Sharon’s story illustrates a version of this. Sharon is a divorced single mother of three and a doctor working full time in a large public hospital. She told me that up until recently, she had continuously loaded herself up with responsibilities, always putting everyone else’s needs first and her own last. As far back as she could remember, she was always responding to what she felt were the needs and expectations of those around her – even if not asked to. She did this at work, where she carried a much bigger workload than most of the other doctors. But she also did this in her personal life at home and with her friends.
Several years ago she was starting to feel exhausted, and a bit depressed and resentful – and she found herself asking the question: why do I do this to myself? Unexpectedly and quite suddenly the answer came one day when Sharon and her kid’s were visiting Sharon’s morose and moody mother. Sharon’s parents divorced when she was eight years old, and from that time on Sharon’s mother became depressed and moody. This frightened Sharon – an only child – and she began to try and anticipate her mother’s moods and needs and what she could do to make her feel better. In this way Sharon learned to ignore her own needs and increasingly focussed only on trying to help her mother. What Sharon realised at that moment was that as she grew up, she had generalised that habit into focussing almost exclusively on the needs and desires of everyone around her – and never her own!
Shortly after that realisation, Sharon did something she would never previously have dreamed of doing. She hired a babysitter for a weekend and spent the entire weekend away from her home, by herself, thinking about how she was going to change her life. Over the weekend she made a firm decision to give much more weight to her own needs and desires and not always put everyone else’s first – which required learning to say “no”. This, of course meant undertaking some major rearrangements at work and at home. She then hired a coach to help her make some detailed plans for cutting back her working hours at the hospital, and reducing what she needed to do at home.
When she announced her decision about working hours to her boss at the hospital, he was initially resistant. But she told him that either he needed to accept her decision or she would find a new position – and not wanting to lose her, he agreed. At home, she hired a nanny who could do both routine cleaning and cook dinner in addition to looking after the kids when Sharon was working. (Her former nanny only did childminding). She also announced to her kids that she would no longer be the only parent who drove her kids and their friends around on weekends – she would now share this job with other parents.
Because her instincts for accommodating others were so strong, Sharon said all this was initially very hard for her – especially taking the stand with her boss and telling others kids’ parents she would no longer be the exclusive driver. But in the end, the whole experience was one of self renewal for Sharon, and it improved her sense of self worth and self esteem. Her life changing decisions also gave her more energy and more quality time with her kids and friends. It actually worked out better for everyone, not just Sharon.
This is Sharon’s story – but do you or your partner or friends continue doing things you know will not make you happy? Or if you have changed that, how have you achieved this change?