The copilot syndrome

I recently thought about my habit of being ready to take over responsibility from others. The classical situation is when I’m with one or more people in a car and I am in the passenger seat. I call it the “copilot syndrome”.


In this situation I feel I have to be alert and ready to help: I check the road signs, the directions, the weather ahead, I ask the driver if they’re tired or thirsty. The funny thing is that I would not be able to take the wheel: I stopped driving in 2010 and am too scared to try again, especially without preparation. So I am in the funny position to feel a lot of responsibility but be unable to actually do much. At the same time I can’t relax and for example simply look outside of the window, or sleep. I have the fear that I would not notice something important and that it would be my fault, that I should have paid attention; as if there were a responsibility chain and I am always the next in line, and all others (except the first in line) come after me, and even worse: none of them would step up if I don’t act.

Source: lupineandruby‘s pinterest

The other, maybe more important, funny thing I finally noticed is that it’s rarely necessary that I pay so much attention, or that I feel this copilot burden at all. It doesn’t mean not caring about how the car trip is going, or be passive if doubts or problems arise – it’s more about feeling a more reasonable amount of responsibility and not waste energy and attention being fully alert while the situation is well under control.

I can understand how my readiness to step up has often been seen as great resource and a cool fallback for the group of people I was part of, because others were reassured that I would take care of glitches before/instead of anyone else. But it’s a disaster for me, when this means that I have to constantly feel in charge: this indeed happened on a couple jobs, that I luckily managed to leave before they drained all my energies.

I have a few hunches on how I learned to feel this obligation to pick up responsibilities. The important thing now is that I have a plan to get rid of this habit. My current strategy is to pick situations where actually nothing serious can happen if I don’t pick up the lead, and see what indeed happens. The experiment is ongoing and it’s early to tell if this approach would work in more critical situations; but I can already say that I feel more relaxed, and even reassured that I’m making progress.


Responsibility sharing in a couple/family

A friend of mine linked me this comic from Emma: “You should have asked” (original French version: Fallait demander; Italian translation: Bastava che chiedessi).

I fully agreed with the presentation of the problem, the uneven responsibility shares in a couple. In my culture it often means that the woman/wife is expected to bear more responsibility about the household than her husband, more likely because of habit than for a conscious choice. This is becoming less and less effective, as the highly unbalanced roles are unapplicable in the present society; but even if it were more efficient to keep the uneven share, it should at least be very clear and somehow compensated in other domains (but it would probably be easier to share the responsibilities equally…). I totally liked the end of the comic, that provides suggestions on how to talk about it in a constructive way.

The comic made me think about the example my family gave me, and I’d invite you to reflect about your own – for example: was cleaning done exclusively by one parent, who never asked for help? Who did grocery shopping? Was the time together “ruined” by household tasks? Was it possible for the other parent to try themselves in a household task without being judged, laughed at, or set aside because they were not good enough? Was it implied that a single-manager solution was the best possible?

I would like to specify that I don’t judge my parents for not having shared household responsibilities more evenly. They did better than their parents, and gave me a good starting point.

However, I felt the need to consider the other partner’s point of view, because it could be a crucial part of the solution. I have heard this complaint too often, and I complained about it myself – but the response from the partner was often “then just ask me what to do”, or “I am not as good as you in managing the house, it’s better that you keep being the manager”, or “I think I’m doing my share, I don’t understand what’s wrong”. The last one rang a bell. How can it be? The management of a household is definitely not rocket science. In my eyes it is more a matter of practice and attention rather than teaching. But somehow it has been made invisible, even if it requires a significant amount of time and mental processing. I realise that my partner doesn’t see much of the household tasks I perform, and for sure he doesn’t see my mental todo-list. It is of course hard to have two people coordinating mental todo-lists, but it’s because they are not the right tool: it makes a lot more sense to have a physical map, accessible to both, like a whiteboard or an online tool (at least until a sort of routine sets in).

One crucial point that forced me to take my responsibilities on some tasks was that I was not able to avoid the consequences of delaying it forever. For example: when I lived alone, I couldn’t avoid taking out the trash. Any delay, even the most justifiable, didn’t change the fact that the trash kept rotting and smelling, so that delaying the task meant only more discomfort and work (taking the trash out vs. living with a smelly kitchen + taking the trash out + cleaning the bin + removing the smell from the house). If I had learned that I could delay a task until someone did it for me, because it was uncomfortable for them, I would had actually learned that it was not my responsibility.

I’ll think more about it and maybe post some updates, but for now I would stop here, and hope that it is already useful to some of my readers.