The phone rings, and I feel obligated to answer. Cindy, a new acquaintance, is hysterical on the other end. I drop everything I’m doing to rush to her apartment. I need to make sure the assignment she was working on is still somewhere on her computer.
The deadline is tomorrow, and she doesn’t know what happened to it. Luckily, I’m a computer whiz and must have bragged about it while making small talk the first time I met Cindy.
After rushing out of my house to put out the fire, I return home exhausted. Her nervous energy and panic were all it took to drain my reserves, and even though I had my own paper to write, I curl up on the couch for a recharge nap.
What was wrong in this situation?
When I was in college, I didn’t know how to set boundaries. I spent my energy on anyone and everyone that wanted it. I attracted people that needed things, and I lived to solve their problems for them.
My self-worth was tied up with “helping” people. However, now I see that it wasn’t helpful. People came to me to solve their problems for them or dump their feelings when they needed to talk. I thought I was doing what a good friend does.
In a way, that wasn’t far from the truth. But by solving people’s problems for them, I was letting them believe they couldn’t do it for themselves. I was sweeping in to save the day with some hero complex instead of empowering them to solve their problems. I enabled them to hand over responsibility for their problems, to me. That one was a small example — a manageable one.
Protecting my Energy by Setting Boundaries
Something that I have had to learn as I work on protecting my energy is to set boundaries with people. I only have a limited amount of energy to spend each day, and if I’m going around handing it out to anyone and everyone, then I have nothing left for myself. I have to prioritize my values and goals. Luckily one of my values is “concern for others,” so I still do things to help others out, but while conscious about my actions.
If Cindy called me today, I would use my active listening skills to understand what was making her hysterical. There were probably more emotions trapped underneath the fear of the lost assignment that she could let out. Once I helped her calm down, and clear her head, I might probe around the computer issue and offer some help over the phone. I would remain calm, and most likely, once she was also in a better state of mind, she would find the lost file herself.
Giving endlessly is selfish. It was hard for me to see this at first. When I’m ‘doing things for others,’ understanding my intention is essential. On the surface, my purpose is to help, but underneath I often wanted the gratification of making a difference or of changing or fixing something FOR them instead of them doing it for themselves. It may seem like a small distinction, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s incredibly important. Mostly I was doing all of those things for myself under the ruse of helping others, which I see as more harmful than not helping.
Taking Care of Myself First
Even worse was that I often would run out to help others at the detriment of my health or well-being. I put my priorities aside for the benefit of others. I was clueless when it came to protecting my energy.
As the self-love movement has made clear, when the plane is going down, you have to put your oxygen mask on before you move to help those around you. You need to take care of yourself first, so you are the best version of yourself before you go around offering help. The help you can give when you are drowning is not near as useful as what you can provide when you are floating on top of the water.
Setting time for yourself to recharge is an integral part of self-care. This may include taking care of your physical body with manicures or facials or whatever you enjoy. Or it could mean taking care of your emotional or spiritual side with meditation, journaling, or any relaxation practice you use to recharge. There is no right way. Try out different things to make sure you are really getting what you need and not just listening to what society says you should be doing.
Originally Published on Medium October 21, 2019