Helpers, healers, and givers, this one’s for you.
Helping others does NOT mean sacrificing yourself.
I have wanted to help others all of my life, and was often discouraged. As a child, I was constantly getting messages like “why don’t you worry about yourself first? Why are you always trying to give your stuff away? When are you going to learn to say no?”
As a young adult recovering from substance abuse and codependency, the message shifted to “you are codependent. You need stronger boundaries. Just say no.” Remember that last one front the 80s? It was NOT terribly effective.
As I continued to receive these messages I wondered… But isn’t it good to be of service to others? Isn’t it good to have a sense of purpose in my life? And yet I kept getting messages like “put yourself first. Just say no. Set boundaries. No is a complete sentence.”
It wasn’t until recently, in my late 40s that I started to realize why this approach has never been aligned for me. And I have a feeling it may not be aligned for you either.
I’ve always had a strong desire to help others. To be generous with my time and to be graceful and understanding when others disappoint me. I like being flexible with my boundaries. I like helping people feel good about themselves, save face, and not feel uncomfortable. In short, I like being “nice”.
In my career as a social worker, a strong sense of social justice has been instilled in me. I believe in doing my part to advocate for others and try to make mental healthcare more accessible. But this can easily slip into martyrdom and self-sacrifice.
It was in this career, after years of being burned out and underpaid, that I started to realize that being of service is not the same as being a sacrificial lamb.
Here is some of the unhelpful advice I’ve gotten over the years, and what I have learned.
1.”You are just codependent.”
Yes, I have trauma history. And yes, my shadow self will always default to sacrificing myself for others’ needs, so as to not rock the boat and to make sure the others like me. My Codependent part needs to be needed, and wants to swoop in and rescue others.
💖I learned that being of service to others is not the same as sacrificing myself.
2. “No is a complete sentence.”
This one is one of my pet peeves. I’ve been told this advice for decades, and I see it all over social media. “No is a complete sentence! Just say no!”
I call BS. This advice does not work when you actually care about others. Now, if you are being attacked, or if someone is asking you to do something ridiculous or without your consent, absolutely you have to have my permission to just say no and get out of there.
But what if it’s your best friend, who you haven’t seen in six months? They invite you to coffee, and there is nothing you would rather do but you are booked solid. Do you just answer their text with a curt “no”? Of course not. You say “thank you so much for asking, I wish I could. Please ask me again sometime soon”. Or if it’s someone who loves spending time with, but they have plans that you are just not into, you can say “that’s not really my cup of tea, but thank you for thinking of me!”.
💖I learned that it’s OK to let others save face. It’s OK to let others know you care. And it’s OK to give them a reason, if you want to! You can say no, and set boundaries without being rude.
3. And finally, the mac daddy of bad advice… “putting yourself first is selfish “
Anyone who struggles with guilt is familiar with this one. Moms are especially notorious for this.
💖I learned that having needs, setting boundaries, and taking care of myself is actually the opposite of selfish because it fills my cup so that I can help others.
So my message for you is this. Being a helper, healer or giver is a wonderful way to be! It fills your life with purpose and meaning. You go to bed every night knowing that you are making a difference.
But being a helper comes with a dark side.
You may take on others’ emotions. You may lie awake worrying about others. You may pour out too much without recharging. When you are depleted, burned out, and trying to pour from an empty cup, you’re not actually helping. That’s martyrdom. That’s codependency. And it sets you up for burnout and resentment.
So let’s start a movement, shall we? Let’s normalize putting ourselves first so that we are never trying to give when we have nothing left.
Let’s weave self-care into our lives every day so we are not hanging on by a thread waiting for the next vacation, the next day off, or the chance to leave our career entirely.
As a helper myself, I’m on a mission to support other helpers and help them let go of guilt, recharge their batteries, optimize their self-care, and live without burnout. We can do it together.