I’m not even sure what that means leads me to believe: yes), and difficulty with asserting yourself (undoubtedly).” 

Phew. I’m exhausted by the responsibility of simply reading that list. 

Apparently, one of the reasons we take on too much responsibility for others is that it’s a good way of being liked and loved. 

Of course someone’s going to like you if you go out of your way to help them. But they also may come to rely on you too much, to their detriment. This is a knife edge all parents walk on a daily basis. You are responsible for your child, but you’re also responsible for them developing into an independent human being who can look after themselves! Sometimes the most responsible thing you can do is let them take on their own responsibility.

I feel like it’s my responsibility to keep investigating this… but I also feel responsible for taking up too much of your time. One final word from Dr. Shannon then, and I’ll call this one a day…

“Over-responsible people have difficulty recognising what is within their control and what is not. Even when you have a strong personal stake in a conflict, if a solution is beyond your control, it is not your responsibility.” 



    1. Thank you. That's another one to add to me collection.

  2. Spiderman is my hero of choice too. Although I still can't get my head around fancying May in the Tom Holland triptych. But we are where we are, I guess.

    I can't read about the power/responsibility dichotomy without linking to this awful bit of wordplay...

    1. I had quite a thing for Sally Field in the Garfield flicks too.

      Dave Gorman has a lot to answer for.


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