By Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC
Posted on November 22, 2020
Are you a bit overstretched?
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Q: My husband says I overdo it in helping others and that people take advantage of me. I think he’s right. I do seem to be the go-to person when organisations need a volunteer. Same with my friends, when they need help. And around the holidays I’m called upon to do even more, which can become overwhelming.
I’m not sure how to draw a line in the sand between being generous and compassionate towards others but not being at everyone’s beck and call. As I’m writing this my husband is reminding me to tell you that I’m the oldest of seven children, and that when growing up I had to consistently help out with the younger ones. I even remember a number of occasions in which I had to cook dinner and clean up for siblings rather than study for a school exam. Perhaps it is in my DNA to help others?
Don’t get me wrong. I like doing things for people. But sometimes I really don’t want to be helping others. Sometimes I get exhausted and resent others expecting me to always be available. But then I feel guilty, can’t say no and just keep on doing the same. – Daisy
A: Dear Daisy,
Being helpful to others, being generous with your time and contributing to your community are all admirable traits. But I get a sense from you that there’s more than meets the eye. Whereas those asking for your help are able to see your niceness and agreeableness, they’re not seeing the turmoil that simmers below the surface. Burnout. Irritation. Frustration. As a mere mortal, you have a finite amount of energy to expend. When you give too much to everybody else, there is little left for you except fumes. And as anyone who has tried to run their car when the gas gauge reads ‘empty’ knows, we don’t get far on fumes.
Always being available and doing for others can mean you’re underdoing for yourself. Practising self-care does not mean you’re being selfish. It is a necessity, for if you fail to do so you’ll find yourself getting tired, cranky and anxious.
It would be easy for me to say “Speak up! Say no (in a nice way)!” Or to tell you to be assertive, honest about your feelings, and to exert your personal power. Personal power is about your attitude and personal qualities, like being comfortable with what you believe and confident about being able to express your opinions. But that is unlikely to work. Something you’re telling yourself is preventing you from taking the steps to set some limits.
Doing for others is great, but too much doing for others isn’t good for you. You will do well to look at the underlying motivations for not being able to establish good boundaries. For example, an unhealthy motivator for overextending ourselves could be due to fearing rejection or being judged by others. If we’re doing too much because we need positive affirmations from them to make us feel good, then that’s not healthy either.
Birth order and parents play a large role in shaping our sense of who we are. It is possible that as the oldest of seven children you developed a sense of your identity that required you to put the needs of others above your own. You mentioned having to defer studying for exams in favour of tending to younger siblings. Experiences such as these can inadvertently influence the creation of beliefs you carry into adulthood that your concerns or needs are not as important as those of others. Beliefs may include that you should be strong and meet others’ expectations of you, regardless of how you feel, what you want, or what you need. In other words, that your feelings aren’t as important as those of others.
Being able to speak up and set some limits on how much you want to help others involves learning how you, not others, want to use your time. When you determine their needs to be of greater importance than yours, the balance is off. So the path to feeling better is to trust your ability to understand your thoughts, decide what childhood beliefs impact on those thoughts, and select which of those long held but misguided thoughts you would like to modify or discard. Once you do, you will be able to become more confident in yourself, trust your feelings and be able to do what you think is best for you, rather than continually compromising your needs.
Your ability to feel confident about your thoughts and feelings is what will grow your sense of personal power. Your personal power will help you feel good about your decisions. No longer will you have to feel resigned to put other people’s needs ahead of yours because you care more about what they think about you than what you want or need.
Successfully discarding the beliefs that play over and over in your head that mistakenly tell you that your self worth is determined by how much you do for others will enable you to make healthier, more balanced choices. You’ll find yourself helping others because you want to rather than doing so because of the incessant pounding of ‘shoulds’ beating in your head. You’ll no long be giving of your time and energy at your own personal expense. As you learn to identify your personal power, hold on to it. You’ll have worked hard to develop it. No one can take it away from you. Don’t ever give it away.
One parting word of caution from me as you embark on your path of personal growth, Daisy.
Not everyone will jump up and down with joy as you establish boundaries that are good for you. It is human nature to resist change, and others may not welcome the changes from the former you, who was always front and centre with helping, to the new you, who sometimes now says ‘no’.
When you get push back from others who challenge to you, you may experience pangs of guilt. You may feel like succumbing to those old misguided beliefs that associated self-care with selfishness. Be determined as you travel through this period of change. Involve your husband as a support person, as he understands the effort you are putting forth in your personal growth, and don’t lose sight of your goals. You’re worth it.
Wishing you well,
Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC is author of Overcoming Adversity: Conquering Life’s Challenges, by Australian Academic Press. Eileen is a life and business coach and public speaker residing in the United States. She has spent her professional career working in medical and psychiatric hospitals and in her private practice, counselling people experiencing emotionally traumatic events.
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