“I can’t believe that I am this exhausted,” his voice was incredulous on the other end of the phone. “How did this happen? All I’ve ever done is live by the golden rule. I’ve put others first. I’m not a jerk. I try to be patient and this is what I get?” I was talking to a man who had just been sued by a long-time patient and was now being pressured by his group practice to settle. He just couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that his selfless service to patients and practice was valued so little.
This happens to many of us. We are taught early to live by the golden rule, yet aren’t given all the information we need to attend to ourselves first, before helping others. Denying our own needs in the service of others is called CO-DEPENDENCE. Co-dependence is not the goal. Because the mission of medicine is to diagnose or cure illness, it is easy to develop a “savior complex.” I believe that is why preventative and lifestyle medicine is so popular. The idea of diagnosing, treating and “saving someone” from their disease process is no longer a viable model. We are (more and more) drawn to the wisdom of helping others learn to care for themselves, averting the chronicity of disease.
If we want to serve others truly, we must first serve ourselves. This requires interdependence, not co-dependence.
How can you tell if you are relating at home and at work from a co-dependent place?
- You struggle with feelings of low self-esteem. It feels like you are never enough at home or at work. You are forever “making up” for ways in which you feel like you have let others down.
- You have poor boundaries. People take advantage of you and you don’t know how to change it. It feels like you give and give and give with little return.
- You want more for others than they seem to want for themselves. You SEE their potential and try to convince them of their value, often to no avail. You leave the interaction feeling discouraged and depleted.
- You put others before yourself. Aren’t we supposed to deny ourselves when we serve? The answer to this question is a resounding, “NO!”
- You struggle with perfectionism. Negative self talk like: “I’m doing something wrong. It must be my fault that people don’t get better, don’t understand or appreciate what I have given them. If I just try harder or get it perfect, then people will appreciate me.”
If you find yourself in the words above, don’t panic…there is hope. The first step is to identify your innate communication style and gently nudge yourself toward more assertive communication patterns. If you can effectively communicate with your loved ones and patients, you create the perfect opportunity for constructing healthy boundaries. Boundaries are not just about saying, “No.” Boundaries are about knowing when to say, “Yes.” A resourced, rested and happy individual finds the exercise of creating boundaries exciting and invigorating.