The Nature of Responsibility

What is the nature of our responsibility to others? One aspect of codependency is taking too much responsibility for the other; not respecting the boundary that separates us as individuals. On the other hand, we are social animals, we live in community however vague its definition. Community implies some sort of social responsibility from looking after the welfare of those who cannot to learning how to communicate with some clarity. Living responsibly in community is about dancing the complex jig between independence and dependence; knowing when to ask for help and when to receive; taking care of others when it is needed (and welcome) and standing back when it is not. As Melody Beattie states, it’s the knowledge “…that when we blend territories, no invasion, shaming, humiliation, trespassing or overextended stays will occur.” 

  For me, one of the main signals that tells me I am in codependent waters is when I sense the reason behind my “responsible” actions (beliefs; thoughts) is to get something from the other. This could be love, validation, attention or safety and comes in the form of either implicit suggestions: If I take care of you, you wont leave me; or more explicit expectations: If I take care of your needs, you owe me. So when I question the nature of my responsibility to others, I need also to question the “why” of that responsibility. 

  This question came up while talking with a friend the other day. I had just finished telling her of my delight and surprise that my step son had called me during an extended trip in the Far East. I hadn’t expected him to call. I figured he would have wanted to step away from the responsibilities of home, including the checking in with loved ones. 

  The conversation turned general as my friend said that it was selfish not to check in with family when away for a period of time. I said (making it personal) if I let family know that I will not check in, then my responsibility ends. She said, what if you go missing? I said, if they don’t depend on me for their physical or emotional well-being (i.e. my dependents), then its my responsibility to find myself again. 

  But your family would look for you, she said. 

  But is that my responsibility? 

  When does family’s need for reassurance outweigh one’s own need to disappear for awhile, to let go of what it means to live in a community of loved ones? When does the emotional well-being of another (once again, not including dependents) take priority over your own? 

  The question travels the gamut of calling your dinner host to tell them you made it home safe and sound to questioning whether one has the right to end their life. When is it selfish to not check in and when is it asserting one’s right to live as they choose? On the other side, for the person waiting for the call, when is it codependence and when is it justifiable (and loving) concern?


Jo-Ann Svensson is a Bodywork Therapist.