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Dear Nicola...

I’m sick of being selfless

Written by . Published on April 15th 2011.

Dear Nicola...

Nicola Mostyn

Friday 18 March 2011

I’m sick of being selfless

Dear Nicola

I feel like I do everything for everyone and get nothing in return. My family are always having a crisis that I have to help them out with, I’ve got an ailing grandfather who I visit three times a week, I have to constantly pick up after my husband and I do everything for my kids though they don’t seem to appreciate it. My friends only call me up so that they can tell me about their problems and at work I seem to be earmarked as the person people complain to. The final straw was in the supermarket the other day. A complete stranger struck up a conversation and ended up telling me about her divorce!

I’m sick to death of being selfless and feel like telling everyone to sod off.

Nicola replies:

Ha! You do, but you won’t. Or at least, not without a lot of effort.

It’s a useful tip when in any situation to ask yourself, “what’s in it for me,” and it’s clear (although maybe not to you, yet) that what is in this situation for you is the feeling of martyrdom and self righteousness that being helpful brings.

Constantly taking gets a bad rap but its converse, constantly giving, is equally damaging. While some people – like your husband, perhaps - take little responsibility, ‘selfless’ people take too much. If you do too much for other people, you leave them nothing to do for themselves. And while you can spend years complaining that people take advantage of your kindness, you can’t seriously expect anyone to respect your boundaries if you’ve never pointed out where they are.

Here’s a stark fact. The reason you do so much for other people is down to your own issues. Perhaps you can only feel happy if you are making other people happy. Well, that’s not their problem to solve, it’s yours. Charity begins at home and I’m a big believer that you cannot give honestly and lovingly to another human being if you aren’t first giving to yourself. Anything else is giving to receive and then getting bound up in resentment when nobody notices how much you are sacrificing for ‘their sake.’

This is, perhaps inevitably, a common trait in wives and mothers particularly, even of our generation, and you can read more about it in a great book of essays called ‘The Bitch in the House’ (click here) , which has some great rants about the burdens facing many women in this time and culture, but also their paradoxical reluctance to give up control. Because being overly helpful is usually just a form of control - a way of trying to stem the anxiety that comes with experiencing someone else’s discomfort. But it’s not actually helping anyone.

From your letter it seems like the problem lies in everyone else, but the common denominator is you. Yes, you could vow not to bother with your friends/colleagues/family members anymore, but unless you change your attitude, you’ll end up repeating the cycle. If you do what you’ve always done, you get what you’ve always got.

The most loving thing any person can do for another is allow them to be the full, whole individual they are and ‘saving’ people without ever stating your own needs.

Perhaps you could start by putting more of a value on yourself and your time and practicing saying no. See how it makes you feel. The chances are, it won’t feel great at first, because it will bring up all the anxieties which you are trying to avoid by being so available in the first place, and secondly because you will probably start to experience a loss of identity – who are you when you are not the person who is always helping people?

But you didn’t come out of the womb with a stamp on your head that said ‘Selfless.’ You learned it. And you can unlearn it. Start taking a bit less responsibility for everyone around you , begin prioritising yourself and hopefully you’ll begin to realise that, miraculously, the lives of the people around you will go on quite merrily without your heroic interventions. Then you can put away your super-woman costume and start living life like a mere mortal.

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Nicola Mostyn
Manchester Confidential
Suite 2B, 2nd Floor Quay House
Quay Street
M3 3JE

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