“I used to think,” a friend once said, “that I was so mature — until I realized that I was only serious.” A child raised in an environment where the adults are unable and/or unwilling to handle responsibilities is often caught in this dilemma and becomes a “pseudo-adult child.” These are children who assume adult responsibilities when too young and, still thinking in the concrete and egocentric ways of a child, caught in distorted beliefs of what it means to be responsible.
Adults, who were “pseudo-adults” as children, are often those who distort the definition of the word responsibility. The case that follows illustrates the adult who doesn’t know the difference between responsibilities and burdens
Debra had originally sought therapy hoping to relieve the increasing stress she’d been experiencing at work. Her job was demanding but it was clear that her job was only part of her stress. Debra was married and neither her husband nor two grown sons appeared to be demanding.
A turning point was when she came to see me following a two-week vacation. The animated woman who laughingly shared amusing stories of her recent vacation was not the same person I had been seeing for the last eight months. “She’s had a personality transplant,” I thought to myself, as Debra walked out of my office that morning. This “Vacation Debra” exuded a sense of energy, curiosity and enjoyment of life. The pre-vacation Debra was somber, anxious and trapped in responsibilities. And it was this serious Debra who appeared at the next session.
Continuing to explore the environment of her childhood, we discovered a hidden theme of Debra having had to consistently play the role of the eldest child. “Did I ever tell you,” Debra said one day, “that my mother left me to take care of my younger brother when I was four years old and he was a year old?” I was skeptical about the accuracy of her recollection but a family member was able to conﬁrm it. From that memory, as well as others, a picture emerged of a mother who was an extremely immature woman with little knowledge or awareness of what it meant to be an adult, let alone a responsible parent. Each story of how Debra had become responsible for more of the family’s functioning was further proof of how she had gotten caught in an environment of responsibilities.
I asked her if she knew the difference between responsibility and being burdened. The dictionary supplied the difference. Responsibility is defined as the quality of being responsible, and responsible implies the satisfactory performance of duties – answerable or accountable as for something within one’s power. Burden is that which is borne with difficulty — synonyms are affliction and cross-to-bear.
“Eldest-Child Debra” was caught in the “cross-of-duties” – duties that were not within any child’s power to perform – and therefore offered only a state of being burdened.
“Vacation Debra” was free of “the affliction of duties” and was therefore free to enjoy more of her life. It was this Debra that slowly and steadily emerged.
Take another look at the meaning of responsibilities and burdened. Do you know the difference?