Do you find yourself saying “yes” when you want to say “no?” Maybe you agree to shop with a friend, when you want to spend the day on a project. Or you say “yes” when your grown kids ask you to come over on a night you’d planned time with your partner. Perhaps you volunteer to organize a party for your group, when you want that time to plant your garden or take a hike.
The habit of putting yourself last in small ways, can add up to short-changing yourself in big ways. Sensitivity to what other people need and want is an important and necessary skill. It only becomes a problem when the part of you that honors others, automatically overwhelms the part of you that honors yourself. Although we all make compromises at times, some of us do it so often that we actually lose our ability to know what we want and need.
For example, Denise is a beautiful and talented painter. She had lived with her boyfriend for three years. When they fell in love, both of them bent over backwards to please each other. As time went on and the relationship became more established, Denise’s boyfriend began to focus more on his own interests and goals. Denise continued to focus on her boyfriend’s preferences, regularly saying, “yes” to what he wanted while gradually losing touch with what she wanted. The relationship ended for a variety of reasons, and six months later, Denise still felt lost and depressed, unable to make decisions, and disconnected from her talents, needs, wants, and self-worth.
Denise came to therapy because she was depressed, but feeling better meant learning to delay saying “yes” or “no” until she considered what she really wanted and needed. If you are in the habit of automatically saying “yes“ to friends and loved ones, at the cost of your own wants and needs, you may also feel that on those rare occasions, when you ask for something, the other person owes it to you to say “yes.” You may become bitterly disappointed or even resentful when other people (who are often unaware of the many private sacrifices you make every day) say “no” to your requests.
The cost of regularly giving away time and energy to other people’s agendas adds up in the long run. The fact that your wants and needs are secret, distances you from the very people you seek to please. Even more important is the loss to you of your sense of what it is you want and need, the things that that reflect and define who you are to yourself as well as other people. Changing lifelong habits can be challenging, and practice is essential. Individual and group therapy can provide the scaffolding to help you override your old default settings.