You know who you are: you’re the caretaker, the helpful one, always there for others. You like helping and being needed. Everyone knows they can count of you However, lurking underneath this perpetual servanthood are often some things that are a bit darker: maybe a need to be liked, maybe a fear of people not needing you any more. Maybe you were taught that your “no” doesn’t mean anything.
Women in particular struggle with this. We’ve been conditioned to be socially pleasing and accommodating, and many of us have trouble shaking the feeling that it’s rude to say no. But what they didn’t tell us was that you can’t say yes without saying no. If I agree to take my friend to the airport, I’m saying no to everything else I could be doing.
“But that’s selfish,” some clients object, “to not do something for somebody just so I can do what I want to do.”
And sometimes saying no to someone is selfish. If you’re only supporting others when there’s something in it for you, I encourage you to revisit that, because often acts of kindness do benefit the actor and we really can’t know how things play out. Usually, though, people who feel worn out by saying yes aren’t selfish at all and in fact, have somehow come to believe that treating their needs as important is somehow a failure of character.
Boundary issues are especially relevant for survivors of interpersonal trauma. Part of the pattern of abuse is that the abuser conditions the victim to believe terrible things about herself. The entire focus of the relationship is on the abuser and any attention paid to anything else is “selfish.” Others may learn in childhood that saying “no” is ineffective at best and bears terrible consequences at worst, so they learn to always submit as a survival mechanism.
There’s a video that I have seen more times than I can count. I have shown it to many clients when we talk about boundaries as a part of their recovery. Difficulty saying yes to ourselves can show up so many ways, regardless of whether it’s after a traumatic event. In the video, Brené Brown talks about how “being enough starts with Enough!” What she means is that if you treat everyone as more important than you are, and behave as though you have to prove you’re good enough, you’ll never feel like you’re there. You’ll always have something to prove, you’ll always have come up short somehow, you’ll always have disappointed someone. The only way out of the cycle is to behave as though you already are enough. As Brené says, “worthiness has no prerequisites.”