From the time I could understand words, my dad’s repetitive lecture drilled itself into my head: “Your purpose is to serve others.” What he forgot to tell me was that if you didn’t take care of yourself first, you risk neglecting your own needs. It took me 15 years to take this unspoken lesson to heart, and, even now, it remains difficult to stand by.
From a young age, a strong desire to please others dominated my life. Some innate part of me desperately sought approval. With my parents and teachers, it was by being a blindly obedient, straight-A student who only talked when spoken to. With my friends, it was catering to their wants and needs, boosting their ego, and giving them homework answers even when my guilty conscience didn’t want to.
As I relentlessly fulfilled people’s desires without having been asked to, another occurrence happened simultaneously. Up until the end of middle school, old childhood friends described me as “cold and emotionless.” I subconsciously kept people at a distance, perhaps to prevent emotional attachment that would result in heartbreak if I ended up disappointing anyone. This detachment not only cost me my relationships with loved ones, but, more importantly, also my sense of self-worth. I thought my existence was a burden, and the only way I could make up for it was by being useful.
Over time, I slowly began to realize that people-pleasing was unnecessary, judging by other people’s opposite behavior, but I still struggled to advocate for myself. A few months ago, my best friend persistently asked me to help her with her homework. Normally, I would’ve gladly assisted her, but I could barely manage my own problems. Still, I felt obligated to help, and I did anyway. It became a routine before my mental health hit such a low point that I realized I was no longer capable of assisting her. I agonized on how to tell her and typed up a lengthy explanation in an attempt to justify it. I worried that if I didn’t put her first and was no longer of use, she would discard me and no longer want to be my friend.
Her quick response shocked me. She said, “You should’ve told me sooner. I would’ve understood.” My friend had always been supportive and understanding, but I was still stunned because I expected backlash. I realized I have a deep, subconscious belief that people only hold relationships with me to reap the benefits of my service. We ended up having a lengthy discussion about how unreasonable and incorrect this was. By the end of our conversation, I felt strangely validated. Speaking up for myself triggered a strong sense of guilt, like I was betraying my “purpose,” but my friend’s reassurance challenged the detrimental belief.
While it remains difficult to not feel guilty sometimes when prioritizing myself, the process has gotten easier with time, self-awareness, and incredibly supportive friends.