Life has been chaotic recently. Not my own little bubble of a life that I maintain up here in New Hampshire, but amongst people I care about – relationship issues, legal problems, etc. Things go haywire, and I hear about them, and immediately want to solve all of the problems. I’m a helper, after all.
Luckily, I have smart people that love me. My best friend is reminding me to hold boundaries in this time, to remain largely uninvolved, and not to play therapist to people in my personal life. This is sound and sage advice, and I welcome it. It’s an important reminder for individuals like me – a therapist not only by trade but down to my very bones, so much so that when I’m asked why I decided to pursue this profession, I can honestly reply that I never considered anything else.
For many of us that grow up as caretakers, helpers, and healers, the road has been paved before us. We came of age in environments where we learned how to keep ourselves secure by keeping the peace. We became skilled chameleons, anticipating the emotions of those around us before they emerged, and we shaped our own self-presentations to best keep order, even when it meant suppressing our true feelings. We had our own ideas, wants, and needs, but allowed them to be secondary in order to cater to the ideas, wants and needs of the others around us, because their emotional states were precarious, and directly impacted our own. In this way, we were expert actors, supporting players in the stories of our own lives, exchanging our authenticity for something that was palatable and soothing to whomever was responsible for taking care of us.
Sometimes, we disappeared altogether.
In sessions with clients, many of whom are also helpers and expert emotional shape-shifters, the thread often emerges that they have lost themselves, or don’t know who they are. When we talk about acting from their center, or Self, the idea is so foreign as to create confusion. There is no discernible “Self” left to act from. I relate to this sentiment, and this fear that there is no center, having struggled mightily to locate my own. And, I cannot stress enough, the Self is present, intact, and ready to steer the ship. We just need to feel safe enough to allow this to happen.
So how do we create a feeling of safety? First, I believe, we need to get in touch with the notion that we have not felt safe, and validate the reasons why this might be so. This can be hard work on its own, as many of us spend a long time excusing the behaviors of those around us, and operating from a “it’s not that bad” mentality. Struggle and pain is relative. If something’s been hard on us, then it was hard, regardless of how it measures up to everybody else’s pain.
Next, we do the work of accepting all the less-than-wonderful parts of ourselves that we’ve voted off the island in an effort to keep the peace. This means getting in touch with our wants and needs, and authentic thoughts and ideas. The word “selfish” comes up frequently in this self-inventory. Often, it’s highly inapplicable. We are simply acknowledging that we are human, and getting to know all the parts of us that make us so. Even (especially) the needy ones.
Then, we set boundaries. Lots of them. We begin to get a sense of how we want the people in our lives to treat us, and we try out asking to be treated that way. We define how we want to spend our time, and set limits around things that do not correspond with that intention. We become choosier about who we surround ourselves with, how much supporting we do of others, and we begin to allow others to support us. We find out what we like and don’t like, and make life decisions based on this new information.
Finally, we begin to live day-to-day according to everything we’ve discovered about ourselves. We empower ourselves to make choices and act from our Self (who was in there all along!), and not from the parts of ourselves that have had to cater to others throughout our lives. We choose our own health, our own wellness, and our own happiness, and then make space for others after the fact. All of this is scary business and uncharted territory for many of us, but it is important work, and well worth all the trouble.
The helpers and healers among us must take extra good care of ourselves – after all, if we don’t, we certainly can’t be of service in any meaningful way. More importantly, we don’t want to miss out on our own full, rich, and authentic lives. What we try to support in those around us, let’s create for ourselves, first. Then, when we choose to, we may help others from a place of strength, wholeness, and intention.