One of the common themes I come across when working with mothers experiencing depression and anxiety is perfectionism and people-pleasing. Moms get worn out when they are trying to make everyone happy all the time.
There are often good reasons for a tendency to be over-responsible for the feelings of others. Many of us come from families where there was an unspoken expectation that a child must be “good,” because one or both parents were unable to tolerate the challenge of even normal childhood misbehavior. Or sometimes, children develop an unconscious habit of caretaking for others as a way to get their own needs met.
However this pattern develops, it likely served a valuable purpose, which is why it became second nature. Children learn to intuit the moods, thoughts, and feelings of others. They modify their own behavior in an attempt to manage the responses of others. Often, this behavior is rewarded. Who doesn’t appreciate the helpful child who asks her mom if she needs a hug when she seems sad, or goes and plays quietly in her room when there is tension between her parents?
People-pleasing behavior is rewarded by friends and family, at work, and at school. A people-pleaser is there for her friends when they need support and earns the love and trust of her partner. She knows what to say and when to say it, at least most of the time. The cost of this unconscious caretaking is a loss of connection to the self. When your thoughts are focused on intuiting what others want and need, and your actions are focused on pleasing others, there is little space to experience your own feelings, thoughts, and needs. You may not even notice when your needs go unmet or when emotions are pulling for your attention. Sometimes, these unmet needs and unfelt emotions cause physical symptoms—headaches, back or stomach problems, or other tension-related difficulties. These symptoms temporarily draw our attention back to ourselves, making it harder to attend to others and focusing more attention on ourselves and our discomfort.
Having children can push what is already a difficult emotional burden into overdrive, creating anxiety, depression, exhaustion, and even worse physical manifestations. While you may have been able to keep your friends, employer, partner, and family happy before, when a baby comes into the picture, a whole new level of exhaustion ensues. Now you’re sleep-deprived, have a baby whose needs are never-ending, a partner who is stressed out, and it is truly impossible to make everyone happy. This is when, for a lot of moms, things hit a crisis point. Anxiety becomes unmanageable, or exhaustion leads to crippling depression. However, it is also an opportunity to address a long-standing pattern of behavior that has prevented you from taking care of yourself. It is a necessity to learn to increase your attunement to yourself and to let go of unconscious patterns of caretaking.
Looking at how these patterns play out in everyday life can be illuminating. You may discover that ways in which you are caring for others are based on assumptions of what people want or need from you, and that these assumptions are often wrong. You may find that your unconscious perpetual caretaking actually makes you less available when others truly do want or need something from you. So often, people-pleasing behavior leaves us resentful and feeling less generous to those we love. Compulsive caretaking can actually make us less available to others in concrete ways.
One way to begin to address people-pleasing is to become aware of how much of your thinking takes the form of “I should.” It is important to examine all the thoughts about what you should be doing/saying/feeling. Who says you “should”? What will happen if you don’t? What do you really want to do? One way of improving self-care and reducing people-pleasing is to challenge the “shoulds” whenever you become aware of them. Another is to check in with people about what they really do want and need from you, and more carefully balance the stated needs of others with what you truly need to do to take care of yourself. And making conscious choices to do for others is emotionally quite different from unconscious caretaking. It is done in the spirit of generosity, not because it is what you are supposed to do.
Learning to tune into your own feelings and needs and becoming conscious of making choices to balance them against your sense of responsibility to others is one of the most powerful ways to regain a sense of personal power. Regaining a sense of power in your life helps make you a better, stronger, and healthier mom and partner.
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