Balancing empathy and practicality can be a challenge. As fellow humans, we feel an innate need to help those around us. However, as individuals it’s important to keep an eye towards the things that serve us well, and the things that don’t. In recent times my empathic senses have been jacked up to eleven, so I’ve experienced a lot of issues balancing my own needs versus those of the people around me. A friend of mine recently reminded me of a good motto his family adheres to – “do no harm, take no shit”. This attitude, albeit a bit direct, is a great way to frame a solution for that problem.
If you’ve ever flown a commercial airline, you’ve probably heard (or ignored) attendants make a small disclaimer when showing passengers how to use their air masks in the event of cabin depressurization – “be sure to secure your own mask before helping the people next to you”. It’s a more practical framing of the same general idea – you have to make sure you’re standing on firm ground before you can truly help those in your sphere of influence.
It’s also important to not let yourself be pulled too far off your center by those around you, despite their own needs. This is probably the part I struggle with the most- when friends and family are in need, I have a hard time not jumping to the rescue, to help make things right. This last year has been a whole lot of that. After my separation, I found myself overwhelmed with trivia, additional parenting responsibilities, household chores, financial and legal matters my ex didn’t want to (or couldn’t) deal with, a whole slew of new to-dos on my list. But I never really took time to take care of myself, to exercise a little self-love. The feeling of self-worth you get when you help someone is a powerful drug, an entoxicating elixir to someone who’s suffered a huge blow to their self-esteem. I focused on service, on helping people around me – thinking it would dull the pain and help me build up my self-worth and integrity again.
Spoiler: it didn’t.
Instead, I found myself even more stretched, my long-term happiness taking a back seat to the addictive rush of being necessary or important to someone else. I let my own needs suffer, I deprioritized my personal time and real progress towards my goals simply to bathe in the warmth of being helpful. It felt great, but what didn’t feel so good was the urgency that built up over time around my own needs and goals. I was writing verse, but not really finishing songs. I was working out a little, but not really making progress towards my physical recovery. I was meditating and centering myself, but on the wrong point of balance. I was treading water in a lot of ways, going through the motions but not really focusing on what I needed to.
I was taking on way too much shit. And doing harm to myself.
I’m adopting this new attitude: take no shit – at least not until I’ve fully dealt with my own. It’s unfortunately meant that life has gotten a bit lonelier for the time being, a bit less social. I’ve had to really pull back from distractions of all varieties in order to focus on what’s important, and that is isolating me a bit more than I’d prefer. But in the last couple months I’ve really been able to focus on the things in my head that do hold me back, that have really caused friction in my life. It’s not something I really was able to do three months ago, when life was throwing curveballs at me daily and everyone around me seemed to be in a constant state of crisis.
But in the interest of balance, you can’t just focus inward and become entirely self-absorbed, you can’t just ignore the world and people around you, either. Herein lies the brilliance of the motto – just doing no harm is a better alternative than trying to own the world’s problems.
I’ve learned that saying no is the most important skill for me to master. I’ve been saying it a lot more lately. And it’s been a really positive change. At first I felt paranoia and self-consciousness – am I being too harsh, am I turning a blind eye to someone in need? But in practice and with time, it started feeling a lot better than I’d expected. Instead of co-owning someone’s problems for my own warm fuzzies, I found that saying no and offering some advice instead had two big benefits.
First, it makes people help themselves. I’m quite the enabler, and many around me had become used to me always being Johnny-on-the-spot whenever disaster struck. But what that did over time wasn’t to self-empower them, it ended up making them semi-dependent on me for assistance. The next time fate threw a similar curve, my phone would ring again with similar questions, concerns, needs. And I’d usually take ’em on. But this was different. Instead of constant texts and calls to fine-tune a solution with me, they’d instead call back after a while feeling proud and empowered in solving their own problems. And that feels almost as good as being the white knight who saves the day myself. It’s a great feeling seeing someone grow and learn, but it’s even better when you know you helped prompt it, and didn’t pay a personal toll in the process.
Secondly, my own self-esteem started to grow, not shrink. No one got mad at me for not having time to solve their problems, no one got angry at me for not having the answers. Instead, I had a lot more free and clear time to address my own problems with the benefit of getting distracted and divided. The payoff here was far more drastic. Instead of co-opting my happiness on others, I was now building my own reserves directly, and getting the same esteem boost as they were in… that’s right: solving my own problems.
By learning to say no, I learned how to take a lot less shit, both from others and myself. By walking away from situations that only took my energy but didn’t mirror it or reflect it back, I’ve been getting on top of a lot of pent-up anxiety and fear issues that my near-death experience had inflicted on me. I’ve started to measure my self-worth in how happy I am and how much progress I’m making towards the goals that truly lift my soul, and not in making other people happy. I’ve started to understand why my progress was a bit stunted in the last year.
In the ‘take no shit’ category, there’s also a subtle nuance that I’d been ignoring as well on that subject of energy. I’d been spending a shit-ton of energy keeping some connections alive. Some of my personal connections seemed critical to my soul and well-being, but they weren’t really feeding me energy back in return. Another friend mentioned something she’d done recently that had helped with this quite a bit.
Stop reaching out for a while. Turn off your texts. Let some calls go to voicemail. Concentrate on your shit instead.
And then – take note of who notices. Who actually reaches back out and offers YOU a hand.
This was the most illuminating – and in some ways sobering – learning from my last few months. Friends, interests, family, I took a difficult and self-imposed break from trying to keep reaching out and checking in with everyone. Stopped offering my support unsolicited and putting myself in situations where I could be easily co-opted. Decided to just deal with my own shit for a few weeks and see if anyone would hop in to help me.
(To be fair, it wasn’t entirely a choice – I had unreal medical, personal and legal issues all arise on literally the same evening in early September that pretty much ate up the rest of my year. I had to focus hard on not getting swept away with the tide, and this was the unfortunate but necessary result.)
Although there were a few wonderful surprises, in general the silence I witnessed was deafening. And awful disappointing.
I had many friends shovel me endless grief post-New Years for not calling, haunting the usual watering holes, jumping into our same old group texts. Guilting me for dropping off the map and abandoning them. Odd, as I was just as accessible as ever, I just stopped being the impetus behind it for a month or two. And in doing so, I found out a few friends were really more like friendly acquaintances who found me useful or handy to know. Once I wasn’t pushing the connection, it just dwindled. That kinda sucked to realize as well, but it also helped me learn who I should take no shit from. Still love ’em all too, but it’s clear where and with whom I can place my energy now (or not).
A woman I deeply cared for seriously opened my eyes up on this level while I was dealing with awkward medical problems. Turned out she didn’t really reach out to me unless I was texting her first, or if she needed something from me. I’d often pinged her with a random kind word, sent flowers at times I knew she was down – but hadn’t really noticed the gestures weren’t returned until things got tough for me. And right when I could have used some support and encouragement – ya know, normal friend stuff – I got radio silence. The next unprompted text I got was to say she’d started seeing someone else- never reached out to ask how I was doing, to see if I was OK, just a see-ya-later text while I was stuck in recovery. That was awful depressing to come to terms with. Despite connecting on many levels and truly enjoying her company, her attention towards me now seemed awfully conditional in retrospect. It’s depressing to realize you’re just a casual option to someone who was a conscious choice to you, but I’m happier knowing than not knowing now, for sure. And despite the blow to my self-esteem, it was a valuable lesson.
To be clear, I let myself take on a landslide of shit last year without asking for help or communicating my needs and feelings well, either. My own fears kept me bottled up in a way I shouldn’t have allowed. As a result, I have to own my shortcomings for that relationship ending. It’s critical to include yourself in regular ‘take no shit’ reviews, as we can often be our own worst enemies, and undermine our own happiness worrying about pointless what-ifs and whys that seem embarrassingly inconsequential in retrospect. This has also been a huge lesson to me that will hopefully stop me from piling shit onto my own shoulders that could damage or shut off potential relationships going forward. Namaste.
Most disappointing, however- I even had family drop off the map over the last three months as I tunneled inwards to heal. Until they needed help, however. I was so stoked when one often-absent family member called me because they said they just missed me and really wanted to catch up. That sounded so promising! But within 2 minutes, I was hit up for a loan and the alterior motive I was being cajoled into became crystal clear. I declined, the conversation wrapped up quickly and they haven’t called again since. Holy crap! My love isn’t diminished, of course – but my willingness to take responsibility for their shit certainly is. I would have carried a lot of guilt for that a year ago. Today, not so much.
In the absence of need, it turned out a lot of the people I thought I was really important to didn’t look at me the same way. They viewed me as a conditional resource or handy guy to know, not an unconditional friend. Energy I spent keeping those connections alive wasn’t reciprocated. I know now how much energy I really can (or should) spend towards the people around me now, and how to protect from having it taken from me anymore. No love lost, but no more shit taken.
(That said, I am kinda sorry I didn’t do my usual holiday cards, visits, and general outreach this year, but the growth from my learnings far outweighs any temporary guilt I carried.)
Saying no, taking no shit, focusing on becoming the best you possible, and letting other people’s motivations and priorities reveal themselves really shows you what (and who) is important. This isn’t something I recommend doing continually or for a long period of time as you can easily isolate yourself, but turning off the outreach for a bit can definitely bring the bigger picture around you painfully into focus. It hasn’t been an easy path to take, but one I’ve found incredibly illuminating in both positive and negative ways. All of which I can grow from, build from- and that’s what I need the most, anyway.
This may sound really judgemental, really direct and scorched-earth a few months for me to pursue, but honestly I feel like it’s been really necessary and far more objective than it may appear on the surface. My truest friends made themselves quite obvious. My fleeting, more fair-weather friends did as well. I may have a few bent feelings around my expectations for people and the objective reality of those expectations, but that’s my shit, not theirs. And I can now just choose to not let it affect me instead of taking ownership or guilt from the truth of the matter. I’ll focus on energy coming back to me for a change, and not just send mine out wherever needed.
“Do no harm, but take no shit.”
I love it. It’s my new (co-opted) motto for 2018 as well.
Hope it carries meaning for you as well- but if not, it may be worthwhile asking yourself why.