An interesting theme I’ve seen in therapy this week is the pattern of “doing good for others” at one’s own expense.
We all do it from time to time, but many people do it all the time! It goes a bit like:
“I have to go to the party because if I don’t my friend will be disappointed”.
“I can’t bring this issue up with my partner right now because they are under a lot of pressure at work”.
“We want to retire and go travelling but our adult kids still live at home and they need us”.
As a therapist I also struggle with this from time to time, thinking I know what a client needs and being tempted to give them advice (it’s easy and ‘known’), rather than sticking to my role as a midwife for the wisdom in their own process (less easy and very ‘unknown’).
Working with clients on this, and working with myself in the moments that it happens to me, I’ve discovered that most of the time, the story of “I can/can’t do this thing because it will/won’t be good for my client/my partner/my friend” has very little to do with the other person.
It’s about our own fear (sorry)
In process-oriented psychology, we call it being at the edge. The edge is the place between what is known and relatively comfortable to our identity, and what is less known and a bit out of our comfort zone; all kinds of unconscious shenanigans happen at the edge.
Like telling ourselves we can or can’t do something that would ultimately be good for us because it might not be good for someone else:
Saying no and setting boundaries can be a bit scary for fear of rejection.
Bringing up issues with friends and partners is often frightening as it triggers wounds around conflict, acceptance, love-ability etc.
Retiring from work is a huge transition and scary for many, as is the transition from live-in parent to parent-at-a-distance, as both are massive changes to our identity and we can struggle to find new meaning to our lives.
Faced with these very legitimate fears, we unconsciously construct a range of narratives to justify why we can’t cross this edge and what is really right and good for us. Sometimes we’re not even aware of the fear, we just have the story and it makes perfect logical sense. Other times we’re a little clued in but it’s all too scary to deal with.
This is why coming to therapy is a hugely courageous act.
Therapy is stigmatised as a refuge for the weak willed, weak minded and weak spirited, but you’d be hard pressed to find a proper therapist (i.e. the likes of Dr Phil don’t count, he’s not a proper therapist) who would define any client as weak.
Therapy is nothing short of a hero’s journey.
Grab your spade
Digging a little deeper into this process though; when we make assumptions about what other people need, and sacrifice our own needs to give them what we think they need, we are actually parenting them.
Which is completely appropriate if you’re a parent of a young child.
But if it’s your partner, your friend, or adult family members, it’s not.
Being in a genuine relationship with another person is paradoxically incredibly simple and incredibly complex all at once.
Often we don’t actually see the real person, instead, we see the projections we put on them (with their accompanying assumptions), and unconsciously use the relationship to process or play out our own challenges with power or psychological pain.
When we ‘parent’ partners or friends, we are not being a partner or a friend. We are taking on the high-rank role of ‘parent’ (see the free Little Book of Power on the Resources page for more on rank and power) and using the relationship to either build our sense of power (doesn’t work long term of course) or using the comfort of being in high rank to avoid soothe our own psychological pain.
Not because we’re a bad person, but because like everyone else, we’re trying to minimise our own suffering.
But isn’t it good to be considerate?
Of course, considering the impact our actions will have on others is crucial to harmonious relationships and a well society.
But when we habitually put our assumptions about the needs of others ahead of our own needs, we do exactly the opposite.
Relationships do best when people are in open communication about their needs. Assumptions (dangerous as they are) don’t need to be made and no one has to construct themselves as a martyr or parent.
We have to let and expect our adult friends, family and partners, to be just that: adults – at the centre of their own self-care, responsible for expressing their needs and getting them met. If the people you’re in relationship with can’t do that for themselves, stepping into this role for them, is often not the best strategy for their longer term wellbeing (or yours).
Making assumptions about what others need can deny them, or be complicit in their own denial of, the rights and responsibilities of adulthood, ultimately preventing them from realising their own full and powerful potential.
Some questions that could help you reflect on times when you do things “for the good of others”:
1. How do I feel when I do things “for the good of others”? Does it make me feel good about myself in some ways, bad in others?
2. If I was completely free to do what I wanted in this situation and there would be no bad consequences, what would I do?
3. What bad consequences am I afraid of? Failure? Rejection? Something else?
4. How do I know what the other person needs? Did I ask? What stops me from asking directly?
5. Do I have a habit of being the helper/carer/supportive person in this relationship or is that role shared and exchanged equally?
6. Is it possible that I project my own need for parenting? Where do I need to parent myself better? What does being a good parent to myself mean? What do I already do to parent myself well? What could I do to parent myself better?
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