“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” ~Pema Chadron
The hardest part of hearing the words, “I’m sorry, but you have cancer” at the age of thirty was knowing I had to tell my mother and my husband.
Not because I was afraid of their reaction, although it would be especially heightened since my father had died of cancer three years prior, but because I was going to take on a role I had never experienced before: a patient.
For me, being a patient equaled being dependent. Someone who was needy and required others to change their lives to accommodate them. That wasn’t me at all.
I was a people-pleaser. A self-sacrificer. An empath who could feel the emotions of my family members and worked hard to avoid adding to their stress.
I spent my entire life making things easier for those around me. I never complained. I didn’t ask for anything. I willingly gave up my desires to make other people happy.
I built my life around the premise that I could handle everything on my own; but suddenly, my “I’m fine, don’t worry about me,” mantra was about to change.
As a young mother with two children under the age of three, I knew that I was going to need help during my cancer treatments. And that fact was more terrifying than my diagnosis.
Growing up, my family never had any money. My mom and dad worked opposite shifts to avoid paying for daycare, and many times, it was just me and my two older brothers fending for ourselves.
While I never went hungry, I didn’t always have a lot of food options. I remember the days of powdered milk and wearing my brother’s old, ragged clothes.
As an empath, I could feel the strain on my parents as they tried to make ends meet. So I learned to be quiet. Shrink down. Not make waves. No milk for cereal? Okay, I’ll just use water. Cold? I’ll just wear my winter coat in the house. I became so good at being “easy,” it became part of my identity.
“Oh, Natalie never gives us any trouble at all” was something I took as a compliment. It was overwhelming, but over time being a people pleaser became an intrinsic part of me.
As I grew older, life became a little easier. I got a job, started making my own money, and my parents respected my independence. More importantly, I was able to leave my people-pleasing practices behind for a little while. I went to college, then graduate school, and became a psychologist helping others live better lives.
I was a helper, which is a more acceptable way to channel my people-pleasing lifestyle. And it worked well to keep my people-pleasing at bay. Until I became a mother.
When I had children, my husband and I made the decision that I would stay home to raise them. While blessed to have this choice, it reawakened my people-pleasing tendencies.
In my mind, since I was the one who stayed home, I needed to make everything as easy as possible for my husband, since he was the one going to work. All the night feedings, the diaper changes, the baths, even while recovering from complicated c-sections, my automatic response was, “I got it.”
When my husband would interject, I would remind him how he needed sleep because he had to go to work, reply that I wasn’t tired, or that it was “faster,” if I did it.
Was I tired? Yes. Did I sleep during the day? Anyone who has children knows the answer to that one. But that’s all I knew—how to make it easier for everyone else so I could avoid feeling their emotions.
When my cancer diagnosis threatened to remove my ability to handle everything on my own, I fought hard against it. I drove myself to my testing appointments, refused any support group or counseling; and I would probably have driven myself to my mastectomy and chemotherapy appointments if they would have allowed it.
Others called me “strong,” and “stoic,” but I felt confused to hear that until my mother asked me, “Where did you learn that you have to do everything on your own? What is that about?” I shrugged; it was just how I was wired.
Thankfully, my cancer journey passed quickly, and I was back into my routine in a few short months. I was healthy and immersed in raising children.
Yet I started to think about my mother’s question and wonder why I consistently refused help from anyone.
It took a few years and a lot of reading and soul searching, but I came to realize that my empathic abilities were more than just understanding how others feel, but feeling how others feel. And my people-pleasing practices were attempts to remove any feelings of discomfort from my loved ones.
I wasn’t living authentically for myself; I was living for others. And it was time for a change.
Here are five ways that I transitioned from people-pleasing to self-caring:
1. I learned about boundaries.
Setting boundaries is one of the most helpful and basic activities that one can do to interrupt the people-pleasing process. I started to tune into my body and notice when I felt uncomfortable, whether it’s how I was being treated or if someone was asking something of me. Those were good indicators that a boundary was needed.
2. I practiced saying no.
I always tell my children that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you need to.
3. I did some self-exploration.
My kids would ask me “What’s your favorite food?” Or “What’s your favorite color?” and I could never answer. Why? Because I was so used to going along to get along that I never developed favorites or even a basic sense of what I truly liked and didn’t like.
4. I started journaling.
I utilized writing to help me learn about myself. Who am I without a relationship with anyone else? I asked myself questions, listed my wants/desires, and started taking small steps towards achieving those goals.
5. I was gentle with myself.
I understand this is a process. I am still in recovery, but now I have the awareness to recognize when I am struggling with wanting to please others rather than myself.
Ultimately, transitioning from people-pleasing to self-caring enabled me to become stronger, not only for myself but also for the people I care about most. It wasn’t easy to break free from the ways that I had adapted to my childhood circumstances.
I had to rewire my brain, step by step and it’s still a process. It’s ironic that not having a choice with cancer is what ultimately gave me the freedom to change.
About Natalie Bernstein
Natalie Bernstein, Psy.D.is a Licensed Psychologist, Certified Life and Spiritual Coach, and Reiki Practitioner. She specializes in helping people-pleasers, overthinkers, and emotion feelers lead more authentic and happy lives. She provides individual and group coaching. You can find out more about her here and follow her on Instagram @@dr.nataliebernstein to gain a better perspective of her insights and practices.