How to Help Others Without Harming Yourself
31 years. That’s how long it took me to realize that I can control what happens to me, through how I respond to it.
For the majority of my life, I was in a constant state of panic and high reactivity. People would tell (or ask) me to do things, and I would do them. At work, I got paid to do them. I didn’t ask questions beyond just what was needed to do the project. If I didn’t do them, I’d get in trouble, or fired.
I never really felt any particular connection to the things that I was doing, either. I just did them, because I was told to. If it stressed me out, I just accepted it and pushed through.
However, missing that connection to what I was doing really fucked me up. I wasn’t even doing something for myself, and I didn’t like what I was doing. So, of course I was constantly miserable.
Today, between helping aging family and trying to start up my own business, I have way more than enough on my plate.
And, truth be told, I really do enjoy helping my family and friends. They know that I’m a high-functioning and capable person, and I make things happen. As a result, people flock to me when things go wrong. And I have mostly allowed it.
I’ve downsized and sold my grandparents’ house, helped them move, planned two memorials for family members (mother and grandmother), and much more. For the most part, these experiences of helping others are stressful until the end, when it’s rewarding.
It doesn’t just end with family and friends, though. I genuinely love my work as a Web Developer, and build meaningful connections with my clients. Occasionally, though, they make requests that I’m sure sound 100% sane in their own minds, but leave me wondering if they’re actually trying to kill me.
Again: none of this is a real problem! I’ve become a person in high demand for the skills that I possess. People believe so strongly in my potential that they feel comfortable asking for a lot of me.
The only problem is how I handle their requests. I should be taking my current energy levels into consideration, factoring in what type of timeline works for me, and have a conversation based on that. But I don’t. I have just been accepting their terms, and reacting accordingly.
Now, add depression and anxiety to the mix. Yay.
Basically, every free moment I have is spent recovering from having my energy drained by everyday events. I need at least a full day to start really adding to my energy reserves.
I’m hard on myself, too: when I am just laying in bed playing Super Mario Run to reset my brain, I can’t help but feel guilty. Why am I not working? Why do I need to take breaks like this just to be productive?
Over the past year in particular, I’ve learned that this is perfectly normal. Energy levels change. I’m working to change my thinking around self-care, because there’s no question in my mind that I desperately need it to be a part of my day-to-day.
I’ve become a bit of an expert on this topic, because it’s my daily lived experience. Having assumed this role of “problem solver” in my family, I needed to learn more about how I operated. I didn’t want it to be a mystery when I crashed, wondering what happened to get me to that point.
Now, when someone approaches me asking for help, I think differently. I see their request in terms of what it means for me and my well-being.
Of course, this makes sense to do anyway. If we’re not healthy, then they don’t get help.
Learning to manage my energy levels
On the rare occasion that I get several days in a row to myself, I emerge brilliant. With a full energy reserve, the world is my fucking oyster.
High-energy Nicole is a sight to see. She wakes up ready to face the day, and her brain is constantly pumping out brilliant ideas that actually she has the emotional wherewithal to follow through on. High-energy Nicole gets shit done.
High energy Nicole knows what’s important in the long run, and focuses on things that improve her. She exercises, takes care of her body and mind, eats healthy food, and practices mindfulness.
Contrast that to low-energy Nicole, who can barely get out of bed. She’s pathetic. She dreads everything, and just wants to be left alone to sleep. Low-energy Nicole is generally in a downward spiral feedback loop, self-flagellating because she can’t regenerate energy quickly enough. Low-energy Nicole doesn’t feel worthy of anything or anyone.
You can see why I’m really taking this time in 2017 to consider my options for bettering my life. If I experience less days as low-energy Nicole, and more as high-energy Nicole, my life will be far better for it. I’ll get more done. My relationships will be healthier and more rewarding.
Lately, I’ve started to ask myself: what actually leads to low-energy Nicole becoming my reality?
The answer, as it turns out, is in my expectation- and boundary-setting.
The power of expectations and boundaries
What are expectations? What are boundaries?
I’ll relate it to this particular situation: if I help you out once, and then you come to me again thinking that I’m going to do the same thing for you, you’re expecting something of me. The expectation may be wildly different from the reality.
What I’ve been doing up until now — which clearly didn’t work — is bending the reality to fit the expectation, rather than the other way around.
When I tell you that your expectations are different from reality, and offer alternatives, I’m managing your expectations of me. Most people are amenable to this, unless they’re used to getting their way. To which I say:
Please note that although it’s important (and totally possible) for two people with similar low-energy situations to negotiate happy middle ground that meets both of their needs… most people who push back at your requests are just doing so because they want what they want.
Their true core happiness doesn’t depend on getting what they want in that very situation. Yours does. Don’t give in — your needs are very important.
Along a similar vein as, and not mutually exclusive from expectations, are boundaries. Boundaries are healthy.
They prevent me from putting myself in a position where I need to give advice I may not be qualified to give.
They buffer me from being blamed for something that happened, based on factors I couldn’t control.
They help keep me from feeling guilty for someone else’s issues or negative emotions.
They help me to not take others’ criticism and passing commentary personally, and empower me to teach people how to treat me.
When I don’t draw boundaries, I end up having to react to everything other people hand my way. Reacting to that much stimuli in the course of a day, a week, a month — leads to burn-out.
I also end up with a very different sense of self-worth, as I’m paying attention to all the criticism I receive, and taking it to heart.
I should note that building healthy emotional boundaries has required me to build clear internal boundaries. Working with my therapist, I’ve learned to really know my feelings intimately, and clearly identify my responsibilities to myself and others.
Both expectation- and boundary-setting take a tremendous amount of will power.
I’ve always believed that I wasn’t a person with very strong will power. It turns out that I was largely incorrect. Rather than lacking will power, I simply didn’t have the right reasons for wanting to do something.
Example: When I was fired from a job that I hated (and was making very little at), my reasons for wanting to learn to code changed drastically. It became very personal, because I was tired of wasting my time. It became easier, in turn, to convince myself to spend that extra hour or two doing my online courses.
Furthermore, pushing back at friends and family can be an intimidating prospect for some. I understand this fear fully, but still encourage people to push their comfort zone. The rewards are tremendous, and I’ve found that the quality of my relationships have actually improved as a result.
How to set expectations and draw boundaries
I have enough data by this point to see the trends. When family comes around asking for my help, and I don’t set boundaries and their expectations properly, I end up getting burned.
Let me provide an example:
My grandfather has been struggling with memory lately. It doesn’t appear to be more than transient, but I’m keeping an eye on what he knows to see if anything changes over time.
Having to teach him how to get voicemail multiple times in a week is still exhausting. Showing him how to get his e-mail for the 50th time in the past year is not a good use of my time. Typically, however, I just cave and put in frustrating hours helping him… just to have to do it all over again in a matter of days.
I was just on vacation in Southern California, and it was a rare occasion for me to not get a call from him, asking for something that I had shown him multiple times already. Again, I swallowed it down.
Tonight, when he called me to explain accessing his email yet again, I put my foot down. I set some boundaries and expectations.
First off, there is a certain amount of responsibility that he’s not accepting every time he calls me.
Surely, if he made a commitment to sit in front of the computer every day and spend 10–15 minutes looking at the page in front of him, he’d become comfortable enough over time that this would be a non-issue.
As a self-taught web developer, I understand that if I don’t expose myself to a topic frequently, it’s not going to stick. That’s just how my brain (and most people’s brains) works.
I told him tonight that I am happy to help him, but expect him to do his share of the work to maximize his exposure. Every morning, he needs to commit to practicing his email. If he doesn’t, then he can’t expect me to be able to help him. It’s simply not worth it.
Fortunately, with family, I don’t have to express my worth quite so much. However, with a stranger or client, I need to also make them understand why accepting their part of the responsibility will help us both. I need to relate to them on a personal level, and help them to understand why managing their expectations and setting boundaries is a part of my basic needs.
It’s non-negotiable at this point. If a person can’t work with me, then they’re actively working against me. Their refusal to work within my set expectations indicates to me that they are not someone I want to align with for projects or just in life.
Please keep in mind: this isn’t because I don’t like the person. It’s because I want my relationships to be as healthy as possible for all parties involved. When I’m happy, my work is at its highest quality. Who wouldn’t want that?
What kind of things do I draw boundaries on/set expectations for?
I no longer let other dictate what hours I’m available, or for how long.
I’m a good listener, but there are times that I can’t hear about your incredibly tragic emotional trauma. It will affect me, which is residual damage even after you feel better for having had the conversation. (Bonus: By managing conversations better, I find that I also talk about myself more)
If I only have a little energy, I can’t let you demand every last bit. Sorry.
I now offer a VERY generous expectation of how long it will take me to finish something. Great work takes time and cannot be rushed. It never works out well when I rush.
Whether or not I want to be around you (and in what capacity), I’ll say so very clearly and unambiguously.
If I can only manage to be half-there, I’ll be honest with you. If I’m low on energy, but still willing to help you, you’ll need to accept this.
Consider working for yourself
Since I started working as a front-end freelancer in the past year, I’ve found a massive difference in my quality of life. Calling my own shots, I’m able to exercise expectation- and boundary-setting.
However, running my own business takes a tremendous amount of time and energy. This only means it’s that much more important to enforce my set expectations and boundaries.
If I don’t, then I’m the only one to blame. But if I do, then I stand a chance of really changing my life for the better.
I no longer have to ask permission to take the time that I desperately need to rest and regenerate my energy. I just take it.
I explain to clients up-front that I have set working hours, and prefer e-mail to phone. Phone calls tend to exhaust me quickly, and are more cumbersome to navigate.
If things are a little hairy with my self-care lately, I’ll add 3–7 days to my project proposals, to allow me time to rest in between periods of working, and not feel rushed. (Just make sure not to procrastinate!)
Because I’m not in an office, my grandfather tends to forget that I’m working during the day. I don’t answer his calls, and allow them to go to voicemail until I can get to them later.
If you have the opportunity to work for yourself, I strongly recommend that you do so. Reclaiming my freedom within my work life has been integral to my happiness.
There are some things that you can tell people who don’t want to bend to your boundaries, or accept the expectations you require them to.
There’s been no pushback that I’ve received so far that can’t be handled with simple, effective communication, combined with a relatable approach.
With clients, this is pretty straightforward:
“By adding X days to the project deadline, you’ll be happier with the end result.”
Nobody wants shoddy work, or to have their time wasted. If a couple of extra days means the world to your self-care, and virtually nothing to them, defend your needs.
Assure them of your quality and worth. I recommend that you ensure that there are no repercussions to doing so, first (like lost contracts, for instance).
Clients typically don’t know about my depression and anxiety, as that’s personal. I do write freely, so I accept that this information is out in public. However, in cases where they have, the response has been overwhelmingly supportive. Generally speaking, use your best judgment and err on the side of not giving unnecessary personal details.
Family and friends
Family and friends offer the benefit of a more casual interaction. There’s just not as much on the line, usually.
If you’re being asked to help family/friends, be direct. Don’t respond to insistence that you’ve helped them a certain way before.
Because people are closer and tend to know what you’re up to, remember that what you do with your time is none of their business. You are under no obligation to explain yourself to anyone, but communication is also key to a healthy relationship.
“I’d love to help you with X, but I am feeling very low on energy. Would it be possible for me to help you with something smaller?”
If you’re not even up to helping with something small, tell them this. Honesty is the best policy.
If they really don’t understand, you may need to have a conversation with them about why expectations and boundaries are so important to you. If they truly care, then they should be interested to know how they can help you make your life easier, not harder.
We are worth it
Being someone who lives with fluctuating or quickly-drained energy levels does NOT mean that we can’t be productive, brilliant members of society. (My anxiety tells me otherwise, but I’m rejecting that flawed perspective)
You have a right to define your relationship with other people. You have a right to be in control of how other people treat you.
You have a right to be here, in whatever form you’re in.
You have a right to be as successful as anyone else, if you put the work in.
Don’t let anyone take away your energy or freedom. Guard it carefully, and you’ll be able to bring joy to others’ lives without endangering your own. ❤️
Nicole is a front-end web developer and autodidactic warrior. She writes about living with depression and anxiety, and starting a business while aiding aging family and fighting the intersectional feminist fight. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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