“I don’t even know who I am any more,” the 40-something woman across the table said to me. “Am I just someone’s mom? Someone’s wife? The chauffeur? The person who does the laundry and cooks the meals? Is that all I am?”
It’s a perverse irony — we love to do things for others, yet by doing so we often lose ourselves. We’re always ready to help others, always available to tend to that which needs tending. We’re so accommodating that our help becomes expected rather than appreciated.
It’s a fact that when things become too easy, too plentiful, too ubiquitous, they are often taken for granted. This is true whether it’s a person place or thing. The bottom line is that when something is too available, it is less valuable.
But that’s supply and demand for you. Too much supply in the system yields lower value. More demand than supply raises value.
If you are someone who derives meaning and purpose from being needed, you may find that your willingness to drop your priorities to help others meet their priorities devalues both you and what you want to do.
Here’s an example: The laundry is always done on time. Your family comes to expect it. There is always food, and no one fixes meals but you. You help with homework. You come running when called. Even when you are knee deep in paying bills, figuring income taxes or coordinating the big fundraiser, you drop what you are doing to help someone else. You feel frustrated because you never seem to finish anything, and you can’t concentrate long enough to focus on the big picture.
Another example: You have a big project on your dance card. You chunk it up into doable steps and make a plan for getting it all done on time. Then Jim pops his head into your cube and says, “Can you help me with the Framastan contract?” You like being needed, especially by Jim (who is a good guy but REALLY needy), so you say, “Sure!” Next thing you know, Jim is presenting and not mentioning that you helped in any way — and your project is still not done.
An example of putting your own needs last: Your source of soul-boosting strength is full sweat mountain biking. However, whenever you go biking you feel guilty if you don’t bring your two year old along in a bike seat, and your five year old along on his own bike. They can’t manage trails, so you stick to the flat path. You never break a sweat and your soul is teased, but not nourished.
When your needs are always trumped by another’s needs, you telegraph the message “I am not important.” Oh, you may feel important in the doing, and in being needed. But if your own objectives and priorities are not valued – even by you – your own objectives and priorities will fall by the wayside.
When you provide endless supply, the value of what you provide is diminished. In fact, your very sense of self becomes diminished.
How do you get supply and demand into appropriate balance? Start by honoring your own needs, values, objectives and priorities. Easier said than done? OK, I’ll give you a script.
Your child yells, “Hey, come look at this!” You say, “Sweetie pie, I am working on the taxes and can’t come right now. Can you explain to me what you see?” That way, if what he wants you to see is a commercial for Snappy-Poppy O’s or an escaped gerbil or, oh, blood, you can react accordingly. You are also teaching him that what you do is important and deserves respect. A great life lesson.
Jim asks for help on the Framastan contract. You say, “Jim, I’d love to help you but I have to get this project done by Thursday at 3pm. Can I help you after that?” In all likelihood, Jim will move on and look for another sucker to do his work for him. And you have proven that you are not that sucker.
You plan to go mountain biking to work up a sweat and feed your soul. Keep that objective in mind and leave the kids at home in the care of someone wonderful (then, when you get home and are showered, push that caring someone out the door for his or her own soul-feeding time). Prioritize your “me time” – because doing so helps you be a better parent.
Sometimes your over-supply of “help and assistance” can be read as “You are not capable of doing this for yourself” or “You will make a muddle of this, so I am going to take care of it.” Both of these sentiments completely disempower the other person. Think about it: when you go on a girl’s weekend once a year and always arrange a babysitter to support your husband, what message are you sending? That he’s incapable of effective parenting? Then why in the world do you complain that he never does anything? You’ve already sent him the message that he can’t, loud and clear.
We lose ourselves, like the 40-year old woman I talked with, when we devalue our selves by being too available, and not honoring our own needs and objectives. So, be careful of what you supply. Calibrate your help and assistance to meet reasonable demands. Keep your value up by giving others the chance to meet their own demands. You have a right to know who you are, and you get it through a steady supply of self-respect.