I did not need help. I could do it myself. I never asked, and anyone who worked with me for any length of time quickly understood that they did not need to ask either. This was my modus operandi. This was how I unconsciously organized my life, and it was no more in my conscious awareness than the steps needed to ride a bike, or tie my shoes, chew gum while walking, it just happened in the background all day long, completely unknown to me for many, many years.
There were things that I could see, the ‘side effects’ of this unconscious behavior pattern. I could see how important it was for me to be self-sufficient, to be able to do everything on my own. This came through in many ways large and small, but it was always there, from being my own IT person, to doing my procedure clinic without any nursing help. Sure, I would ask questions and look for additional information to round out my knowledge base, but it simply never occurred to me to ask others for their help (unless it was clearly beyond my skill set like electrical work or required by my spouse like chimney cleaning). I enjoyed the feeling of self-sufficiency and I absolutely relished the ability to do what others were doing and then just a little more. This brought me a sense of pride and a sense of satisfaction. I would enjoy the monthly business meeting where the numbers for revenue would flash on the screen and I would once again see I was in the top two places for gross revenue generated. Inside I felt the thrill of knowing that I was doing all this while seeing patents in clinic only three days a week, spending the other two days teaching. It made me feel good, really good, about my value to the system, to the organization, and when the organization asked for a little more, I was there to give it to them.
I could also see how important it was for me to give help to others. It would show up right on time as I arrived early and asked what I could do to help set up a room, volunteering to perform some task for an upcoming conference, stepping forward to take on that extra committee duty, or switching out my call schedule to accommodate someone who had a family event. It felt good, it felt honourable, it felt helpful and useful, and so I felt all of this in the process of helping others.
Underneath it all though, there simmered resentment. The fuel that fired this resentment came from many different sources and it would show up in my awareness in small subtle ways that I often ignored, or in larger ways that I frankly did not recognize for what they were. I would find myself thinking that no one ever seemed to say thank you enough for all that I was doing. In moments of fatigue I would begrudge that others were not doing their part to step forward to do some of these tasks. I would ruminate about why so much was upon my shoulders, why I was doing more than others by many fold and was not being rewarded for these efforts. It brewed a very unpleasant stew of resentment within me, and this would come out in relationships as displaced anger. This pressure, this stress would find a pathway out of me and all it took was the least little crack in the container to allow an episode of venting. Small things would irritate me and I would react, and in that reaction, a crack would appear and pressure that had built up from other locations, from other parts of my life, would find their way out in this anger. As is often the case, those that I cared about the most, who were in my life in the most intimate way were the inadvertent targets of this release of emotion. Inevitably, remorse, guilt and self-loathing would follow any episode of venting and I would double down on the containment system to prevent it from happening again.
It all sounds so clear now, and as I look back upon it, I am surprised I did not put it together more quickly than I did, but as I said in the beginning, I did not ask for help, and it was unconscious to me. I stumbled along frustrated that I kept adding to my plate full of duties, and slowly burning internally. I changed jobs, and changed countries and still it was there. Sure, walking away from one place to a new place would empty the system for a while, but slowly the pressure would once again build until I noticed those old familiar feelings of being overwhelmed, of having taken on too much, or being over stretched. I sat in meditation to see what was happening, and I read books on burnout (‘Overwhelmed: work, love, and play when no one has the time” by Brigid Schulte changed my life). I began to look at my life and see exactly how my 168 hours each week was being spent, and asking the question, ‘does this make me happy?’ If some of those hours did not bring me a sense of happiness I began to release the work associated with them. I withdrew from committees that I was on when my term expired, I declined opportunities to join committees when asked, and I studied my daily spread of time with an intense curiosity, slicing away anything that did not serve me.
As I began cutting back, I noticed unpleasant feelings coming up, feelings that I was a slacker, that I was lazy, that I was not doing my part. I brow beat these feelings down for a long time as I was absolutely convinced that what I was doing was in my own best interest, but it did not relieve the underlying distress that this stepping back, setting limits, action created. Fortunately for me, I had signed up for an on-line introduction to Hakomi Somatic Psychotherapy. As I learned about the many ways that everyone reacts to the stresses in their early life, I begin to get curious. I started studying my reactions and listening to the words that would arise in my head when I set a limit, or erected a boundary. I began to ask if they were my words, or words I had learned from others. Slowly it began to dawn on my how much of my life had been influenced by the ‘value of work’ that was ever present in my home. I had internalized a strong work ethic in my early years, and it had manifested itself in the need to be helpful, and in the need to be self-sufficient. My curiosity deepened further as I began my formal training in Hakomi Therapy, and among my classmates I began to more honestly and deeply explore the origins of my need to be helpful. You see, it had arrived in this training like a little friend who could not be left behind. I found myself arriving early to the course to help set up the room. I felt my resentment as others would not acknowledge my help in a way I could take in, and of course, in this training, we study whatever arises in the moment, and so I began to study this pattern of behaviour closely, very closely.
I noticed how my body participated in the behaviour, which allowed me to study it more closely from the moment it would appear. My jaw would tighten as I felt the first brushings of irritation, and so I would slow things down, and really study how it felt, really dive into the experience. Memories would arise, fragmentary but key, these memories of how I came to establish this behaviour, and the pain that I sought to avoid through these actions. From my early life, I came to see that I had learned to be self-sufficient when my parents had become overwhelmed by my brother and his medical needs. I could see how my life had gone from being the centre of attention, to being much further down that chain as his needs far outstripped mine. I decided to take care of myself so that I would not have to feel the pain of not being cared for. I also learned that being helpful got me noticed in a positive way, and so I jumped in full force being helpful at every opportunity. You can see how it makes so much sense, being self-sufficient meant I would not feel neglected, and being helpful meant that I would be noticed and praised. It is from this fertile ground that my behaviour had arisen, it was groomed and shaped by the events of my later life, but this had been the soil from which I grew.
Knowing where a thing comes from give you the unique opportunity to see it from many different angles. To notice how it plays out within your life, and to see all the little interconnections that arise from this modest beginning. When you land upon this knowing in a moment of deep mindfulness, it affords you the opportunity to change how you feel about it, and that opens many pathways and possibilities. So, while I still have a default mode toward being helpful, and toward being independent, I am beginning to experiment with asking for help, and noticing the little flutter in my heart as I step out and do something new, and different, and brave. Each little step, changes the behaviour a little more, and opens a little more freedom in my world to truly be all that I am meant to be.
If any of resonates for you, and you happen to be curious, and wish to study it more, do not hesitate to drop me a line. If you would like to know more about my work, or to work with me, feel free to contact me. I post regularly to Instagram (@gilgrimes), Twitter (gilgrimes) and Facebook (gilgrimes) about whatever arises from my meditation each day. And if you would like to stay in touch sign up for my newsletter (probably once or twice a month at most).