SCHMIDT: Can I be too responsible?

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By Dr. Paul Schmidt

A client told me recently he could still feel the impact of his grandfather saying to him now and then: "The onus is on you, Boy."

Onus is a word I used to hear a lot, so I looked it up. It is the Latin word for burden, an old-fashioned word for responsibility. Who these days does not need a little help drawing the lines that define where their responsibility begins and ends?

Sometimes when the onus is on us, our responsibility gives us a heavy feeling, a burden that we want taken off our backs. For example, when you take responsibility that you can't fulfill, or when you assume that you have power, authority, or blame that isn't really yours, I guess the term for this would be onus bogus. Likewise, taking too little responsibility – not carrying your own weight, bearing too small a burden of stress to be a good team player – might be called onus minus.

Since the Latin word for happy is bonus, we should always seek to take the most bonus onus. Taking a bonus onus means sharing the responsibility in a way that a jury of your own biased peers would agree with.

In this modern society that loves the extremes of all or nothing and hates moderation, that loves identifying with pure white and hates not only black hats but doing the work of seeing moral shades of gray, it's hard to five people who take just there fair share of responsibility, no more and no less. What we need to strive for is the level of responsibility that in the long run makeseverybody’s life work better.

The trick is, how do we figure out what is a good burden to carry, good for all concerned in the long run, a bonus onus? Here are some guidelines I commend to you:

  • People cannot clean up a mess they have made if someone else beats them to it.
  • When people don't have to clean up their messes, they will keep making them.
  • When the pleasure of a selfish act exceeds the pain of that person's remorse and restitution, it will keep happening.
  • When young people or young adults stop becoming more responsible, they can learn to grow up if you also take less responsibility for their choices.
  • Take care of caretakers, starting with yourself. Care less about people who are careless.
  • If you'd be doing something out of fear or guilt instead of love, joy, peace, wisdom and courage, don't do it. Change your attitude and then rethink.
  • Like life itself, God won't give you any duty you can't carry out with a cheerful heart.
  • When you take responsibility for an addict, you become addicted to them, and can't take responsibility for yourself.
  • A life well lived is its own reward.
  • Feel free to change your mind. "I know I promised you I would take care of this, but that was before I realized I would be hurting you and other people by doing it. So I've changed my mind.”

Whether the person with onus minus is your spouse, child, grandchild, sibling, coworker, or friend, unless it's your boss at work, it would be helpful to say:

“I am sorry I have so often taken from you the opportunity to grow up. I've been expecting you to act like a child, and I've been making myself feel old and tired. I am tired of that now – I am retiring from cleaning up or concealing your messes. When you (lie, cheat, slack off, lose your temper, etc.) in the future, you're on your own.”

Most of us know we need to take a stand like this with somebody, but we don't feel strong enough to do it. That's because by ourselves, left to deal with the mess-maker one-on-one, we really aren't strong enough.

There are two keys for change here – teamwork and disengagement. We need to ask for and take support from others – before, during, and after we stopped overprotecting someone.

Thenwe can disengage from the ones who give usour bonus onus. Self-respect has to come from inside us, and from respectable people – we can never get respect from mess-makers who don't clean up.

We all choose what onus we take on in any situation. Get the help you need to get rid of burdens that feel bogus. Then pick up the bonus of challenges you can meet with a cheerful heart and a clean conscience.


Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach with offices in Middletown, Lexington and Shelbyville and an be reached at www.mynewlife.com.