A long time ago, while still in my teens, I wrote a story about a young girl befriending a boy hooked on drugs and her plans to save him with the support of her family (who by way the did not find it at all strange that their daughter had such ideas). It sat unpublished within the pages of an old school exercise book I carried around with me for the last couple of decades until I pulled it out this morning. I was fascinated by the topic of drug addiction and wrote several essays about it, one of which even won me an award when I was only 16. It wasn’t the general topic of drug addiction I was interested in though; it was the potential to rehabilitate these sad individuals who couldn’t help themselves. At that time, I told everyone who would listen that when I grew up, I wanted to be a psychiatrist so I could legitimately work in this field.
I never did make it to medical school and ended up in a very different field altogether. Then in my late twenties, I found a real live guinea pig to help bring my fantasy to life, and in the process nearly destroyed my career, my credibility and my future. How I got out of that mess the universe only knows. Someone out there was definitely looking out for me……
In my thirties I continued to look for lame ducks and abandoned kittens to rescue. I simply couldn’t help myself. But it wasn’t all bad. Personality tests done at work classified me as a Helper; most suited to the caring professions such as nursing, teaching or social work. It made me really good at my job as a Project Manager; who could be trusted to get things done, but it also meant I very nearly killed myself with the stress of trying to please everybody.
The question is why? Why was I so drawn to people or problems that needed fixing? Why couldn’t I say no or walk away? And most importantly, why did I always put myself last?
Part of the problem I think is cultural but part of it is also to do with our upbringing. We are conditioned to give and to put others’ needs before ours. To be patient and undemanding. To be be kind and compassionate. To see it from the other person’s point of view. Not to be selfish, but to be selfless. As a woman growing up in the East, we are told to be flexible, soft and yielding. I still remember this quote I learned at school; “ a woman sways with every gentle breeze but withstands even the fiercest storm“. It did not mean we were taught to be weak doormats according to the Western definition of the concept, but that we should pick our battles and reserve our strength for the things that really mattered. All very good things, but in my case, somewhere along the line, I sort of forgot I had needs too and came to believe that fulfilling the the other person’s needs would be the only satisfaction I required. When you couple that with growing up in a home where parental approval was hard to come by, you were constantly looking for ways to earn that elusive pat on the head by doing things for others. And when you do find someone that needs fixing, you were always up for the challenge.
The sad reality of the situation was, in the end you come to the realisation that you have succeeded in pleasing no one. Not the person you were trying fix, your parents nor yourself. Yet you kept on doing it. Most of you reading this would recognise this is not a healthy way to live, but I bet many of you can also relate to living your life in this way .
So how do you go against a lifetime of conditioning to please others and put yourself last. I didn’t want to wear the label of being selfish or mean. I didn’t want to feel the guilt associated with seeing to my needs first. I remember once listening to the inflight announcement of “oxygen masks will drop from the panel above you, please put on your mask first before attending to others” and thinking how this meant going totally against all my instincts, especially if I was traveling with my son. My rational brain understood that I was no use to my son if I passed out from the lack of oxygen, but it was still not an easy concept to accept.
Then, about an year ago, at a very dark time in my life, a wise woman told me to think of myself as a tree and to picture my son as the fruit of that tree. She said as all trees do, I needed to take in nourishment through my roots in order for my fruit to flourish. And she asked me to think of everything I did for myself as providing that nourishment. It made a lot of sense and I decided to change how I looked at things. It has been a long journey with lots of stumbles, but I reached a significant milestone recently when I left my son in the care of his dad and aunt and went on a 3 week holiday to Paris and Germany. Finally I did something for myself without feeling guilty and even managed to enjoy myself.
Of course that is not to say that I have totally overcome my tendency to be drawn towards people who need fixing, but I know now that my needs are as equally important as the other person’s and have learned to take action when those needs are not being met.
And you will be glad to hear that I no longer pursue the fantasy of rehabilitating a teenage addict; instead I have graduated to emotionally unavailable adults, particularly in the last 6 months or so.