Are you tired of being the one everyone counts on, who can do it all, seemingly without needing anything for yourself? Are you exhausted from giving to everyone and everything? Here, in Part 3 of this series, I offer some steps you can take to break the over-giving habit and reclaim your vitality. In short, how to take care of yourself in a world that too often asks too much from you.
Ironically, the way we’re taught to break the habit of over-giving is to give more, in this case, more to ourselves, with better “self-care.” While this sounds like a wise solution, adding this new item to our to-do list (self-care) essentially means that we should continue doing everything asked of us, fulfilling all responsibilities and demands (over-giving), but on top of it, should also squeeze in a spa treatment—for ourselves. And furthermore, if we don’t or won’t, then we’re responsible for our own exhaustion.
The reality is that far too many people “self-care” by anesthetizing and medicating themselves. Alcohol, food, shopping, Xanax, the smartphone—there are infinite options for dysfunctional “self-care,” ways to dull and avoid feeling what they feel, and experiencing the consequences of over-giving exhaustion and emotional burnout. Unfortunately, while squeezing in pampering sessions and checking out of reality may temporarily and superficially ease our exhaustion, in the long run, they don’t work, not with any sustainable results.
Noticing Your Choices
The first step in breaking the over-giving habit is awareness, that is, to start noticing the choices you’re making and how they’re impacting you. This requires that you get honest with yourself about how you’re choosing to give your time, attention, and energy. Ask yourself what it’s actually like to be you and live the way you’re living; how does so much giving affect your mental state, mood, vitality, and ultimately, happiness?
Simultaneously, it’s important to ask yourself what you really need, apart from what you’ve been taught you should need, to shake off the cultural narrative and conditioning about what should take care of you. The shift is to start noticing what really does take care of you, what nourishes and replenishes you. Notice when you feel fed, taken care of—for real, not just on a temporary or surface level, but deep down inside you.
Once you’re more aware of (and honest about) your own experience, a next and critical question emerges, or rather, shifts. When taking on caregiving responsibilities, the question that matters is not “Can I do this?” but “Can I do this… and be well?” It’s not enough to ask the question, however, you must also be willing to heed its answer. That is, if the truth is no, you can’t be well, your answer to whether you can help or give more, may also have to be “no.”
The next step in this un-doing/unlearning process is investigating the roots of your over-giving. Specifically, getting curious about why you take on so much. What’s in the way of considering your own well-being, making yourself (also) important? What are your underlying beliefs about taking care of others and what you deserve? Are you afraid to stop giving so much, wary of the judgments (internal and external) if you didn’t give so much? Is there a belief that nothing gets done or done right if you don’t do it? What’s in your wheelhouse of beliefs about giving?
Whatever you find when you investigate your own mind, the most important thing is that you welcome it with an attitude of kindness and curiosity. This newfound awareness is not to be used as a weapon against yourself, to give you more artillery with which to shame and blame yourself. It is meant as a tool to help you recover from over-giving and, thereby, to help you. With that said, if you’re not willing to offer yourself a friendly attitude, to be genuinely curious (not judgmental) about your own conditioning, then it’s best not to investigate at all. (You can, however, be friendly toward your unwillingness to be friendly…but more on that later.)
Still, you cannot change your behavior or break a habit just by asking new questions, you have to do things differently; you have to change your behavior. Step three is to start practicing saying “no.” Put “no” into your vocabulary in small (and big) ways, say it without apologizing, making fun of yourself, throwing yourself under the bus, or trying to convince the other person that you deserve to say “no.” The practice, at a deeper level, is about learning to tolerate the experience of not being who the other person wants you to be, and being able to bear their disappointment.
I can remember the first time I said “no” without an apology, story, or justification attached. The class mom at my daughter’s school had asked me to head the committee for the school carnival, and I responded with a simple, “No, I’m not going to be able to do that.” Looking confused, she asked me why, to which I kindly responded, “Because I don’t want to.”
And that was it. I didn’t offer a heartfelt apology, complicated explanation, justification, or anything else. I didn’t start offering her other options for fixing her problem. “I don’t want to” was the full sentence. I stood still and said nothing after those four words.
In that somewhat awkward and uncharted silence, it is not an exaggeration to say that a new me was born. And with her, a new life. Willing to respectfully present my truth, let it stand on its own, and let my experience be enough, was the direct embodiment of knowing that my experience matters, that I matter. It was a deeply empowering moment, and a life-changing paradigm shift.
So many people, intelligent, articulate people, struggle with the language around “no,” as in, how to actually say “no.” As one client expressed with genuine confusion, “What words would I actually use to say ‘no’?’” Well, the answer is simpler than you might make it. “No” is the word for no. And furthermore, “no” is a complete sentence, even though we’re taught it’s not enough and must come with an apology or explanation. If you’re trying to find the words for a “no,” the rule of thumb is to say less rather than more, say what you need to say and then close your mouth. Your job is simply to convey the necessary information, not to make the other person happy or solve their situation. Think “just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”
Asking for Help
Next comes the all-important step of asking for help and delegating responsibility, building the courage to rely on and receive from others. Many people are too afraid or ashamed to ask for help. They don’t believe they deserve it, or that anyone would want to help them. So too, they think they should be able to do everything by themselves, without help. Asking for help is seen as a failure. Recovering from the habit of over-giving requires a willingness to challenge the belief that you don’t deserve to be helped, and that saying “no” is a failure. It requires getting honest with yourself, and accepting that maybe you cannot do it all, not without sacrificing your own well-being.
Get curious about when you’re choosing not to ask for help. When do you reject or ignore opportunities to delegate and take some of the burden off of you? Kindly ask yourself, “What are you afraid of? What do you believe about asking for help?” The willingness to face this fear and challenge these beliefs is a key factor in this habit-breaking process.
To change any habit, we have to change—how we act, think, and relate to ourselves and others. It’s no different with the habit of over-giving. In part 4 of this series, I’ll dive into the acceptance piece of change—allowing ourselves to be who we are, and accept our own truth. Learning to grant ourselves the grace that we so willingly (and unquestionably) extend to others, and how to start acknowledging (and living from) who we are, rather than who we should be.