When your sister calls to complain about her boss, you patiently listen and offer advice, but by the end of your chat, you feel like you’ve run a marathon. And in a way, you have, because you’re always there for friends and loved ones, no matter what they need.Being a sounding board, confidante and therapist all in one often means stifling your own needs and emotions for the sake of everyone else, leading to increased stress and even burnout.
This burden is often called “peacemaker stress” because it stems from feeling like you always have to “fix” things for others, says psychotherapist Kim Schneiderman, author of Step Out of Your Story. “This impulse disproportionately affects women, because society sends us the message that being a good friend, partner or parent requires sacrificing our desires to nurture others.”
Indeed, in one survey, half of women said they spend too much time trying to make people happy. But if the thought of putting yourself first makes you feel guilty, you’re not alone: “It’s natural to worry about upsetting someone by saying no, and it also feels good to be needed,” says Schneiderman. Luckily, you can strike a balance between being there for others and honoring your needs. Here, experts explore common reasons we over-give, and the loving responses that can restore your inner peace.
“Only I Can Do It Right”: Cheer on others instead.
As much as you’d like to stop taking charge of every work project or family event, you’re stuck with this running mantra, If I do it myself, it’ ll be done right. This perception comes from an “illusion of control,” the idea that we have the power to steer outcomes, which, in realty, are often out of our hands, says psychotherapist Jennifer Shannon, author of The Monkey Mind Workout for Uncertainty.
Remember that supporting loved ones also means letting them make their own choices, says Schneiderman. “Constantly trying to take control of situations not only puts undue stress on your shoulders, it also deprives others of realizing their own potential.” Instead of offering physical assistance, consider giving emotional support with words of encouragement like, “I trust you, and you’ve got this!” or, “I know it’s hard, but you’re not alone.” “These openhearted messages inspire others to take the reins, so you can shoulder fewer of the to-do’s while still cheering them on.”
“Everyone Vents to Me”: Swap caretaking for caring.
Friends and family constantly come to you for personal and professional advice. And while you feel privileged to be their confidante, listening to everyone’s problems makes you feel the pressure to fix problems for them. Psychologists call this tendency “demand sensitivity,” which means seeing their venting as requests for your help.
Rather than try to make everything perfect for others, simply swap “caretaking” for “caring,” encourages Schneiderman. “Caretaking means, ‘Let me take this off your hands so you don’t have to struggle with it any longer,’ while caring is offering concern without shouldering an extra emotional burden.” Simply saying, for example, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this” or sending a heartfelt text shows them that you love and support them—you don’t have to be the one to have all the answers, because no one does.
“I Feel Guilty Saying No”: Say yes to your own needs.
Every time someone asks you for a favor, you feel tongue-tied. You’d like to say no, but that little voice in your head says, If I decline, my friends will think I’m selfish. Fear of disappointing someone can make it hard to upset the status quo, says psychotherapist Julie Hanks, PhD, author of The Assertiveness Guide for Women. “Yet not speaking up can be even more draining and cause resentment.”
Always being the “yes” person comes at a cost because it means saying “no” to you. To break this cycle, ask yourself: “What can I give?” and, “How much time do I have to spare?” says Shannon. Your answer doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing scenario. For instance, if you’re not up for a “big ask,” like helping a friend move, consider something less taxing, like sending takeout from her favorite restaurant. Research shows small gestures are even more meaningful than big ones because we’re able to give them more often, which helps consistently reinforce long-term bonds.
“I’m Always Playing Referee”: Set an empathetic boundary.
Your two closest friends are constantly bickering and asking you to patch things up. “Can you tell her where I’m coming from?” is their refrain. Trying to wrangle two different points of view without hurting anyone’s feelings can send your stress soaring, says psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, author of How to Be Yourself. When we’re afraid of saying the “wrong” thing, we end up censoring ourselves, and when we don’t feel like our “authentic selves,” our anxiety can spiral.
The next time you feel pulled in two directions to settle your friends’ spat, ask yourself why you feel the need to be the mediator, urges Hendriksen. If, for example, playing referee is a way to quell your fear about offending your friends, ease that discomfort with an “empathetic boundary,” which simply means expressing what the relationship means to you without getting in the middle of the conflict. “Just saying, ‘I care about both of you and that’s why I can’t be the go-between,’ honors your values while conveying compassion.” In the end, standing up for your needs just means loving yourself as much as you do others.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.
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