Learning to deny a deeply ingrained need to say yes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am


Ann, a charming 28-year-old architect, prides herself on being friendly and accommodating, and has many friends. 'I always enjoy helping friends,' she says. 'Helping others makes me feel better about myself.'

But lately she feels disillusioned about some of her friendships. 'I think some of my 'friends' like me simply because I'm willing to do things for them. I'm beginning to feel they are taking advantage of me,' Ann says.

She says she devotes much of her energy, time and money to helping people. So much so that she feels burned out. Even when she recognises that some people are using her for their benefit, she still feels obliged to do what they ask.

'Frankly, I don't know how to say no to people,' she says.

Ann learned to be a peacemaker and people pleaser when she was young. She grew up watching her parents fight bitterly over money and her father's drinking habits. Her mother worked hard to support the family and was sad, bitter and depressed most of the time. According to Ann, her father was unpredictable. He was reasonably nice when he was sober, but such occasions were few and far between.

'I felt responsible for my little brother because my mother was emotionally fragile. I couldn't subject him to Mum's moods or Dad's volatility. The easiest thing was to look after my mother's needs and stay clear of my dad,' Ann says.

Ann shouldered a tremendous amount of emotional responsibility by looking after her family. She 'parented' her brother and sheltered her mother from additional demands by becoming a very responsible child. Her actions not only helped create some stability for her and her brother in the tumultuous family environment, but also gave her a sense of purpose. As an adult, her sense of duty and obligation pervaded her personal and work life.

'My boss and colleagues all love me, and I'm well compensated for my job. But sometimes I lose track of where my job starts and where it ends. I even helped my boss plan his wife's birthday,' she chuckles.

Ann grew up in a dysfunctional family. This forced her to grow up quickly and become adaptable, loyal and conscientious. She also learned that hard work and helping and accommodating others earned her praise and validation. This gave her a sense of self-worth and reinforced her desire to go out of her way to be useful to others. She has never expected or asked for help from anyone. Outwardly, she appears angelic, but inside she fears that people only like her for what she can do for them.

It is not uncommon for people with similar childhoods to have experienced 'role reversal' as children. They assume caretaker roles in relation to siblings or parents and later to people around them. They learn to appease or please others as a way of coping and earning acceptance. These individuals are never given guidelines by parents about the appropriate responsibilities or actions of youngsters. But to cope and survive their family circumstances, many such children learn to please others for short-term rewards of peace and approval. The same strategies as adults can be destructive and detrimental to building healthy relationships.

It is crucial for Ann to understand that her childhood coping mechanisms will not help her build genuine caring friendships or loving relationships. She needs to focus on building her self-respect, self-esteem and self-worth by looking after herself and her own needs. Ann has to learn to build healthy boundaries and be willing to say no to others' inappropriate expectations. Acknowledging that she cannot always fulfil people's wishes, accepting her own limitations, and setting some boundaries for caring will enable Ann to relate to others better. If people reject her when she stops being a caretaker, it probably means they do not respect her or enjoy her friendship. Ann needs to develop healthy and mutually respectful relationships which are not built solely on her serving others' needs.

(The above is a reconstruction based on actual cases.)

Cathy Tsang-Feign is an American-licensed psychotherapist practising in Hong Kong. For more information, visit her website: www.cathyfeign.com