I was once contacted by a woman who felt horribly trapped in her marriage: her husband had developed emphysema due to a lifetime of smoking cigarettes, and her own life had ground to a halt as she increasingly assumed a caretaking role. She was emotionally unable to break free as she had been taught to put others’ needs before her own and felt she owed it to her husband to take care of him—even though he had consciously chosen to smoke for 30 years and had not felt he owed it to himself to take care of his own health. His wife felt deeply conflicted: she had, after all, committed to sticking with him, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. Why, then, did she feel so resentful?
Her husband had not been committed to his own well-being, yet she had effectively gone along with his lack of commitment to himself—thereby preventing herself from being committed to her own well-being. Rather than forcing herself to live with the outcome of his unhealthy choices, she was now being challenged to make some fresh, new, healthy choices for herself—and to break free of a lifelong pattern of self-sacrifice.
My body, my choice…?
Her situation pushed her to explore some tough questions: Do we have the right to do what we want to our own bodies, if it has an impact on others? And does it ever not affect others, in some way?
We can only ever commit to self—to being the best that we can be, to taking care of our health and to doing what feels right for us. Committing to another’s agenda is not a sustainable kind of commitment and usually results in some kind of dysfunction, co-dependence or struggle. Commitment to self is really the only kind of commitment that’s healthy and that makes life worth living. We have no control over the choices that others make, so it makes no sense to be unconditionally committed to them. We can, however, be committed to being all that we can be in our relationships with others, which means freely choosing to be with our partner, without feeling obligated or needy.
Just as a lack of healthy self-responsibility can draw others into an unhealthy cycle of meeting our needs, while neglecting their own, a healthy commitment to self has a positive impact on others. In fact, taking responsibility for self is the greatest gift we can give to the world.
In our modern culture of sophisticated technology and quick fixes, we often believe we need to be ‘fixed’ or healed by others—a doctor, a preacher, a guru—or by a drug. If we don’t trust ourselves and haven’t been taught that we’re all innately wise, we may get stuck in a cycle of depending on others to figure us out or give us the answers. Ironically, though, if we try to take care of others, while not taking care of ourselves, we perpetuate this culture of not taking responsibility for self.
The deeper truth
Getting clear about our true motivation for helping others is important if we want to live a healthy, fulfilling life. Are we helping others because we need to be needed? Are we helping them because we feel it’s the ‘right’ thing to do? Are we helping because it makes us feel good about ourselves? Or are we helping because we’ve been programmed to serve others, even if it has an adverse effect on us? Helping others can bring us a lot of joy; but if we haven’t first become wise enough to know when we’re enabling someone’s dysfunction rather than facilitating their growth, we may be doing them and ourselves a disservice.
Not taking care of ourselves, first and foremost, often means that someone else will end up doing it for us—because we become ill/incapacitated or perhaps because we think the world ‘owes us’ after all the sacrifices we’ve made for others.
Healthy self-responsibility, on the other hand, inspires others to be equally committed to self. When we cook yummy, healthy foods, we inspire others to do the same; when we search for answers and find powerful solutions, we remind others that they have the same capacity to attract what they need; when we share our experience of what worked for us, without pushing our agenda onto others, we demonstrate the win-win benefits of self-empowerment; and when we love with understanding and healthy boundaries, we teach others the power of loving relationships and personal integrity.
So the next time you’re drawn to help someone, you might consider asking yourself these questions: Do they want your help? Do you want to help them more than they want to be helped? And, most importantly, have you done for yourself the healing and growth that you’re urging them to do? If we’re not taking healthy actions in our own lives, we’re more likely to get caught up in reactions to others.
We’re here to help each other with compassion and humanity, but loving begins at home, in our own hearts. When our ‘love tanks’ are full, we love for the love of loving, and we give for the joy of giving. It doesn’t get much better than that.