By Jim Duzak
One of the things I admire most about women is their generosity of spirit. Just about every woman I know spends an incredible amount of time tending to the needs of her immediate family, her aging parents, her friends, her co-workers or her clients, and often the community at large. The world as we know it couldn’t function without women and their dedication.
But the downside of such generosity is burnout. I’ve met far too many women who are perpetually running on empty. Most of them aren’t complainers but, if encouraged to talk, will readily admit that they’re stretched-out and stressed-out. They don’t want to sound resentful of the demands made on them, especially by the people they love, but they instinctively know they have way too much on their plate. Intentionally or otherwise, they’ve created a system that requires constant—and personal—maintenance, and which benefits everyone except themselves.
For women with too much on their plate, my advice is simple: take something off your plate. No, I’m not advocating child neglect, nor am I suggesting you adopt a don’t-call-me-I’ll-call-you policy with your eighty-five year old parents. What I am saying is that there are probably a fair number of obligations you have that are largely self-imposed, or services you render that create an unnecessary dependency, or relationships you’re sustaining that are totally one-sided.
Is it possible that you’re spending more time organizing your child’s life than is healthy for either of you? Is it possible that your brothers and sisters are “useless” when it comes to helping out with your parents, but mainly because you haven’t insisted that they be useful? Is it possible that you have some friends or co-workers who are takers but never givers? Is it possible that you always say “yes” to community organizations when something inside you is screaming “NO”?
If these situations sound familiar, you’re in good company. But the fact that millions of other women are overburdened or underappreciated doesn’t mean that you should be, too.
I like to say that the key to lasting change is “Little Things, Repeated Often”. Whether it’s losing weight, getting in shape, or enhancing a love relationship, you normally don’t have to do anything drastic. If you can adjust your daily habits just a little, you’ll accomplish your goal. Of course, the first few days are always the hardest. Just as it’s hard to hold off on dessert when you’ve always had it, it’s hard to say no to someone you’ve always said yes to. But once you do it, you’ll realize that it wasn’t as difficult as you thought. And it doesn’t mean you’ll never say yes again, only that you’ll have to let your own needs determine what you can or cannot do for others.
Start with the most peripheral relationships. It may sound harsh, but that friend who has been bending your ear as long as you’ve known her, but never seems to have ten seconds to listen to your problems, has got to go. She’s sapping your energy, putting you in a bad mood, and stealing time from the people you truly value. Next in line might be the person at work who always wants you to drop everything so she can meet a deadline, but who never returns the favor and never bothers to learn how to do her job more efficiently.
The demands of church, school, charitable, and neighborhood groups might be harder to resist, because these organizations can’t survive without someone volunteering their time. But that someone doesn’t always have to be you. You’ll be a more effective volunteer if you focus on just one group (assuming you even have time for that one), and either withdrawing from the others or supporting them with whatever financial help you can afford.
None of this requires rudeness. Some variation on “Thanks for asking but I’m just too busy right now” is all you need to say. I always hate to hear people apologize when they did nothing wrong, but if an apology make it easier to say no (“I’m sorry, but I’ve got my own report to finish by five o’clock”), then apologize. One way or the other, though, the message should get through.
You might want to be more gentle—but just as firm—with your own family. “I can either help mom with her shopping and the doctor visits, or I can check out assisted living centers, but I can’t do both. Which would you rather do?” “Honey, I can’t be talking to Sarah’s mother every time the two of you have an argument. You girls need to figure out how to get along better.”
By freeing yourself from one-sided relationships, or from unnecessary demands within your core relationships, you’ll finally have some time to devote to the one relationship you’ve probably been neglecting: the relationship with yourself. When you think about it, it’s the relationship that makes all the other ones possible, and it’s the only relationship you can be sure will last a lifetime.
Known as “The Attorney at Love,” Jim Duzak is an author (“Mid-Life Divorce and the Rebirth of Commitment”), relationship advice columnist, and the former host of Voice America’s “Relationship Radio.” He has been a guest on numerous morning TV shows in Arizona, and over forty local and Internet radio shows. Jim is a graduate of Boston College Law School, and was for many years a divorce lawyer and mediator. His website is www.attorneyatlove.com.