One of the themes I have noticed in counselling is how people can often spend many years focused on pleasing others with barely a thought for themselves. Whilst being generous and giving are undoubtedly good things to be, if we learn that we are valued primarily for being the one who goes the extra mile and is always there, this can lead us to feel as though we have to uphold this permanently.
As you can imagine, over time this can be exhausting. If you no longer feel you have the time or energy to do the things that you love, you are frustrated with what feels like the constant demands of others, or you have completely lost touch with what you enjoy, you are not alone.
Struggling to say no…
Often people who find it hard to value themselves are accustomed to putting others first. If this has become a theme throughout life, we might find it becomes hard to say no to those we love or admire for fear they might reject us or lose respect for us.
We may not even notice that we put others wishes first until we reach a point where we are so out of touch with our own wants and needs that a crisis looms. This is such an easy habit to fall into, it is almost always easier to put others needs in front of our own. There is little risk in attending to others needs and it often makes us feel valued and needed.
Isn’t being selfless a good thing?
It’s important to note that doing something selfless or altruistic is certainly not in itself a bad thing. Doing things for others is very rewarding and can bring a real sense of gratitude, but when it becomes a default habit at the expense of ourselves or our values there is a high cost and we can easily set ourselves up to be taken advantage of.
This habit can lead us into a vicious circle. If for example you are exhausted, worn out and frustrated then you are not in a good place to be able to offer the support to others that you might otherwise need or like to. You may then feel guilty that you aren’t able to help or compromise your health further in order to try.
It may seem paradoxical but most importantly in order to be able to support others, we must first support and nourish ourselves. This highlights the importance of healthy self care which involves being aware of your personal boundaries. Establishing boundaries is paramount in helping you develop the life you wish and learning to be kind to yourself.
Without boundaries we are likely to spend most of our lives living out other peoples wishes. It’s possible we can reach a point where we feel resentful of others because we have spent our lives doing what they want and not been rewarded for our efforts. But if we do things that are in sync with our own values and needs, then the process of doing them is reward enough in itself.
Finding the time to reflect…
In order for us to affect change, an increase in our self awareness is often key in moving us forwards. Over time we often learn to ignore our instinctive responses by second guessing them with rational thinking or listening to the negative messages we’ve learnt and internalised over time.
Consider for a moment, when you are asked to do something that you know on some level you don’t feel like doing, perhaps the thought of saying no makes you anxious or uncomfortable?
If you feel you struggle with saying no when you really want to, whether its out of a sense of duty, wanting to be liked by others or because you want to be admired at work for your dedication; dare to stop, let go and tune in to your intuitive needs.
For many people this will require a willingness to let go and sit with being uncomfortable and restlessness. This may sound easy but you may find it much harder than anticipated. It will likely take some practice so try to keep in mind the purpose here is to release yourself from the pressure of being constantly busy and productive, not to instantly achieve a blissful state. In fact the less you focus on the outcome of what you are doing the better.
We all have different ways of relaxing or disconnecting and I wouldn’t presume to know which fits you best but here are just a few examples which can benefit people:
The reason these activities are good for relaxing and disconnecting from stress is that they generally require all of your attention in a none outcome focussed sense. Secondly they require a structured process which may also involve creativity, this can also help you to focus on the process rather than the outcome.
With practice many people find that this time becomes very valuable as it comes with an acceptance that you do not HAVE to be doing something ‘productive’, it is alright to just ‘be’.
Ultimately it is about learning to slow down, tune in to yourself and sit with whatever arises – and to practice being OK with that. You may then find that this process helps you to become more in align with yourself again, to reflect on what you enjoy in life and improve your patience.
If you feel more relaxed and patient its also likely you are in a better place to both support others and make decisions which feel more genuine, such as saying no when it feels right.
Reality testing your fear…
Whilst to some people it might sound or feel frightening, learning to say no to the important people in our lives often results in a feeling of empowerment.
We tend to build up our fears the longer they remain unchallenged to the extent where they feel overwhelming. By challenging them we can test out whether there is truth to the fears or if we have become accustomed to them.
It requires courage to knowingly do something which you feel uncomfortable or anxious about and whilst we might consider courage to be something possessed by hero’s we hold up as shining examples, the truth is much more accessible and is within us all.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to be afraid and act anyway. The next time you are asked to do something and your gut instinct is to say no but you feel compelled to say yes, could you try politely saying ‘no, i’m sorry, i can’t this time’. (You may wish to give a generic reason such as you have other plans or too much work on, but realistically you don’t need to justify your decision).
Be aware that if they are not used to you saying no, they may suggest a reason why you should agree or try to convince you, but you need only remain polite, smile and repeat your reasoning.
Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t happen or you give in, remember to be patient and kind to yourself, it may just take a little practice to build up your confidence in following your values. This is the essence of courage, to keep going and hoping in the presence of fear.
Once you’ve said no to someone you may previously have found it too intimidating to refuse, and the reaction you get is by no means as bad as you had anticipated, you may well find that you feel empowered to have more control over your life in general.
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