I have seen this issue crop up in many of my clients, and I believe that it is a very common trait in most of us, on a private level and on a professional one. Sometimes we find ourselves in positions we cannot quite manage, in too demanding a job, or generally overwhelmed by any chore in front of us. In the case of this lady, however, we found that she was overwhelmed not so much by the tasks, but by the way they came into her life. She had a strong sense of social obligation, a belief that she ‘should really be able to do something on top of everything else’, and she experienced a constant fear of letting someone down.
Many of us know this experience: someone asks a favour of us and before we know we have agreed to do something we really are not excited about. Why sign up for these favours at all? It’s all about social cohesion: we feel obliged to say ‘yes’, and in some cases that is certainly the healthy choice, and it’s part of how we function within a group of friends, a group of co-workers. Helping each other out is an important device to keep the social cogs of our lives from stopping, and we also get to ask favours from others because we have helped them in the past.
You might think now “as long as it’s a give and take situation, this is good”. That is, however, only partially true: there is, of course, that element of exchange and cohesion to the act of helping out, but there is another element at play here that we have not looked at yet: in fact, we are not just social animals in our group of peers, but we are also – and some might say, in the first place – our own person with our own needs and requirements! Well hey, there’s a thought: in order to be able to help others, we need to be able to look out for our own wellbeing first!
And this is where many of us stray from our ideal path, like my client mentioned above. Her problem was not so much that she was incapable of getting things done and bringing them to an end, but rather that she had taken on too many tasks for others. And those accumulated tasks weighed on her mind because we may feel that finishing tasks we have agreed to do for others have precedence over things we do for ourselves. I believe most of us are guilty of that belief to some varying degree.
It looks as if the problem lies in the value we assign to tasks for ourselves and those we agreed to do for others, but imagine my surprise when it dawned on me that there is another, deeper reason behind it all. Why do we end up with too many asks in the first place? Because we agreed to take care of them! And there’s the rub: why DID we? When someone asks a favour, social graces demand that we say ‘yes’, unless it’s an unreasonable demand. Social norms are set up in a way that it is intrinsically assumed that whatever is asked of us, we should be able to fit into our own agenda, in order to keep the world running smoothly.
What that norm does not take into account, though, is the fact that we DO have our own stuff to deal with, and sometimes we may not be able to say ‘no’! Some people are too shy or insecure to say ‘no’, others feel it would move them up on the social ladder, in a professional setting it might be inopportune or impossible to say ‘no’ to an expansion of your daily tasks. Plus, we are brought up in a world where saying ‘no’ is considered impolite and – dare I say – selfish.
I have long thought the same way, until I had reached a point of exhaustion and overwhelm that I could no longer ignore. And I learned the hard way to say ‘NO!”: my body told me in no uncertain terms that it was shutting down. Obviously, I had waited far too long: I had gone way beyond mental overwhelm or believe systems into an area of physical exhaustion, and I would not wish this onto anyone.
The lesson to be learned here is the importance of finding a balance between being selfish for your own good and social for the greater good. Most of us seem to err on the side of caution and neglect our own good for the reasons mentioned above. Most of us will accept that extra little thing on top of everything else, because it’s ‘just a little thing’ or because ‘I owe him as much’ or because ‘I couldn’t possibly refuse without facing repercussions’.
All these can be valid reasons, and they have strong claims on the social playing field. Our own little needs pale in comparison, and that is exactly why we need to step up and make them shine brighter in our own minds. We have to be aware of our own needs and realise that they are essential to our own wellbeing. How could we thrive and be part of the world around us if our core is unhealthy, unhappy, unbalanced?
My advice is to spend some time every couple of months and look at what you are doing, what you are not excited about doing, and see if you can let go of these things. Some of them will be tasks that come with the territory and cannot be let go, but some of them require nothing more than honesty with another person, being open about your own needs.
Find your own clear ‘yes’ses and ‘no’s and make them happen!
Go check out my youtube channel tomorrow (look for "Off the Cuff #103) for some final thoughts on the subject of letting go: creating obligations for ourselves.
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Hi, my name is Tilo Flache. My current mission: help my clients declutter mind and space.
This blog contains pointers for your journey towards a happier living experience.