“… but I have to make sure they are happy!”
Isn’t it funny how we take on particular roles intended to contribute to other’s lives whether they are wanted or not? I have always been a ‘pleaser’. I am consistently described as ‘responsible and consciencious’. (I’ll take ‘responsible’ but really, who wants to be described as ‘consciencious’… seriously?!) My whole life I have always struggled with feeling like I have to please those around me, particularly those I love. Of course, this was definitely true for my parents. I remember trying to figure out what I wanted to study in college and being a little sad because I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer like dad nor did I have an ounce of artistic talent like mom. After much soul searching I did find something I was passionate about but I felt sad that they did not seem as interested or proud about my career as I wanted them to be. It’s not that they weren’t proud, of course they were. Biochemistry was just not interesting to them… (Hey now … it is too interesting!).
Looking back, I realize that I’ve always assigned myself the task of trying to keep my parents happy. When I was a kid, I would write them letters for their birthdays telling them how wonderful and amazing they were. I got such a kick out of watching them so proud and happy. As I got older, I was the permanent side-kick in everything they did. Their ever-present companion. Actually, my Senior year in high school I was almost not allowed to graduate because I had traveled so much with them for my dad’s work that I wasn’t going to meet the minimum requirements for attendance. I remember telling them and feeling so bad that I was inconveniencing them by having to stay put so I could finish school. When they fought, I would listen and try to empathize. I would listen more than any daughter should have to hear about her parent but always happy to do it to help them through the venting phase. Hoping for a quick reconciliation so everything could go back to normal. When they were sad, I always tried to cheer them up. As the youngest, I was so worried when I moved away to college that I seriously wondered if they would be able to cope without me (whatever would they do?!). Not surprisingly, they not only survived but embraced the new phase incredibly gracefully just like they had done with every other one in their lives.
I have always felt so good over the years as I’ve brought them joy, whether with big things or small. However, I must admit I often found myself happily playing unproductive and enabling roles. On and off over the last 20 years, I have been my dad’s personal assistant. “Good for you, helping your dad out”, you say… except there was a particular time when he was already retired and I was working full time and had two small children (…and one too many loose screws in my head)! Yet, every single one of these unproductive roles I played was one I chose to take on. They were never requested…definitely embraced and encouraged by them… but never, ever, requested.
Of course, I always felt incredibly guilty when I had to say no. (‘Pleasers’ don’t like that word… it really scares us. We believe the world will actually stop spinning if we overuse it. That’s why we save it for the most dire of situations.) Over the years, I have been known to say no (after much therapy and my husband’s patient and endless encouragement). I’m still not great at it and I do find myself saying yes more often than I say no but I am getting better. I realize I need to set limits not only for my sanity but because it’s important for them to know where they are. I realize how unfair it is to be miserable and blame them when I’m the one responsible. What’s really interesting is that I believe that limits make my children strong, independent, empowered individuals and helps them realize they are not the center of the universe. Why don’t I think this applies to my parents?
I now know it’s OK to want my parents to be happy but it’s not OK to need my parents to be happy. I’m not the ‘happiness’ elf. Although… if only I could be…