“You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep other people warm.”
I feel like I need that tattooed on my forehead so I can see it every day when I look in the mirror. I fell in love with it the moment I read the words and they sunk into my brain. As an empath, it resonated. It has been such a struggle for me not to carry other people’s problems around with me, not to give everything inside of me to save someone else from pain, and not to break under other people’s expectations of who I am supposed to be.
It took me a very long time to learn how to measure my value.
We are so conditioned to believe that our value is tied up in what we give instead of who we are. When we’re kids, we’ve got to make our parents happy and get good grades. As teens, we’ve got to make friends and be accepted. As a young adult, we have to find someone who will love us and not cheat on us. Add in an unhealthy dose of anxiety and people-pleasing and suddenly worth is all about whether or not you are making someone else happy. Whether you’re good enough.
And if you aren’t doing something for someone else? Your value plummets.
And if you disappoint someone or someone rejects you? It crashes.
There was a time in my life where I thought I could make myself lovable by trying to be useful to other people. If someone was having trouble paying a bill I would offer to pay it for them. If they mentioned they wanted something I would surprise them and buy it for them just because. It wasn’t out of the goodness of my heart, not entirely, it came with the strings that said in big bold letters: Like me because I’m doing this for you. Treat me well because I am doing this for you. Value me.
I became known as the girl who would happily let you borrow money and wouldn’t get mad if you didn’t pay it back, because that made me a good person. I loaned a friend $900 so that they could afford to move out of state. Instead of paying me back they handed the debt over to a friend that had bought their car. He was supposed to pay me the money, I got nothing back.
Still, I kept desperately tying my worth to what I could give other people.
A friend of a friend once asked if she could borrow a few hundred dollars from me because that friend said that I’d probably loan it to her. I remember feeling a little icky that my friend was telling her friends they could ask me for money, it was good because the legend of my niceness was spreading. I was being a good person. Kindness was important to me. I thought giving would warm me up inside and make me feel worthwhile. Make me feel good about myself. Make other people think I was worth being friends with.
I’d babysit for free, let people come over even though the introvert in me wanted to shrivel up and hide in a hole. I would give my things away to people even when I wanted them. I’d buy people lunch and never get lunch in return. I let someone crash on my couch and paid to fix their car even though they treated me terribly, and through it all, I tried to convince myself that this was me being a good person and that would eventually make me love myself and feel good about myself.
I let people take advantage of me because I thought it upped my worth.
In reality, it did the opposite. It didn’t make me feel good, and with most of those actions, my self-worth plummetted. So I did the logical thing and gave more because that would fix it, right? And then there was that twisted backward thinking of chasing the hard cases. You know the ones – you date the person who has a reputation of being a cheater because if you can change them, if they’re loyal to you – you get value, it means you’re special. If the person who pathologically promises to pay people back and never does but they treat you differently – you are special and valuable.
Finding your value in other people will always leave you holding pennies.
It wasn’t all bad, some of my friends really appreciated me, they always paid me back, they were always grateful but then there were the others who didn’t and those people were in the majority. This attitude of limitless giving bled into my relationships as well. I was cheated on, abused, taken advantage of, and I always came back because that made me a good person and good people have value.
Eventually I realized that my worth begins with me and how I see myself. I did not need to buy affection and friendship. I did not need to put up with things that no sane person would put up with just to be good. There are wonderful people out there that are willing to love and accept me for free. That are willing to give as much as I give and there’s no need to keep a tally.
Things changed when I started creating boundaries.
I got to the point in my life where my emotional bank account was empty (and my physical one wasn’t looking too good either). I found myself in a deep depression that was full of self-hatred. That laundry list of times I was a good person didn’t pull me out. It didn’t change the way I felt about myself. In essence – it meant nothing.
I woke up. I created boundaries and I learned that tit-for-tat isn’t a bad thing. It doesn’t make you selfish or greedy.
You’re allowed to give what you receive. You’re allowed to form relationships where it’s give-give instead of give-take. You are allowed to say no. You are allowed to say “I can’t right now.” and most shocking of all – you are allowed to form the opinion that some people do not deserve your help. Full stop. And it doesn’t make you a bad person. I’m not saying not to help people, I am still a helper – but doing so indiscriminately is the path to self-destruction – not just money-wise. If you’re giving and giving in your relationships and getting nothing back it’s not going to make you love yourself and it’s probably not going to make that person love you more.
Things changed when my value became about what I brought to my own life.
When I found real, actual, hobbies again after spending so long stuck in that depression – my value went up. When I started to create and build a life around me that I loved – my value went up. I was single when I bought my house, when I took myself on weekly coffee dates, when I began practicing yoga, when I started taking long walks in the park, when I started reading books about loving myself and when I started truly believing that I was a good person without having to prove it 24/7/365. I made friends that never asked for things I didn’t want to give.
And not only did my value go up, but I had more to give in a healthy way. When I was down in those depths of depression could I create a website that helped other people? No. Could I lead a tribe of over 2,000 women? Ha, absolutely not. Could I give my time and my energy to help nonprofits? Not a chance.
But doing those things, those good person things, still isn’t the sum of my worth. It’s in all of those moments, those little moments of living a happy life and cuddling with my cats and napping in the sunlight and going for a swim. That’s where I see the value, the real life, everyday value.
I just wanted to give you the reminder that you are worth more than what you give others. Just in case you need it, just in case it’s hard for you to see right now.
You do not have to give and give until there’s nothing left. Seek the people who fill you up, who reciprocate what you give, and who respect the boundaries that you make. Take all of that endless love and compassion and time and money that you are always giving other people, and turn a little bit toward yourself. See how good that feels. Don’t chase that feeling of worthiness from other people when you are so capable of filling yourself up.