The last few years of my life have been marked by difficult changes. Divorce. Single parenting. Job loss. Dating and breakups. I have learned to navigate these challenges, not easily but well enough. I have learned to face hard facts and to move ahead even when the thing I want to do is hold on a little longer to a situation that’s not serving me. I’ve been brave not because I’ve wanted to but because I’ve felt I’ve had little choice in the matter.
There have been so many life lessons hidden inside of these life experiences. I could have easily overlooked a few of them, but my nature is to dig in and try to excavate my experiences in order to learn from them. My motivation is usually to try and figure out how to avoid similar pain in the future. I learn to recognize red flags I previously ignored and to honor my own intuition. But I also learn to look for my own thoughts and behaviors that have contributed to these outcomes.
I don’t always like what I see. I am fully aware of my own flaws, but sometimes I also notice patterns of behavior that are destructive. Recently, I saw a pattern of behavior more clearly than I ever have before. It hit me that I had engaged in it so often that it felt like second nature and not like a problem at all. Until I took a closer look.
Some friends invited me to come with them for a night out during the week. They know that I am currently undergoing an extreme financial hardship. They are aware that I am a single mother with few babysitting options during the week. They are further aware that I do have availability on certain days of the month more so than others.
Yet, every invitation I receive ignores all that they know about me. They want me to find a babysitter anyway on a date I’m not available- even if I’ve already said that no sitter is available, and I can’t afford one anyway. From the moment the invitation is issued, I am besieged by anxiety. I start making the futile attempts to engage a sitter, all the while juggling my budget to see if I can make it happen.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the invitations; I do. But so often, those invitations can come with a pressure to accept when accepting just isn’t possible due to my circumstances. Instead of being happy to have been included, I just feel anxiety at another missed opportunity to go out- when I’d be happy to do so on a night when I’m actually available.
Why do I find myself, time and again, trying to accommodate everyone else when I rarely find that others try to juggle their lives to accommodate me? It seems like everything has to always be on someone else’s terms — — and I have allowed this to be the case. My convenience rarely seems to be a consideration, and I end up bearing all of the anxiety when I should just be able to enjoy a date or an outing with friends without that added stress.
This has certainly been my pattern in relationships. I am the type of girlfriend who is happy to try new things so I don’t mind going to events with a significant other that I would normally not choose for myself. Somehow, that same consideration doesn’t usually come back to me. Once again, everything becomes about the other person’s happiness and convenience while the things I enjoy and even need seem to fall away. It’s a pattern I’ve established over the years, and I started to ask myself why it is that I try so hard when I get so little in return.
I could trace it back to childhood and all the times I was the new girl in a new town. I was an introvert who was happy to be alone, and yet I also longed to establish true friendships. I was, and still am sometimes, painfully shy around people I don’t know. Making new friends has never been easy, and I have tried very hard to establish those connections when I can. Maybe too hard. Perhaps I accommodate others because of that need for connection, and the fear that if I don’t accommodate them I won’t get it.
I also didn’t start dating until the last half of my senior year of high school. I was a late bloomer, which is to say that mostly I was very shy and didn’t garner much attention because I was more of a wallflower than I wanted to be. Even in relationships, I seemed to take what was being offered as if that was the only choice. Stretching myself thin and twisting myself up to accommodate the other person seemed like the only way I would maintain a relationship at all.
It seemed like it happened that way in jobs, too. I could never just do the minimum. I had to work so hard and do so much to help others out because I wanted to be seen as dependable — and yet that didn’t make me any less expendable when cuts were made, and I was laid off.
I have always worked so hard to do more and to be more, but sometimes I forget that life requires a balance. My entire way of life has created an imbalance. I’ve allowed other people to get their needs met while disregarding mine. Instead of enforcing boundaries, I’ve twisted myself into new shapes to make other people happy. Yet, the one person I should most concern myself with being happy isn’t at all, and that’s me. Not when I’m examining this pattern and seeing it play out even now.
It seems like it may be fear-based. I am afraid that if I say no or put a boundary in place, I will lose another connection I fought so hard to achieve. But are those kinds of connections worth it? Do we really need the kind of connections we have to fight to achieve in the first place and who could leave so easily because we demanded equal consideration for ourselves? It seems like I need to start making adjustments there, too.
When we realize that we’ve been accommodating everyone but ourselves our entire lives, it becomes necessary- if we don’t want to continue this- to try something new. For me, this means that I will have to inform friends and potential dates that I am only available on certain dates and times. I won’t try to get a sitter when I know I can’t afford one. I won’t try to accommodate a date that I know will be nearly impossible to manage and will cause great stress even if I do happen to manage it. I won’t keep jumping through hoops to make friendships and relationships happen, honoring their interests while disregarding my own.
When we notice our own patterns of behavior, it is important that we address them. I can’t blame everyone else for disregarding me when I’ve been so clearly disregarding myself. I am responsible for holding firm to my own boundaries, and I can’t blame anyone but myself when I bend them and then feel anxiety about it. But I can change.
I have to tell myself to quit being so accommodating of everyone else. I also have to remind myself that it’s okay to ask others to accommodate what I need. If it conflicts with their own needs, they can always say no. But I’m allowed to ask for what I want and need. In fact, I think if I started to ask for what I need, people would be less likely to assume that my only need is to accommodate and please everyone else.
In fact, I made this my homework assignment, and when I next received an invitation for a night out on an evening I knew I wouldn’t be available, I decided to make my own needs a priority. I declined the invitation but then suggested an alternate plan on a date I was available. To my delight, my friend accepted the invitation. No one felt anxious or had hurt feelings. I asked for what I wanted, made plans that aligned with my own needs, and I got exactly what I needed.
I had been so hesitant to ask for what I wanted and to hold that boundary, and yet when I did, it was honored. Of course, when we establish boundaries, that easy acceptance won’t always be the case. We may even see unhealthy patterns in certain relationships once we’re unwilling to twist ourselves up to meet the other person’s needs. But it’s essential that we begin to get comfortable making ourselves a priority, too.
I had become the concierge of friendships and relationships. I would make everything work, make sure everyone had anything they could possibly need, and what I needed could just wait. Until it couldn’t anymore. I let go of my need to please and my fear of losing relationships and started to embrace the idea of balance. I decided that if we can’t meet on equal terms, with all that that entails, then we can’t meet at all.