Wednesday March 15, 2017
“yes is a world and in this world skillfully curled live all worlds.” ee cummings
A favorite little phrase, and packed with meaning, cummings’ stanza expresses the stamina of yeses to open doors of possibility. When we say “yes” to meetings, adventures, trying our hands or our minds at something that scares us, then wondrous vistas and opportunities as well as creative expression await our arrival through those doors of YES.
When we say “yes” to something that might thrill us but also produce anxiety, we will have gone through an emotional maze of reasons why we might want to avoid such a challenge, or bar ourselves from the attendant risks involved. But finally, perhaps with trepidation taking the backseat to curiosity or ambition, we take the leap of faith. We say, “yes!” Most great human ventures come with risk. The oft stirred cold feet of betrotheds, standing at the threshold of their marital life together, as an example. Or the wary investor about to press “buy” on these promising mutual funds. Or, the shy actor auditioning for his largest role yet. Or the quiet employee seeking fairer compensation for her diligence and brilliance. Or the person scared of heights facing the rock wall finally.
When we have wrestled with all of the “no’s,” and “yes” has claimed the victory, then we decided on “yes.” We align ourselves with “yes,” and that “yes” represents our best self, pushing the envelopes in which we have wrapped our dreams and aspirations, our hopes and our curiosity. This is a decidedly different kind of “yes” than the yes of our people-pleasing selves.
Some yeses, when they issue from a place of people-pleasing, happen on autopilot, reflexively, reactively. They have nothing in common with victorious yeses which are proactive, and often hard won. To have a good “yes,” one must have a good “no.” If “yes” exists as the only one of those two words in our vocabulary, then yeses, habitual yeses, can take over our lives and dominate our efforts and how we spend our time.
Except in rare circumstances, even if you are one of those people for whom serving others constitutes your main purpose, no one needs to service others at the expense of oneself. When serving others—saying “yes” to others—on a routine basis means depleting your personal resources of time, energy, emotional and physical well being, then saying “yes” has turned into a bad habit. The consequent and inevitable anger, resentment, and feelings of deprivation that yes-people experience illustrate a misalignment in relating to oneself. If you find yourself too busy, too fatigued, too stressed, or too harried or overworked to do everything you need for your self-care and well being then your life raft looks like NO!!! “No” to others when “yes” to yourself has a dignified place in your embrace.
One young woman, Sally, said she felt angry at herself for being such a people pleaser who put herself last. “I’m not cheap about spending money on others for gifts when I want to show them my love and appreciation. But I find every excuse not to buy something for myself.”
She had recently started a boot camp class and needed exercise clothing. Yet, “I made every excuse for why I should save the money instead.” Sally had a talent for evaluating the benefits of purchases and I certainly didn’t want to discourage such useful reflections. But at the same time, she acknowledged that she placed great value on her health. Appropriate exercise clothing was part and parcel of accomplishing that goal rather than a frivolous purchase.
Often, virgins at giving a “no” to others, require a concrete reason to say “yes” to themselves. It is far easier to protect one’s time, energy and quality of life if you have something you really want to do, like Sally’s wanting to take the exercise class. Another client, who thanklessly, both at work and with her elderly parents, spent all of her time and energy, found it nearly impossible to set any boundaries on her altruistic output until she wanted to take a class in psychology, something she had wanted to study for years. Between class attendance, studying, and homework, she finally found herself capable of guarding her own resources of time, energy, and emotional output. She had a reason to say “no” to others.
But shouldn’t our rest, our peace of mind, our freedom to be spontaneous or to relax be reasons enough? It may take some time to work up to embracing those more abstract notions of wellbeing. But people-pleasers have to start somewhere, and it often begins with simply slowing down the automatic process of saying “yes,” and instead, going through a decision making process.
Because Sally had the ability to think through the issue of the exercising clothing, she saw that this purchase would manifest an investment in her health. She felt able to tolerate the discomfort of making these purchases for herself. Sally and I discussed the often misunderstood notion of selfishness among people-pleasers. People-pleasers tend to associate anything they want or do for themselves as selfish.
In my view truly selfish people almost always put themselves first, even going so far as to discount or diminish the needs and wants of loved ones as well as failing to consider whether or not higher order principles or values might prevail. Extremely selfish people have taught themselves not to care too much about the impact of their selfishness on others. Sometimes, in the background of such a person, deprivation—of love, of attention, of care, of things—shaped experience, and the prevailing narrative of the world took on a dog-eat-dog theme.
Some selfish people function like battering rams. Battering rams prove difficult to deal with, particularly for people pleasers who, eventually, might find themselves at the very limits of their envelopes to keep saying “yes” to a person who constantly exploits their kindness and generosity. Even people with the ability to say “yes” and “no” find battering rams difficult, since the need to constantly apply boundaries gets inconvenient if not exhausting after a while. People who, sadly, ask too much of others, eventually find doors closing in their faces, subjecting them to feelings of rejection and abandonment, without realizing how they have co-created the problem.
Taking a healthy and buoyant interest in oneself I call self-interest. I encouraged Sally, and encourage those like her in that respect, to revel in healthy self-interest. To be interesting to oneself in all of one’s possible expressions exercises one’s fullest capacity to live wholly and well. Sometimes it proves difficult to balance one’s self-interest with caring about the interests of others, but keeping that question alive fosters emotional freedom and decision-making capacity.
Someone who shares and also listens well, who gives to others but receives from others with enjoyment and appreciation, who gladly does service to and for others but does not shy away from asking for favors on occasion, models sterling emotional freedom.
Compassion fatigue is the professional equivalent of what many people experience on a daily or weekly basis in their personal lives—an overextension of one’s servicing of others’ needs and wants to the detriment of oneself. Sequelae often include feeling drained, exhausted, wiped out, resentful, exploited, trapped and frustrated.
To deeply want what one wants, but to be able to take into consideration the impact of those wants on others and on the planet, and to make decisions on the basis of that, as well as on one’s highest principles, results in the best possible yeses and the best possible no’s.
Camel Saddle: Are you a person who tends to say “yes” out of habit? If you were to think more carefully about your yeses, would you revise any of them? Or, do you say “no” with an equal lack of careful thought? How would you like to recalibrate your yeses and no’s to be more fully aligned with the ways you want to show up in your life for yourself and for others?