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Recently, my husband and I took a week off to visit our son and his family in Atlanta and to attend my sister- and brother-in-law’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration in Boca Raton.  On the sixth day of our trip, my husband met a friend for breakfast, leaving me to fend for myself.  As a devout introvert, I looked froward to this time alone since I’d been on the go for five days socializing continuously. I needed a break.  As I approached the hotel breakfast buffet, friends and family members hailed me and made room for me at their table.  I had planned to take my breakfast tray and the newspaper outside and eat near the pool.  My moment of truth, what should I do?

Since I knew what my needs were, I was able to take care of myself.  Once my tray was full, I stopped at their table and thanked them for making room for me.  I told them that I truly loved them all but I needed some time alone and was going out to the pool area.  I enjoyed my breakfast without giving it a second thought.  No guilt, no resentment!  After breakfast, I took a leisurely bath and got dressed.  I was ready to socialize again.  Afterward, my close friend, who had been at the table, told me she understood completely.  She knew what it felt like to need some down time.

In my relations with others, when I’m not aware of my own needs I often find myself with only two choices: resentment or guilt.  This is the way it works:

On the one hand, I tune into other people’s needs, which are either overt or covert and immediately adjust my actions to please them or get their approval.  Their needs prevail.  If I have a different agenda for myself, which is usually the case, I become resentful.  This resentment is unacknowledged and goes underground.  It pops up unexpectedly in inappropriate places and appears as rage.  I either lash out at some unsuspecting, undeserving someone or get angry with myself.  I’m sarcastic, cutting and contemptuous.  At the start of this unfortunate cycle, I’m motivated by my unrecognized need for approval and my fear of disapproval.  Ironically, my payoff for this course of action annuls the approval I’m seeking.  By setting my own needs aside and putting the needs of others first, I eventually end up feeling self-loathing and self-disgust.

On the other hand, if I try to please myself when others appear to need me, I feel guilty.  As a result, instead of enjoying what I’m doing, my time is spent feeling badly about not meeting other people’s needs.  In either case, it’s a no win situation.

There is alternative way of being that I have learned.  I can respond to my own needs while letting others know I care about them and trust that they will learn to adjust. In the situation described above this was simple, in other situations it is more complex.  In all cases it is essential that I become aware of my needs and the dynamics of my own thinking and decision making.  Once I establish a pattern that others come to expect, they learn to expect that pattern whether it is that I sacrifice myself or take care of myself.  It can be very difficult to break a pattern of self-sacrifice once it is established, and loved ones, in particular, can get very angry.  Let me assure you that when I’ve taken care of myself and others have been disappointed, they’ve gotten over it.  Usually when I try to please everyone, nobody’s happy.  When I try to please myself, I know at least one person is happy–me.

Today, I got a call from my former boss.  I’d called her last week to discuss a job opportunity we had spoken about.  She said she couldn’t talk then and that she would call me on Sunday.  She asked if we could get together some time today and wanted to include our husbands.  In a joking way she reminded me that she had not seen my new kitchen, suggesting that she come to my house.  This was not what I expected.  I was not prepared for her suggestion and was at a loss for words. My moment of truth, what should I do?

 We’ve been to her home, and she hasn’t been to mine.  I didn’t want to get dressed today.  I wanted to relax at home.  I didn’t want to entertain.  What am I going to do?  She said she would call me later today.  What are my needs?  How am I going to negotiate this everyday dilemma?

Is there a right decision, here?  I know that I have an inner guidance system that speaks to me in a quiet voice.  That’s the part of me that I need to ask for the solutions to these tricky sticky situations.  The bottom line is I have to live with myself.  If I envision the consequences of either choice and choose consciously, I can remind myself that as an adult I can decide what is right for me at this time.  Nobody can force me to do something I don’t want to do and I am not a victim. This means that if I invite her and her husband over, I can’t be resentful and if I don’t I can’t feel guilty. Right or wrong, I can live with and take responsibility for the outcome and learn from it for next time.

Barbara Plasker © March 2000

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Barbara Plasker, EdD

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