How much responsibility can you take?


And here’s a (big) clue – there’s a limit.

I used to work for a boss who always said he liked to ‘lean on people until they broke’. It seemed a strange and spectacularly short-termist way of motivating people, but the reality was that our team, to varying degrees, rose to the challenge.

The more responsibility that was loaded onto our shoulders, the stronger, tougher and more resilient we became; the harder we worked and the higher we climbed. It worked – up to a point.

And then people started breaking or leaving, because one way or another, they usually do.

Partners and families saw less of us; health and personal wellbeing got left by the wayside and the free time we should have had to recharge and unwind was often eaten into by working late into the night or ‘popping in’ at weekends because the office was where we were measured and a place where we gained our sense of self worth.

Too much responsibility is a bad thing. When a weight on our shoulders becomes excessively heavy, it’s all we can think about. We become preoccupied with not buckling or giving way and focus all our energy and determination on succeeding. Other things become insignificant, extraneous or a distraction and the path ahead becomes narrow and single track as all our attention goes into putting one foot in front of the other.

Meanwhile, the anxiety and fear of failing increases as we travel further up that path and there’s more at stake. And, if ultimately we don’t succeed, the feelings of devastation, guilt and hopelessness can be overwhelming.

And yet men are taught that shouldering this kind of responsibility is what they should do best. You have broad shoulders for a reason, right? And whether that responsibility is providing for a family or responding to that deeply rooted imperative that you need to be the protector, the strong one, the one in control, you’re told to take it like a man and bear the weight, as heavy as it may be, without complaint.

Of course having no responsibilities can be just as bad. We all want and need to feel that we have value and purpose and will embrace roles wholeheartedly that are in service to those we love, causes we believe in or careers that engage and stimulate us. Without that focus in life, we can start drifting. It’s part of being connected to a world that’s bigger than us and we need that to thrive.

The ideal is to find the line between being weighed down by responsibility, which damages us, and having no responsibilities at all, which creates a life in which we float without meaning.

Equally, we all have to do things we’d rather not do or that we find challenging, whether that’s working to pay the bills, or caring for a sick spouse or elderly parent. This is why it’s essential to know that we can only take so much on our shoulders before our mental, physical and/or emotional health starts to suffer UNLESS there’s something topping us up and keeping us balanced.

In other words, it’s vital to top up what gets taken out to ensure you stay on the level – it’s simple maths. And sometimes that means allowing other people to support you or asking them for help.

Which is interesting because needing support or input from others is so often seen as being ‘less than’ for men, when actually the opposite is entirely true.

The only way you can be less than the man you really are is to be operating at a deficit and giving, giving, giving without receiving what you need to stay happy and healthy.

So if you’re feeling the weight of responsibility, what can you do to regain your balance?

A challenging responsibility can become easier if you make it an active choice rather than a passive duty. We have a tendency to trundle on along a straight line until something or someone knocks us off course. So ask yourself: Is what I’m doing still as valuable now as it was when I took it on? If not, re-evaluate your situation and discuss with those involved. Priorities and needs change over time. If it still feels important, reminding yourself of that fact can be motivating and re-energising.

You need to hear you’re doing a good job – we all do. If it’s feeling like a thankless task, talk to the person or people in question and say that you’re finding it tough without some acknowledgement or appreciation for what you’re doing. Or, failing that, let someone else give you the credit that’s due. We all need incentives to motivate us – and yes, I know it can be so hard to ask for that kind of validation. It should be just given, but sometimes people just don’t think or assume you’re ticking along just fine. If you’re not feeling appreciated, resentment can start simmering and that’s corrosive. Don’t let it get that far.

Do things for you. Sacrificing your health and sense of wellbeing isn’t going to help anyone. That metaphor of fitting your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs is hackneyed for a reason! Sleep well, eat well, get as much fresh air as possible and drink plenty of water. Make time for what you love, whether that’s sport, sex or Netflix.

Let someone shoulder the weight with you. Lean on friends or, if that feels too challenging, call on the professionals – therapists, mentors, trainers, coaches, respite carers: people trained to provide the extra muscle. When you’re feeling stronger, you can take the weight back – or carry on enjoying the relief of a responsibility shared.