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Stop Overextending Yourself to Please Others: 6 Simple Tips

“Sometimes the wrong choices bring us to the right places.” ~Unknown

In a span of one month, my beloved little red Toyota catches on fire, burning to a molten blob; I land in the emergency room with a ruptured disc after lifting a child out of her wheelchair; and I try a do-it-yourself hair highlighting kit, which leaves me looking, well, think Phyllis Diller.

I feel confused. I have tried so hard to do all the right things. How could my life have gotten so off track?

I am in the grip of a disorder some people might call manic compression—trying to do everything perfectly in an attempt to please everyone around me. Some of my friends seem to be enjoying life, but I’m definitely not.

I flounder, looking for answers to this dilemma, without the vaguest inkling that I have created the situation. I call friends and bore them with my woeful tales of angst and doubt. I wake up every morning at 3:00 to wrestle with my pillow for an hour and then, as a last resort, drag my journal off the nightstand and into my lap.

Most of what I write in that diary is page after page of questions with the same themes: Why are these bad things happening? How can I stop feeling so befuddled? Will I ever sleep again?

You know how sometimes life sends little presents just when we need them. I was having lunch with a friend who was excited about sharing a story she had just read. She reached into her purse and pulled out a copy of Autobiography in 5 Short Chapters by Portia Nelson:

I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost. I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in; it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it. 

V

I walk down another street.

As I read this concise story, I spotted my personal deep hole in the sidewalkthe habit of putting everyone else’s needs ahead of my own.

Because I had been so busy taking care of the real and imagined needs of the people in my life, I didn’t take time to do the proper maintenance on my Toyota. I injured my back because I felt overwhelmed, rushing to get to my next meeting, and didn’t stop to ask for help lifting the student.

I realized I was living in Chapter II. I had ignored the warning signs and fallen into my deep hole again.

A glimmer of hope started to flicker through my confusion. If I created this drama, there is a possibility that I can create something different, something less crazy-making.

Just maybe I can move on to Chapter IV and V where I walk around the deep hole or choose to walk a new path.

I began to wake up to the idea that I actually do have choices. I can make decisions based on my preferences and needs instead of a sense of obligation.

I have a choice about how I respond to others’ demands. A choice about how I react when the tsunami of items on my to-do list threatens to overwhelm me. A choice about saying, “yes” to one more volunteer project or saying “thanks, but not now.”

While I was wandering through the self-help section of the library, a book fell off the shelf and landed at my feet. I opened it to a random page and my eyes fell on the phrase: we’re all perfectly imperfect human beings.

I like the freedom inherent in this thought. If being imperfect is part of the definition of being human, maybe it’s okay for me to make mistakes and (oh, goodness!) disappoint someone!

I offer here a handful of strategies that helped me begin to put my needs first, with the hope that some of them will resonate for you.

Six simple secrets for embracing imperfection and honoring your needs:

1. Now thyself.

Follow these simple steps and, in one minute, you can get a tiny break from the pushy, critical voice in your head:

  • Find a place of solitude.
  • Sit down.
  • Place your legs in a relaxed but fixed position.
  • Sit up.
  • Set your alarm for exactly one minute.
  • Place your hands in a relaxed but fixed position.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Focus all your attention on your breathing.
  • When the alarm sounds, stop.

2. Stop ‘shoulding’ on yourself.

How often do you hear yourself saying the “S” word throughout the day? This is a clue to places you may be unconsciously putting demands for perfection on yourself or others.

3. Know the payoff.

Even the most damaging behaviors have a payoff. If you did not believe the behavior delivered some value to you, you would not do it. If you want to stop behaving in a certain way, you’ve got to stop “paying yourself off” for doing it.

4. Enlighten up.

You can play life full out and at the same time not take it, or yourself, too seriously.

5. Take your turn.

Be bold enough to reach for what will truly fill you up, without being unrealistic. Once you develop the resources and resolve to believe that you deserve what you want, you will be able to step up and claim it.

6. Get off the psycho path and onto the scenic path.

Most of us are conditioned to think things have to be hard to be worthwhile. We habitually choose the hardest method, the most difficult path. How would your life be different if you let yourself off the hook and chose the way that felt easier?

As I look back ten years to that dreadful month, I see that my struggle for perfection had left me exhausted, disgruntled, and confused.

I found the key to greater happiness was allowing myself to embrace my needs and put myself first. Once I started making friends with my perfectly imperfect self, I began to enjoy a sense of relief and calmness.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but putting my needs at the top of the list actually helps me be more present for other people. I’m much more likely to respond to their needs effectively instead of reacting in a way that makes things worse.

I’m grateful discover a way to live in the world where I feel I have a choice in each moment. I am waking up to the reality that I deserve nurturing and compassion from myself, even on a bad hair day. So do you.

Photo by Silentmind8

Avatar of Lee Sumner Irwin

About Lee Sumner Irwin

Lee Sumner Irwin is the author of Play Makeover for Perfectionists, Crankypants and the Rest of Us and the blog Play in Truth. As founder of No Limits Coaching and a Professional Certified Coach since 2001, she's helped hundreds of people live bigger lives, do more good, and have more fun.

Announcement: Wish you could change your past? Learn to let go and create a life you love with the Tiny Buddha course!
  • lv2terp

    This is a wonderful post!!! I love the 5 short chapters that you included!!! Wonderful tips/wisdom, thank you! :)

  • http://twitter.com/Amanda_Savage Amanda Savage

    I really enjoyed this! Thanks for posting :-)

  • Volunteered-out

    Great article! This helped me in my situation right now! Thank you!

  • Lee Sumner Irwin

    Hey there. Love your name! I’m so happy to hear that you found something you could use right now. Sounds like you were open to receiving help and bingo…it came. I love when that happens. Thanks for taking time to write!

  • Lee Sumner Irwin

    Hi, Amanda! I appreciate you taking time to comment and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Keep on shining!

  • Lee Sumner Irwin

    Hi! Thanks so much for your kind words. I’m happy to hear you enjoyed the story and took away something you can use. Be your best!

  • http://twitter.com/ryan_vanderbilt Ryan Vanderbilt

    Great thoughts! I love that you touched on the fact that the only way to be there for others is to be there for yourself first.

  • Lee Sumner Irwin

    Hello, Ryan! I appreciate your comments – thanks for getting in touch. Seems as if you really ‘get’ that it’s impossible to offer someone a drink of water if your own well is dry. I like what one of my executive clients calls it — learning to be intelligently selfish. I think that’s one key to creating a fulfilling life. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Keep being awesome!

  • http://www.mazzastick.com/ Justin

    Hi Lee,
    I see so many people awakening to the idea that we don’t have to please everyone in order to be happy in life. Thanks for sharing your story. :)

  • Lee Sumner Irwin

    Hi Justin. Thanks for writing! I agree – it gives me a lot of hope when I see people learning that delicate balance of giving to themselves and giving to others. I know for myself – filling myself up makes me far more likely to be generous, patient and present to what is right there in front of me. Keep playing!

  • CG Ahhwahh

    Great post. We healers and do-gooders sometimes forget that, unless we nurture ourselves, we truly cannot nurture others.

  • Lee Sumner Irwin

    I appreciate your thoughts CG, and I agree! When we don’t nurture ourselves, our actions can begin to feel like obligations. It’s hard to be joyful and generous when we’re burdened by all those “musts”.

    Here’s to putting your own self-care high on your list. Thanks for writing!

  • avadee

    Thank you for the wonderful post…you made me think about some “shoulds” I’ve allowed others to impose on me, as well as those I’ve placed on myself.

    And let’s remember to nurture and embrace the imperfect-ness of our children and grandchildren, as well. The message that selflessness = virtue can can also translate to self-love = unacceptable. As are so many things in life, it’s about balance.

  • Lee Sumner Irwin

    Hi, Avadee…thanks so much for your thoughtful post. You’re right on target when you talk about the impact on our young ones when we, unawarely, teach them that it’s wrong to ever make their needs a priority.

    I see women every day (and some men, too) who are trying to unlearn those old habits so they can allow more ease and joy in their lives. They don’t want to be all “me first” but they see that it’s not working to shove down their own needs.

    I appreciate you for taking time to share your thoughts. Keep being brilliant!

  • Susan

    Lee, Great writing. I love the way you wove together so many nuggets of wisdom. Thanks for the reminder of my favorite little book–”Autobiography in 5 Short Chapters”! Congratulations on challenging yourself and going beyond. You inspire me!

  • Lee Sumner Irwin

    Hi, Susan! I so appreciate your kind message. I’m happy to hear you enjoyed the story and the short Autobiography (always good for a wake-up call).

    Here’s to living boldly and inspiring ourselves and the people around us. Keep planting the seeds and reaping a bountiful harvest!

  • deborah

    Lee, thank you for sharing this article. That sense of obligation is an ugly little monster that rears its head frequently. Thank you for the reminder to control it and act based on choices and what I want or need.

  • Lee Sumner Irwin

    Deborah, thank YOU for writing to tell me what you took away from reading the article. Thank goodness, taming the obligation monster gets easier with practice.

    In the past, if someone asked if the temperature in the room was okay for me, I didn’t know. I asked them if THEY were too hot or cold!
    In order to move toward making better choices, the first step was to figure out what I’m experiencing and what I really need.

    It takes baby steps and reminding ourselves to focus on progress instead of perfection. Keep on shining!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/virginia.bunting Virginia Bunting

    I really resonate with this. Thanks for your honesty & wisdom.

  • Lee Sumner Irwin

    Thanks, Virginia! I’m so happy there was something here that rang true for you. It was actually fun to ‘out’ myself about the struggles I’ve had over the years, and to describe how I got from there to here – a pretty darn amazing life.

    I appreciate your support. Now go do something sweet for yourself!

  • Kent

    Thanks Lee for sharing a very difficult month as a frame of reference for your Six Tips. I can see a part of myself in each step.

    Love step names!!

  • Lee Sumner Irwin

    Hi, Kent. Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed the article and the
    steps. It was a lot of fun to look back on that terrible, no-good,
    awful, horrible month and see that I’m not in that place any longer. It
    gives me a lot of hope for the future.

    Thanks again for writing. Play BIG!

  • T. Lily

    Loved this article filled with your wisdom! I continue to practice these ideas with meaningful results. I especially enjoyed reading your responses below to other readers and am taking possesion of “intelligently selfish” as another tool to finding the real me.

  • Lee Sumner Irwin

    Hello, T. Lily! I enjoyed reading your comments and I’m happy to hear you were able to put some of the tips into practice right away. You’re clearly a quick study!

    I suspect the real you is showing up on a regular basis as you honor your own needs. And that’s cause for BIG celebration. Embrace your authentic self!

  • Lacy

    Thank you for sharing! I have been struggling to trust myself because I’m worried I will somehow keep falling into that hole in the road. Thanks for the reminder that it’s okay to put my needs and preferences first.

  • http://www.digitalocean.com/ Moisey Uretsky

    Since Hurricane Sandy hit NY I’ve had my 88-yr old grandmother staying at my place. I took this on without thinking, most likely out of a sense of obligation without even for a second considering any alternatives, asking for help, or at the very least making this decision as a “choice” instead of just defaulting to it.

    Well it’s been three weeks and her community still has no power and I’m starting to feel drained. On the one hand its great having her stay with me because she is a lot happier, but on the other hand it’s just wearing me out. I have two jobs, a lot of commuting, and the additional responsibilities of coordinating her life and everything else around me.

    So I definitely like I’m in the same boat. I’m much more irritable than I ever was and even with simple requests because I haven’t made any time or space for myself to just relax.

    I’m seeing that it’s ok to say no, or at the very least think before saying yes because taking on additional tasks simply out of a sense of obligation doesn’t work for me in the long run.

  • Lee Sumner Irwin

    Hi, Lacy! I appreciate your comments. In my experience, learning to trust my own thinking was one of the most difficult, and crucial, steps toward unhooking from the ‘disease to please’. Over many years of practice, I had developed the habit of looking to other people to tell me what to want, how to think and what I felt.

    The good news? I was also able to learn, through a lot of practicing and mistakes (falling in the hole) how to listen to my wise inner voice and take action on my own behalf. Woo-hoo…who knew there was so much freedom just waiting to be enjoyed?

    Keep believing in yourself and claiming your own true self!

  • Lee Sumner Irwin

    Hello, Moisey! Thank you for taking time to write. Goodness, you are dealing with more than most of us can even imagine. My wish for you is that this situation will be resolved soon…and that until it is, you can find some serenity, some help and some time to focus on yourself.

    I can definitely relate to your story, as I’m sure other Tiny Buddha fans can. You’ve hit the nail on the head — “at the very least making this decision as a “choice” instead of just defaulting to it.” I know for me, when I feel I actually have a choice about how i deal with a situation, my attitude is so much better. When I’m in that sucky swamp of obligation (“I have to, I should, I must”)…well, I can get pretty cranky.

    I’ll be sending you and your grandmother good thoughts and I trust the Tiny Buddha community is thinking of you as well.

  • Carole Bennett

    Well said Lee! I especially liked the awakening that we can actually “take a different street” as scary as that can be. Your article is coming out at just the time of year that most of us tend to take on too much and end up needing a vacation “after” the holidays. Your tips will help me keep things in perspective.

  • Lee Sumner Irwin

    Hello, Carole! I hope you are creating a holiday time that includes lots of things to bring you pleasure. You’re right…staying on the familiar street, even if we know it’s filled with deep holes, can often feel more comfy to us.

    To dare walking down a different street, we all need loving support. We also need a plan and accountability to help us stay focused.

    I wish you all the best as you practice saying ‘no’ to what drains you and ‘yes’ to what fills you up!

  • Lorrie Crystal Eigles

    Hi Lee, Thanks for being so authentic and writing about your past experiences in such an interesting and compelling way! It reminds me of how much it’s taken me to put myself first and how happy I am that I’m more honest and assertive.

  • Lee Sumner Irwin

    Hi, Lorrie! You’re so right…there’s no magic bullet to “fix” the disease to please. Just gotta take that journey, one step at a time. I’m celebrating that you’ve taught yourself how to make yourself a high priority. And I’ll bet the people close to you are happy that you’re happy! Live*Love*Play!! Thanks so much for writing.