Liam wrinkled his brow as he looked at me for an explanation. After 3 months in counseling, he was frustrated, confused, and burnt out. He couldn’t figure out what he was doing wrong –– in each and every relationship he found himself in, he gave 110%, yet he always seemed to come out hurt and alone.
Liam was a great guy. Thoughtful, optimistic, and hard-working; he liked helping people in general, not just his girlfriends. He was the guy everyone called when they needed a hand. He donated to charity, worked in the medical profession, and even made sure his elderly grandmother’s grass was cut every other weekend.
So what was he doing wrong?
I see people like Liam a lot ––they give and give and give, and that’s great for a while. But when it comes time to receive and they don’t get what they think they’re due, they become bitter, angry, and resentful. They question why they are even giving in the first place when there are so many selfish people out there just ready to take advantage of them.
There are two main reasons this happens:
The first is a lack of boundary awareness. This happens when someone is very relationship-oriented and the line between where their feelings start and another person’s start gets all blurry and confusing. They often assume responsibility for the entire relationship, instead of understanding that that responsibility has to be shared for the relationship to work. Everything works out fine as long as they feel like they’re getting the responses they “should” get from the other person. But the minute they start to feel taken advantage of, it becomes clear that the relationship has become one-sided. For instance, Liam loved doing thoughtful things like helping his girlfriends make plans to further their careers. But when they responded with the expectation that he would be the one doing the heaving lifting (finding graduate programs to apply for, searching for books and resources in their industry, or coaching them to ask for a raise) that he would overwhelmed and frustrated that they weren’t taking the initiative themselves, leading to resentment which only damaged the relationship.
The second reason this happens is people buying into the myth that all selfishness is bad when actually, it isn’t. In fact, selfishness exists on a spectrum. On one end is selflessness (totally subordinating your desires and needs to someone else’s), the other is selfishness (totally ignoring everyone else’s needs in favor of your own), and in the middle is healthy self-interest, where you consciously evaluate what you have to give emotionally and energetically, what’s being asked of you, and if yes or no is the best answer given your current availability.
To make that a little more concrete, let’s look at Liam again. If he was being totally selfless, he would take on the entire responsibility to moving his girlfriend’s careers forward and leading that process by doing all of the work.
If he was being totally selfish, he would ignore any request for help from his girlfriends to help them with their careers and take the stance that “it’s not my problem.”
If he was practicing a healthy self-interest, he would meet his girlfriends as an equal and be supportive of their process of moving their own careers forward. This might mean making time to have helpful conversations, asking good questions and expressing the belief that he saw them as capable and competent people. It may even including helping them find resources, upon request.
When you’ve been operating in relationships like Liam for a while, maintaining a healthy self-interest can feel scary. It might feel like you’re letting people down, or like not being your naturally helpful, problem solving self.
But saying “no” to taking on other people’s challenges, struggles and problems you allow them to build the confidence that they can succeed with support instead of needing to be rescued. It also keeps you in our integrity. There is a big energetic difference from a resentful “yes” and whole hearted “yes,” and from a guilty “no” to a whole hearted “no.” And the receiver can sense if a gift or support comes from love or resentment. By letting others solve their own problems and staying emotionally supportive you allow them to be their most empowered self and you to stay true to your healthy self interest, even though there may be initial disappointment.
(Not to mention that saying “yes” to others from a place of fear feels like a strain, tension and over time, resentment, even though it might have initially felt good.)
Long story short? The more you’re aware of and attuned to your healthy self interest the more helpful you can be to others and happier you will be in your relationships.
Sound like something you could use in your life? If you want help on learning to say “no” from place of love rather than “yes” out of fear, let’s chat. Click here to set up a free 20 minute consult.