Picture this: you’re in a room full of happy people. Everyone is having a great time, laughing, chatting, dancing and enjoying all the things you love. You scan the room and notice there’s one person who’s feeling a little down.
Your heart sinks. Your eye keeps wandering. Their expression and posture keeps looming in your brain. You keep imagining what they might be feeling or the cause of their discomfort. You keep trying to think of solutions to help. Eventually, you drop everything you’re doing and go be with them. You spend your time divided between them and everyone else. You frequently check-in with them and ask if they need anything. When you’re not there, you spend your time thinking or worrying about them.
By the end of the night, everyone is buzzing with joy and though part of you feels noble and fulfilled by your decision to help carry the load of another, you’re mostly buzzing with anxiety and depletion. You feel like you need to ground. You feel agitated and overwhelmed. You’re fawning to everyone around you, while also feeling a bit defensive of the last ounce of your energy. You’ve ruined your good time. You frantically leave before you lose all of yourself, but really... it’s too late.
Is this you?
I know it feels like me. Sometimes I feel like a police dog, trained to sniff out all the drugs in the room. Instead of drugs, I scout pain, discomfort, sadness, anger, loneliness and anxiety. Amidst a room full of goodness, I find the one place that hurts and I take it on.
During a yoga retreat I attended in 2017, our teacher instructed us to gather with a group and come up with an interpretive dance that expresses who we are. We were to perform it in front of the 500 other attendees. While everyone was choreographing their soul, I was laser-focused on the Swedish woman in our group who could barely speak English and was having a true anxiety attack about the assignment at hand.
"It's okay! You've got this!" I said as I pat her on the back. "We're all here for you and in this together! Let us know how we can help."
That's where I should've left it. However, I couldn't stop thinking about this woman. I was so hung up on her struggle that I couldn't even feel myself in the room. It was like I was merged into her; Her struggle was mine.
It was time to perform and I had no idea what I was going to show for it. I hadn't done anything, but console someone else. My group walked onto the stage. All eyes watched us intently. The music started and all the women, writhed and swirled their bodies in the light. Power, emotion, grace, sensuality, love and joy poured through them. Everyone felt the beauty of their spirits. People were touched by their souls.
The other women brushed the cheek of the Swedish woman as they galavanted around the stage. They smiled at her lovingly. I see you, beautiful sister! You can be free too! Their movements said. They showed her care while never abandoning their power.
I stood right center holding her in my arms.
I stood in her suffering with pride. I truly believed I was some sort of healing warrior. I caught eyes with my teacher who only skimmed mine disapprovingly and dismissively.
What!? I remember thinking. I am the most upstanding attendee in this building! Look at me! This is the purest expression of soul and God anyone's ever seen! Isn't this love, empathy, and compassion in its perfect form!?
It took me years to understand that this in fact, is quite the opposite.
It took the years of my childhood that I took on my parents' marriage struggles and the scorning from professional therapists. It took the years of carrying my hairless cat, Bubbis for so many hours per day that I'd make my back sore as an elementary schooler. It took years of spending the majority of my days on the phone with my friends about their personal and relationship problems. It took years of believing everyone else's needs trumped mine. It took years of feeling like I needed you to be happy so I could be happy. It took years of believing I was loving, wise, and sensitive by giving everything I had to those I loved - or even just the people around me - before I finally realized: this role is stealing my joy.
This is not my job.
We all need a lift, some support and a little extra love to feel good sometimes, but not to the point where you're throwing yourself out on the pavement. I'm not breaking my back for Bubbis anymore. You know you’ve exceeded the limits of healthy empathy and moved into people pleasing and over-responsibility when you can’t help but incessantly worry about or console the one person in the room that's feeling down. When all you can feel is the pain of that being, you need to re-think your role and set better boundaries. Being the overly responsible people pleaser diminishes your power, dims your light, strains your spirit and really, is a form of codependence.
I don't need you to be happy to be happy. I don't need world peace to feel peace. I don't need anything from anyone to shine my light and feel the light. It's here, it's available. It's time to step into it.
Here are the steps to notice if you're taking on too much responsibility and trying to please others:
1. Notice how you feel physically in social settings/with others.
I've felt rigid, disconnected from my body and self, tight in my solar plexus (center of self) and a strange buzzing sensation outside of and around me.
2. Notice how you feel emotionally in and after social settings/with others.
I've felt anxious, stressed, overwhelmed/overstretched, depleted and eventually, reclusive and resentful.
3. Notice what belief systems you hold about your role with others.
I believed that the needs of others were always superior to mine and it was my role to help anyone in need. At one point, I had even set a conscious intention to always give my friends every ounce of my time, love and energy.
4. Identify the root 'why' of your belief systems.
I wanted to feel like I belonged and had a purpose. My primary source of attention as a child was from my role as a counselor and peacemaker in my home. It made me feel like it was the only way to receive love. I wanted love, but thought it was the only way to receive it (and give it!)!
5. Create new rules of operating with others.
I made a pact that my needs are just as important as those of others, that I can say “this is too much,” that assertive communication (speaking up, being honest, being clear and direct) is much healthier than passive communication, that I can step back and excuse myself when I'm losing myself, feeling pressured or don't know what to say, that people are fully capable of blooming, self-regulating and healing and it is not my responsibility to take it all on like it is my own, and that I vow to be my own protector.
I know this takes time. It's challenging work. Know that it's worth it. You'll connect deeper, feel more energized, relaxed and healthier. Trust me.
Remember to replace your old habits of taking too much responsibility with these golden rules:
- Check in with yourself often.
- Ask the people you want to break your back over how you can support them and check in with their answer. Is it truly something you can give? Can you take their word for it and not play guessing games? Can you realize that even a small gesture goes a long way? Try inviting them to join the fun if nothing else and if they don't reciprocate, they don't reciprocate.
- Remember it’s never been your job to make everyone feel okay. Enjoy yourself and all the light in the room and the world.
- Love has never meant breaking your back for others. That's never been love.
Need more help? I know this work intimately. I'd love to show you how to free yourself and stay in your joy.