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Dr. D. Writes: Are You Too Nice To Others For Your Own Good?

Are we overextending ourselves to the point where we are becoming angry and resentful?

When do our good traits become problematic for us? Are we overextending ourselves to the point where we are becoming angry and resentful? Well, if that describes you then you are not alone. A lot of people struggle with this issue. Consider the following stories:

Angelina was raised to be very helpful to others. She has a very agreeable personality and mostly says “yes” to everything that is asked of her. Everybody says that she has a good heart and she loves to hear that. She feels uncomfortable with saying “no” to people even when it hurts her. For example, she picks up the load for others at work. She recently lent a family member a huge sum of money that resulted in her being unable to pay her own bills. She is increasingly resentful and frustrated with people taking advantage of her. 

John recently inquired about starting therapy because he has become overwhelmed and anxious. He even feels afraid of expressing his dissenting views in group settings for fear that he will anger some people. He does not understand why he feels so unhappy, frustrated, irritated, and has trouble sleeping. He recently needed help with something and none of his friends that he had made many sacrifices for could help him. John feels very disappointed and angry. Despite this development, he is still unable to say “no” to others because he does not want to be perceived as being selfish. He cannot discuss how he feels with others because he does not want to be seen as complaining too much. 

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What is going on with Angelina and John? It does not take much to understand their problem. They simply do not know how to say “no” to others. They are people-pleasers. They are liked by everybody. They are considered to be dependable but at what expense? They are experiencing relationship burnout: giving of yourself until it hurts you in every way. They have both suddenly realized that the people they are bending over backwards for are not doing the same for them. Are you like Angelina and John? If so, consider the following ways to address the issue:

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Examine how you became a people-pleaser. Perhaps you genuinely love to help others. Perhaps it stems from how you were raised. Perhaps it is your personality. Perhaps you believe that love requires self-sacrifice. Whatever the reason is, you need to fully explore the factors that resulted in your being that way. Understanding what drives the need or desire to overextend yourself at your own expense will help you correct the problems you have consequently run into.

Examine the benefits you get from being a people-pleaser. Every behavior serves a purpose even if it is negative. At the core of every person is the need for acceptance and validation. Some people, however, have a hero or savior complex. They feel a sense of fulfillment from being the one who saves the day. The solution then would be to seek other ways in which you can feel loved or validated. Maybe you are trying to prove that you are the epitome of unconditional love; that you can sacrifice everything even if you get nothing back. Well, are you okay with getting nothing back? Some people also insist that being of service to others is what they are best at. While it is true that we all express love differently, we have to consider whether our efforts to be loving, caring and helpful are rather hurting us. If you feel burned out, used, and abused then you need to re-assess the ways in which you are accessible to others.

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Examine your boundaries. A lot of people struggle with setting boundaries. They have a lot of anxiety about turning down requests. The demands are endless: a family member or friend who always needs help; the neighbor who is always asking you for favors; the colleague who always expects you to help them; or the group that always assumes that you will do all the work. On one hand, it is flattering that you are that trusted and relied upon. However, if you cannot dictate the direction and pace of your life, and you feel overwhelmed and unhappy, it means that you are not in control of your life. This will ultimately result in you taking care of others’ needs while your own needs are never fully met. Setting boundaries in all spheres of your life will help you properly navigate relationships and reduce or alleviate relationship-induced stress and anxiety.

Here are some ways to establish boundaries: Be clear about roles, responsibilities and expectations (E.g., I really would like some help with the housework; could you please do the dishes?”). Learn to say “no” in a firm but respectful way (E.g., I really wish I could help but I am sorry; this is just not a good time… I wish I could pick you up from the airport but I have other commitments at that time; would you be able to call somebody else or call an Uber?”). Learn not to make others’ emergencies your emergencies, especially when they are not really emergencies (E.g., let that call go to voicemail when you are busy. You can call them back later.).

Do a cost-benefit analysis. Always look at both sides of the equation. Does my output of positive emotions match my input? Am I satisfied with my quality of life? Am I generally happy with what I am getting back from others or am I giving and getting nothing in return? Am I truly appreciated or am I just being used? Am I happy with the outcomes of my relationships or am I starting to feel a range of negative emotions about how I give of myself to others? If the costs outweigh the benefits then it is time to re-negotiate the terms of your interactions with others.

Be assertive. You are your own best advocate. Nobody will stand up for you like you can; if you learn how to do so, that is. Being assertive means that you can speak up for yourself in a rational, respectful way. With enough practice, you can get past the anxiety associated with being assertive whether for yourself or someone else who may need your support. If others’ behaviors or actions are hurting you or others – whether in your home, work place or group – be bold and speak up. It is better to express dissatisfaction and resolve an issue than internalize it and be unhappy.

Abusive people who use others love to interact with people who are not assertive. Learn to recognize the dysfunctional patterns in your relationships and do not be afraid to discuss your concerns with those you think are taking advantage of you. Use an outline, if necessary, to present your thoughts in a logical, concise manner. Somebody might wonder: What if they punish me in various ways (E.g., withdraw their love, affection, availability or get verbally abusive)? Well, then that confirms that they are only interested in what they can get from you or what you can do for them. It is a one-way street at that point and you have to decide whether to accept the terms of that relationship.

Too much of everything is bad; well, that is if you get nothing back. While it is imperative that we develop good traits, that could become a double-edged sword. Ultimately, if being too nice is hurting you then STOP and re-assess how to manage the various positive traits that you are sharing unless you do not mind being Santa Claus. Some sacrifices or relationships need to be ended. Some need to be re-adjusted. Some need to be quid pro quo or reciprocal in nature. If you were in business, would you negotiate a contract in which you got no returns on your huge and frequent investments? If the answer is nay, then rethink how you are relating with others.

You cannot please everybody.  Well, you are not jollof rice. In fact, even jollof rice cannot please everybody. Come to terms with the fact that you are not God and cannot solve the problems of the whole world. Even God sometimes leaves people to their own devices, lets people learn the hard way, and allows them to figure things out for themselves. As much as we say that God’s love is unconditional, He actually has conditions for His love. Oh, and not everybody loves God. Not even God gets 100% love and approval. Let that sink in!

Assess your physical and mental wellbeing.  The litmus test is what your body is telling you and what you think and feel about the situation. You may have a range of physical symptoms such as exhaustion, insomnia and muscle tenseness. You may have a range of psychological symptoms such as being tearful, feeling used and abused, feeling angry, anxious and depressed, among other things. If that is the case then it is time to re-assess how you are giving of yourself.

In summary, do not be like Angelina or John! Does re-assessing how we give of ourselves mean that we should no longer help others? No; it only means that we have to be realistic (see things as they are) and pragmatic (make decisions based on practical considerations) in our relationships. We should not lose ourselves in trying to help others. Why fall on the sword of self-sacrifice? You better have a very good reason for that and you must not complain then! There must be thresholds that must be met by all in our various relationships. This does not mean that we should start being über-selfish. It only means that we have to start looking out for ourselves and taking care of ourselves to ensure that we maintain our sanity. After all, an empty tea pot cannot offer tea to anybody. Neither can a broken one.

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