What is hyper-responsibility and how can it affect those with OCD?

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Aug 17, 2023

What is hyper-responsibility and how can it affect those with OCD?

Katrina Fouracre talks about the role that hyper-responsibility played in her experience with OCD

“My OCD began shortly after my daughter was born. It started with wanting to make sure that the house was clean, and everything was in order and went to plan. I had a morning routine that meant everywhere was cleaned, even though it wasn’t dirty. It then got worse after a stomach bug we all had, and as someone with emetophobia (fear of vomit), this propelled my need to clean everything that needed to be sanitised to ensure we didn’t get ill again. Hand washing was constant, and I eventually avoided going out altogether.”

Katrina Fouracre is casting her mind back to when OCD entered her life. Eventually, after reaching out through various avenues, Katrina managed to connect with a counsellor who specialised in emetophobia, and who also supported her with OCD – although exploring and identifying her fears and phobias has been a complex experience, with one element holding a particular challenge.

Hyper-responsibility refers to when a person feels pressure to manage things to prevent harm to themselves and others, and even huge disasters. Associated with OCD, you may feel responsible for things that you can’t realistically control, including how other people behave and feel, natural disasters, or accidents. All of this can come with a great sense of anxiety, and feelings of guilt and dread. For Katrina, hyper-responsibility manifested in the need to protect her family from sickness.

“I would not let my husband or family help with anything; I had to do all the cleaning, cooking, and general day-to-day things to ensure they were done ‘right’, and everything was clean, because I couldn’t trust that anyone else would do it right,” she explains.

“Taking the responsibility for ensuring our ‘safety’ from germs, particularly sickness, was hard and stressful, but I felt, and still feel, that measures have to be put in place to reduce the risk of being sick. This means washing hands more often, using sanitiser after touching things like door handles in public, cleaning and sanitising things and ourselves if we go to places like doctors’ surgeries to ‘remove germs’.”

Katrina shares that hyper-responsibility meant she went years without seeing friends and family, and would avoid going to places which felt unsafe, such as supermarkets and soft play areas.

“Although hyper-responsibility is more commonly seen in people with OCD, we all experience forms of it from time to time,” says Hadassah Lipszyc, a counsellor who specialises in OCD. “For example, most people would remove a nail from the floor, if they saw it, to prevent an injury. The majority of people would also feel some degree of guilt if they didn’t take reasonable action to stop somebody from hurting themselves.


“People with OCD, however, carry out rituals hoping to ease their anxiety and guilt. For example, someone who keeps driving down the same road repeatedly to check that they haven’t knocked somebody over, or the parent who checks on their eight-year-old child throughout the night to make sure they are still breathing.”

Unfortunately, as Hadassah explains, any relief that is experienced by performing these rituals is usually quite short-lived, and it isn’t long before something triggers the cycle to begin again.

“The fear of something terrible happening becomes very intrusive, so people who suffer with this spend a lot of their time trying to prevent a disaster,” she continues. “It can be extremely time-consuming and debilitating, yet they feel it is completely their responsibility to stop bad things from happening, and taking responsibility for themselves and others becomes their main focus. My clients describe it as a powerful urge to protect everyone from devastation.”

So, what can be done to alleviate these feelings? For Katrina, working with a therapist and having the support of her family, and especially her husband, made all the difference. “Talking through my feelings and thoughts, and slowly allowing him to take responsibility for things too, has been relieving,” she says.

Hadassah also points to therapy as a useful resource. “One of the most common OCD treatments is exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP includes learning to manage your obsessions without performing your compulsions. Although ERP can be quite challenging, research shows that it can be extremely effective in treating OCD. In some cases, people with OCD can also benefit from prescription medication, under the guidance of a qualified medical professional.”

Hadassah also recommends self-care strategies alongside therapy, such as:

  • Practising mindfulness, which can also help reduce OCD symptoms when combined with ERP therapy.

  • Doing exercise, to support your overall mental health, including OCD.

  • Stress management and finding healthy emotional outlets for managing stress. This could include getting creative, journaling, or trying out a new hobby.

  • Engaging with OCD support groups. You may be able to find some in your local area, or there are many groups online. Head to ocduk.org to find out more.

A lot of mental health conditions can come with an element of fatigue, as they intrude into other parts of our lives and add to our mental load. Hyper-responsibility is one such example. But if this is something that sounds familiar to you, know that you’re not alone. And that with time, support, and understanding, there are steps you can take to ease the burden.

If you are struggling with OCD, head to the Counselling Directory to find out more or speak to a qualified counsellor.

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