Mental Health Matters: Releasing the Need to Help

Do you think you should wait for someone to ask for your help or do you think you should offer unsolicited help if it looks and sounds as if the person needs it?

Up until August, I thought the latter. If I knew specifics of a friend’s or family member’s situation, why wouldn’t I just help, without their needing to request support?

Two recent incidents have caused me to rethink this approach.


Incident #1: One of my stepmother’s grandsons was murdered. Someone he’d gone out with shot him eleven times, resulting in his death. Most of her family lives 1,100 miles away and, as most retirees, my stepmother is on a budget. She’d need to buy a plane ticket and due to COVID, she needed to stay in a hotel while visiting. As she shared her needs, I felt the urge to help.

Five years ago, I functioned in a similar way with her. When my father died, I paid for her plane ticket back to Chicago so she could have a second memorial for him, something she deemed necessary.

Two years ago, I sprang into action again. She’d called to tell me about her breast cancer diagnosis. They’d botched her surgery but wouldn’t listen to her painful pleas. Her oldest daughter and granddaughter weren’t in a space to help her. She wasn’t eating or sleeping well. Although she didn’t ask, I packed up my car and my youngest daughter and I drove five hours to take her grocery shopping, cook dinner, speak with authority to nurses, and be with her pre- and post-surgery.

She seemed to need my help, so I gave it, unsolicited.

This time, I just listened. And when she finished telling me about her plans, I said one thing, “Let me know if you need anything.”

She agreed, and I didn’t hear from her until weeks after she’d traveled to see her family, attended the funeral, and safely returned home. Guess she was okay without my assistance.


Incident #2: I have a sister friend, who quit her job about two years ago. I don’t know the specifics of how she makes money and it’s not my place to detail them here. Let’s just say she’s lived with the consequences of someone who quit her job without securing other employment. She also has an elementary-school-aged daughter.

Though she didn’t ask, I thought it fitting to “help” by sending school-supply money. I convinced Dwight to also contribute. I say convince because he didn’t understand why I or we would be giving her anything, especially unsolicited. “If someone needs your help,” he said, “they’ll ask.”

Imagine my surprise, when I saw my little sister friend living her best vacation life on social media. Subsequently, I did what I’ve learned to do…ask a question. I asked her if she needed the money we’d sent. Her answer was no.

Then, I reflected on how I ended up inserting myself in the first place.

I’d made judgments and assumptions leading up to sending money. I judged her current circumstance as negative and assumed she required my assistance. It’s never my place to judge another person’s situation, and it’s certainly not necessary for me to step in and “save” them from something I’ve deemed negative, whether they’re in distress or not.

In the codependent conversation, this is called caretaking or compulsive helping. Like other concepts, the difference between just helping and compulsive helping is the helper’s intent and need to be needed.

It feels good to be needed. I’ll admit I’ve liked being seen as the person whom others can depend on, even without asking. In the past, it meant I mattered. But as Dr. Lefever says, it’s arrogant; it presumes you know what’s better for someone more than they do. How can I ever know what’s better for someone more than they do?

How can I ever know what’s better for someone more than they do?

kegarland

This revelation literally happened two months ago, so it’s a new way of being in relationship with people. But I’m pretty sure I’m going to do the following:

  • Listen without the intent to solve someone’s “problem.”
  • Wait for the person to ask for help.
  • Think about why I want to help; is it self-serving?

I’ll provide an update once it’s become a seamless part of how I function.

I know this one may be a little controversial, especially because we’ve been conditioned, encouraged even, to help one another, so let me know your opinion. Do you wait for someone to ask for help or do you offer unsolicited help?


3 Ways to Develop Self-Worth

How to Establish 4 Types of Boundaries

No More People Pleasing!

Mental Health Matters: No More People Pleasing!

My mother used to tell a story of when I was in pre-k. When she picked me up, the children played on the lawn, pretending to cross a bridge. I was the bridge. I lay flat on the grass, while my friends walked on me.

Even at four years old, I demonstrated the lengths I’d go through to be liked. My desire only increased as I aged.

By the time Dwight and I met, it was easy to switch out a short, honey-blonde hairstyle for longer, brown tresses he’d once commented he preferred. I traded my red lipstick for a natural brown color and stopped wearing bright green shorts for plain, denim ones. I faded into the background of life to ensure he’d always like me, ignoring the fact that he liked me when we met.

I’d mastered people pleasing beyond marriage.

In 2016, my director invited me to a party seventy-two miles away in the city where I work. I didn’t want to go for a few reasons:

  1. The party was Saturday and I received an invitation Wednesday.
  2. It was seventy-two miles away.
  3. I only knew the host.

I discussed it with a friend of mine, who insisted I should attend because of work politics, and…well, because I was invited.

To be clear, I had a good time. In fact, I wrote about it here. But why did I go? Although attending had nothing to do with work, I wanted to be seen as a good employee and a well-liked person. I also didn’t want to disappoint the host.

People pleasing ruled again.

That year, I also published The Unhappy Wife. The number of friends, family, and bloggers who read and wrote unsolicited reviews surprised me. Everyone engaged, except…my husband*.

By self-admission, Dwight reads one book a year. Additionally, he’s not fond of creative nonfiction. But I didn’t care. I obsessed over the idea of him reading and reviewing my book. I needed his opinion. I wouldn’t let it go until I knew what he thought.

I’d argue most of us would want our significant other to read our work. However, something more was happening here. I sought external validation in the form of praise, which is another form of people pleasing.

That was four years ago.

Developing self-worth and establishing boundaries have compelled me to stop living to please others. These three ideas work together.

Because I value myself, I no longer seek external validation. Though I’d like for my husband to read my words, I don’t ask anymore. If he reads this blog or latest publication, I’m excited when he mentions it, but I don’t need him to perform an act to make me feel good about myself.

Because I’d created time and personal boundaries, I knew when my director invited me to another party, I didn’t have to go. I didn’t need to spend three hours on the road and another few hours socializing with strangers to prove I was a good co-worker, associate, or friend. Another strategy I’ve mastered is not explaining my decision. As Oprah once emphasized, “No is a complete sentence.”

Because I’d worked on knowing myself and developing a sense of identity, I’ve returned to wearing red lipstick for no other reason than I like it. Bright colors have crept back into my wardrobe because I like them. And I wear my natural hair in a unique short precision cut because I like it. Each decision is a manifestation of my personality, which is now clear to me.

Here are other actions that have been helpful:

  • I take my time to answer when someone asks me to do something. Let me sleep on it is a useful phrase.
  • I prioritize my own needs over others’ feelings. If staying at a hotel is more relaxing than someone’s house, then I do that.
  • I make more decisions based on emotional, professional, or personal effects and fewer on how I will be perceived.

Finally, I now know the most important person who needs to like me is…me. Others’ affection is a bonus. Releasing people-pleasing behaviors is a third practice that’s helped me to be less codependent.

Finally, I now know the most important person who needs to like me is…me.

kegarland

Let me know if you’d add anything else that’s been helpful for you.

*Dwight read The Unhappy Wife about five months after publication and it taught me an invaluable lesson about external validation.

3 Ways to Develop Self-Worth

How to Establish 4 Types of Boundaries

Mental Health Matters: 3 Ways to Develop Self-Worth

As promised, I’m shifting the focus of Mental Health Matters to discuss ways I’ve learned to be a less codependent version of myself. This week, I’ll discuss one of the characteristics of being codependent: having low self-esteem.

Self-esteem is defined as the manner in which we evaluate ourselves. For example, I’ve always believed myself to be a pretty and intelligent person, thus creating high self-esteem.

However, self-worth is the belief that you are loveable and valuable regardless of how you evaluate your traits. Your self-worth is directly related to your childhood. For example, because I was abandoned as a baby and then later as an adolescent, I believed I was literally worthless. Underneath my highly rated self-esteem was a very low self-worth. I truly believed I didn’t deserve love.

But over time, I’ve developed a higher sense of self-worth with these three practices:

Remove Personal Value from Abandonment. As a person who was abandoned by her birth and adoptive parents, I constantly wondered why? Why was I left? What was wrong with me? Because I’m analytical, the conclusion that made sense was…I guess they didn’t love me. To establish a higher self-worth, I had to separate my parents’ actions with how much they valued or loved me. Like all adults, each of my parents had their own reasons for how they lived life. And although their actions negatively impacted me in some ways, it had nothing to do with my worthiness but, rather, everything to do with their own issues and rationales. There is no reason for me to take any of my parent’s choices personally and there is definitely no reason to assign my value to their decisions.

Enact Self-Love. The other day, I was listening to Dr. Shefali Tsabary. Loosely paraphrased, she suggested that if four basic needs weren’t met by aged two, then you’re not going to receive them unless you give them to yourself. My experience tells me she’s right. Once I realized I had low self-worth, I knew one thing I had to do was love my own self. So, six years ago, I visualized myself as a five-month-old abandoned baby. Being a mother, I knew a baby needed physical contact, food, and security. In my imagination, I picked up baby kg, hugged myself, and told myself: I love you. You matter. Just last month, I learned that you can also give yourself a hug as a way to show yourself love. This month, I’ve continued my self-love work practice by reading and enacting Louise Hay’s mirror work. Self-love, for someone who hasn’t had it, can be ongoing work. But it’s worth it. I mean, who else is better equipped to remind myself that I’m worthy of love than me?

I AM Statements. A therapist once pointed out that I used the phrase I’m not important a lot. Whenever a family member or friend didn’t do something I’d asked, then I concluded it was because I wasn’t important. The therapist suggested a homework assignment: Write I am important, repeatedly. I’d already been keeping a gratitude journal, so I began writing it there. After I realized I had to love myself, I added I am love to the list. I also write I am adequate as a way to remind myself that I am fine just the way I am…today…in this moment. Whether I have achievements, people, or neither…I am adequate being who I am. I’ve written these statements at least four times a week for almost ten years.

So, what does this have to do with codependence? Although Beattie only mentions self-esteem, I firmly believe that low self-worth can also lead to unhealthy, codependent attachments. For me, each relationship, including my marriage, served to prove that I was lovable and worthy of love, that I mattered.

These three strategies have helped me to know my worth, and consequently, have made me less likely to develop relationships to prove my value. 

If necessary, I hope what I’ve shared works for you, too. And if you have more suggestions to add, please feel free to do so in the comments.

***

Here is more information about the difference between self-esteem, self-worth, self-confidence, and self-knowledge.

How to Establish 4 Types of Boundaries

No More People Pleasing!

Mental Health Matters: Codependence

I discovered the idea of codependence last year around August. I was displeased with my daughter’s choice of boyfriend, as I had been in the past, and was looking for reasons why she seemed to have fallen in love with the same personality – again. Google is one of my best friends, so I used it to search for specific traits that I’d noticed in both her current and former beau.

No matter what phrases I used, codependence popped up. So, I clicked on a link and read the characteristics:

Low self-esteem

People pleasing

Poor boundaries

Reactivity

Caretaking

Control

Dysfunctional communication

Obsessions

Dependency

Denial

Problems with intimacy

Painful emotions

codependencyJeez Louise! You know those movies that show people’s lives flashing before their eyes prior to their deaths? That’s how I felt reading this list of descriptions. It was as if someone had written an outline of my life. I stopped worrying about my daughter and the men she’d chosen and instead began reflecting on myself and the choices I’d made from childhood through adulthood. The proverbial light bulb went off and I realized (as my sister once said) I’d been codependent as f—k!

From the low self-worth of abandonment to the eventual numbing of painful emotions established in adolescence and further perpetuated as a grown woman, I exhibited each codependent trait. I was stunned, but suddenly, my life made sense.

While most wouldn’t describe me as a people-pleaser, there were specific people I rarely told, “no.” My grandmother was one. The example I repeatedly describe is when she’d told me that she wanted me (and the rest of our family) home for Christmas. We could do what we wanted for other holidays, but December 25th was different. So, even though Dwight and I moved our family a thousand miles away, we drove up and down the interstate every other year for seventeen years with our daughters in tow just because I thought I had to and also because I feared telling her no. I’m not sure what I thought would happen if I said, “We’re not coming,” but I avoided the conversation and disappointing her for almost two decades, all while ignoring how the situation affected my family and me.

Another way codependency showed up in my life is through a lack of boundaries. I could write another twelve posts about this, but I’ll just share two specifics. Prior to 2014, I had no personal boundaries “based on awareness of my own unique needs.” It’s easy to do this when you’re unclear about who you are. How could I know what I needed if I didn’t know who I was as an individual or what I liked? As a result, whatever others liked, I liked. Whatever they wanted to do, I did. You’d never hear me say, “No. I’m not doing that!” It was more like, “Sure. I’m down with anything.”

Similarly, I had very few relationship boundaries. I’ve written before about the ease with which I can become friends with others. However, in the past, I’ve also befriended former students, even when they were still under my tutelage. Years ago, each one had access to me through my cellphone, where we’d chat for hours, discussing their personal business, and depending on what was happening in my life, mine too. I wanted to be a “caring teacher,” but blurred lines and unresolved issues, helped me to become a codependent one as well.

As a current teacher educator, of course, I advise against this; it’s unprofessional. However, reflecting on those ten years, it’s clear that poor boundaries permeated both my personal and professional life in another attempt to prove I mattered.

Another clear way codependency manifested is through control. For much of my life, I didn’t feel as if I was in control of myself. As an only child in a family of older relatives, times were far and few between when I knew what was best for me. Also, losing my mother at sixteen and being sent away at seventeen showed me that I was in control of nothing. Anything could happen at any moment. This led to two issues: I trusted everyone’s opinion, except my own, and I eventually tried very hard to control everything around me, including other’s actions, so as not to be caught off-guard by life, ever…again.

This revelation of codependency really changed my outlook as it gave me a new way to take responsibility for myself and my behavior.

From this point on, I’ll continue to share how I developed healthier coping mechanisms, in addition to conversations with those in the field who can support us in actualizing healthier lives.

Until then, tell me…are you familiar with this term? Have you ever been codependent?

Source 1

Source 2

Mental Health Matters: Perfectionism

For most aspects of my life, I can pinpoint the exact moment when I recognized a specific trait, but I’m unclear as to when I learned the idea that I should be perfect. After much research, it seems it could have come from four areas.

#1: It is common for adoptees to develop perfectionism out of insecurity and fear that they will be rejected from their adoptive family (Brodzinsky). This seems reasonable. I discovered I was an adoptee when I was around ten years old, and the story I remember was one of happenstance. Our home included several bookcases filled with books. On one of these bookcases was a book called Why Was I Adopted? I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor and reading the book in its entirety. When I reached the end, tears dropped one by one.

“Why are you crying?” my mother asked.

“I feel sorry for these people,” I said. “They don’t know who their family is.”

She replied matter-of-factly, “You shouldn’t feel sad. You’re adopted.”

adoptedShe and I never discussed the shock that this new information carried. We never discussed “adoption,” why she and my father adopted me, or what it meant to be an adoptee ever again. I’m not sure why, and as an adult and parent, I can only guess it’s because they didn’t know how or because of shame. Adoption carries its own stigma for all parties involved. Sometimes it can be embarrassing for the adoptive parents who, for whatever reason, cannot conceive their own biological children. Oftentimes, adoptees are ashamed and feel as if they were not good enough to have remained with their biological families, thus creating a sense that they need to achieve perfection, lest they be removed from this family, too.

This is something to which the child version of me could relate. As a child with no explanation, there was this idea that I must’ve caused my own adoption. If I were just good enough, then I wouldn’t have been given away.

#2: Perfectionism can also be developed when there’s a “frequent fear of insecurity or inadequacy” (Good Therapy); apparently, it’s something parents can unwittingly teach. I’ve written before about how my mother required me to sit for long periods of time to focus on a task until it was right. In a time of typewriters and correction fluid, this meant beginning my fifth-grade report on Ethiopia over and over, until it was error-free because “it was a reflection of me.” That’s just one example. Several other instances  reveal compounded experiences where I learned that flawlessness was a preferred behavior, not just from my mother, from other family members as well.

number_one#3: “Excessive praise for your achievements” and “believing your self-worth is determined by your achievements” (Martin, 2018) can also lead to perfectionism. I was raised as an only child and was my maternal grandmother’s only grandchild for over twenty years. I was my paternal grandmother’s youngest grandchild. Being the only and the youngest means I was doted on quite a bit. Everything I did was not only praised, but it was always perfect. According to my family, everything I did was “the best.” You know what this breeds? An adult who frequently desires to achieve all the things all the time at peak perfection. It’s no wonder that, after receiving a terminal degree, my sense of ego was slowly deflated. I’d reached a pinnacle of success and there was nothing more to do to externally prove my worth. I had to determine how I’d live the remainder of life without doing something.

#4: A final idea is that mental health issues, like anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are associated with perfectionism (Good Therapy). I can’t say with confidence that I don’t have OCD. I mean making stringent lists that make me feel as if my world will crumble should I stray from them may qualify, but I don’t know. However, for me, anxiety definitely does align with perfectionism. But, it seems to be a chicken/egg scenario. Does a predisposition towards anxiety and OCD cause one to seek perfectionism or does perfectionism cause anxiety and OCD? For me, not fully feeling a sense of belonging in my adoptive family, feeling insecure about my origin story, and receiving excessive praise seemed to have fed anxiety.

Luckily, I’ve been reflecting on perfectionism in varied ways over the past six years. Next week, I’ll delve into how I’ve unlearned (and continue to unlearn) perfectionism. Until then, feel free to add to this discussion. Are you a perfectionist? Are you a recovering perfectionist? Do you know any perfectionists? We need to undo this harmful and unrealistic standard. None of us are perfect and none of us ever will be.

January’s Mental Health Matters: Acceptance

February’s Mental Health Matters: Anxiety

Atlanta Book Reading

Do you live in Atlanta? Will you be home on June 15th? Are you interested in discussing the importance of father-daughter relationships? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then please come out to hear four of my co-authors read their stories and converse about familial ties.

There will also be free food and wine!

Details below:

Monday Notes: New Mantra

I was raised by a celebratory family. My mother’s side was known to praise any and everything that I did. No matter what I accomplished – piano recitals, school functions, dance programs – my grandmother, grandfather, and great aunts and uncle would proclaim, “you were the best one!” On top of that, my mother was known for creating parties. Some planned and some instant.

“Punch in a glass is just punch,” she’d say, “but when you pour it in a punch bowl, with sliced oranges, well that’s a party!”

We partied often. And it was something I grew used to.

Similarly, my father’s side of the family is known for arriving from out of town to celebrate accomplishments. It doesn’t matter if they haven’t seen or talked to the person in months or years, if they’re invited to a graduation party, birthday event, or funeral repast, they will find a way to join in and turn up.

My childhood was wonderful in this way. But then my mother died, and so did her parties.

Eight months later, I threw my own seventeenth birthday party. It was the first time since the funeral that family members were all in one space. It was the first time since we’d buried my mother that things felt normal.

When I graduated high school, I asked Grannie if she was going to have a party afterwards. Some call it an open house.

“You want a party?” she asked.

“Yes,” I beamed.

“Well, you’re gonna have to pay for it yourself.”

biggest_fan_2So, I did. I bought royal blue streamers, royal blue tablecloths and napkins, and ordered myself a white sheet cake, with royal blue icing that read, Congratulations Kathy! After graduation, family and friends celebrated the occasion with me in Grannie’s basement.

Throughout the years, this pattern continued. If I wanted to celebrate me, then I created an event to do so. Sometimes these were joint, out-of-town birthday parties with friends. Other times, like my doctoral graduation or 40th birthday party, I planned a celebration independently to physically say congrats.

Over the past few years, I’ve grown weary of planning festivities for myself, yet I’ve continued to achieve. To maintain a commemorative spirit, I’ve begun taking myself out. If I do something that I believe is extraordinary, then I splurge on a meal.

I also share great news on social media, because even though sites like Facebook can be annoying, the reality is that Internet communities love to uplift you when you’ve done something positive. To be honest, it’s like dipping a glass ladle into that fancy bowl and scooping out the bright red punch my mother used to make. It tastes sweet. It feels special.

But as I approach 46, I realize those things are all outside of myself. And because I seek growth in everything I do, I’ve developed a new mantra. What I’m doing is important, even if no one else acknowledges it.

Don’t get me wrong. I still celebrate myself in explicit ways, but this phrase reminds me to also turn inward. It reminds me that my self-worth is not tied to my success or anyone’s validation of it. And it liberates me from expecting external gratification in the form of celebratory acts. This is a new practice. We’ll see how it goes.

In the meantime, tell me if you’ve ever had to re-frame how you function in the world because of your upbringing? Are you a celebratory person?