Do You Feel Guilty When You Take Care of Yourself? 

Nancy, my 38-year-old client, is a caring, sensitive person who has been working on setting limits with others and taking care of herself. The therapy homework she’d committed to during our previous session was to do something by herself, for herself over the weekend, and she had chosen to take a drive to the beach solo. As our session began Nancy said, “Well, I did my homework…kind of.” She told me how when she let her husband know her plan he got upset, saying that he’d been looking forward to spending time with her that day. After some half-hearted resistance, Nancy gave in and the duo took a drive to the beach, even though it wasn’t what Nancy intended or wanted to do.

During our session Nancy expressed anger at her husband for not being more supportive of her, as well as anger at herself for going along with something that she did not want to do. She knew this fit a pattern of not standing up for herself with her husband as well as others.

Can you relate to this situation?  I know I can.  I remember as a teen having a terrible time telling a boy that I did not want to go out with him because I was afraid of hurting his feelings.  As an adult, I have often over committed myself because I don’t want to let people down. And in my relationships, I can be so hypersensitive to other people’s feelings that it can be a difficult to say what I want. Why is it so challenging for us to set limits, give opinions, and express ourselves honestly, and so much easier to respond to what others want from us?

Being responsible for others’ needs is an adaptive behavior, part of the social glue that kept our ancestors acting together as a tribe. Shared responsibility is what we do to survive, and when we all share within the limits of healthy personal boundaries, it works. But some of us take too much responsibility for other people’s feelings, and not enough responsibility for ourselves.

When I asked Nancy how responsible she felt for disappointing her husband when she said she wanted to go to the beach alone, she said 100%.  After all, she explained, he would not have been upset at all if she had suggested they go together, so it was clearly her fault. This is a common misconception, that if we do something that triggers someone else—brings up bad feelings for them—then we are in the wrong. To help Nancy see this differently we made a Responsibility Pie.

I asked her to make a list of all the other reasons that might have contributed to her husband being upset that did not have to do directly with her. We illustrated each reason as a piece of a pie that represented her husband’s feelings, giving each a percentage of how much it might have contributed to his disappointment. Here is what we came up with:

  • He had a stressful week at work and was feeling depressed. 25%
  • He does not like to be alone. 50%
  • He does not have interests or hobbies that occupy him. 20%

All together these reasons, which her husband was certainly responsible for, equaled 95% of the pie, but we still hadn’t put in the part that Nancy was supposedly responsible for!  Nancy could plainly see that she was not 100% responsible for her husband’s being upset.

Next time you find yourself feeling guilty about someone else’s pain, try the Responsibility Pie exercise. It’s a great tool that can help give us perspective, and the courage to take responsibility for what we are most responsible for, ourselves!

 

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