“I only do what I want to do.” That sounds incredibly selfish, doesn’t it? Most of us would feel guilty saying that to ourselves, let alone to another person. Many of us were taught to be self-sacrificing. Do for the other person and not ourselves. People are praised for thinking of others first and putting their own needs aside. Years ago, I found that there was a fallacy in this thinking. As I was doing what others wanted, I did not give myself permission to do what I wanted – and I resented it and eventually resented them.
The first time that this occurred to me was when I was in my thirties, married with three adolescents, working full-time as a teacher, and going to grad school. Our psychology professor had recommended that if we were going to be in the counseling profession, we should have the experience of seeing a therapist. At that point, I was feeling frantic. It was two weeks before Christmas, and I was finishing the academic semester. The house wasn’t decorated. No gifts were bought. And there were numerous discussions among family members about who was doing Christmas and Christmas Eve dinners.
I was referred to a young therapist (a doctoral psychology student doing his residency). I remember spewing out my anxiety and confusion. I felt that I was being torn in a thousand different ways and I didn’t know how I could please everyone. After listening to this, he asked me a very simple question. “What do you want to do?” I felt as though no one had ever asked me that question. I am sure I had never asked myself, “What do I want?” It was always about what others wanted from me and for me. The question literally changed my life. I made the decision that seemed reasonable, doable and would make me happy without adding a burden onto other people. Everyone seemed fine with what I chose. I had a great Christmas. Most importantly, I also decided that I would never spend another holiday not doing what I wanted. All of these years, I’ve kept that promise to myself.
After this, I discovered two things. The first was that, in pleasing myself, there were no resentments. I enjoyed what I was doing and I enjoyed others with whom I was with. Resentments are toxic to a relationship. How many times do we do things essentially to please another person but end up resenting them in the process because this is not what we want to do. For example, if I would have gone ahead and had Christmas or Christmas Eve dinner to please my mother, I’m afraid my resentments would have spilled over into our relationship. We see this in relationships all too often. One party tends to give to the other regularly and eventually builds a wall of resentment. After years of this resentment, the couple finds themselves in a therapist’s office because, in time, this behavior has destroyed the relationship. The less I resent someone or something, the more willing I am to do what others ask of me.
The second thing I learned was that I could make choices for myself as long as my behavior didn’t negatively impact the other person. For example, in the case of the Christmas events, I told my mother that I would have a very difficult time doing Christmas or Christmas Eve dinner because of the time crunch, but I would love to do New Year’s Day dinner with my family and my cousins, whom I really enjoy. Everyone seemed pleased and we had a great holiday. If I had offered no solution to the Christmas dinner dilemma, it wouldn’t have been fair to the other family members. My rule of thumb is that as long as my decisions do not negatively affect others, it is my choice to make. For example, if I go dress shopping with a friend and she insists that I buy a dress that I’m not really happy with because she loves the way it looks on me, I have the right to say that I appreciate her opinion but I much prefer the other dress. If I were to buy the dress that she chose, it would be to please her and not myself.
Realistically, however, there are many things that we do that we feel we should do. I would suggest that if we could take the word “should” out of our vocabulary we would be much happier. We all have activities in our life that we don’t particularly want to do, but we know we need to do them. Very few of us enjoy mopping the kitchen floor, washing clothes, or paying bills. I may not enjoy these activities, but I know they are necessary in living an ordered life. I do want the peace of mind that comes when I’ve taken care of daily living activities, so I choose to do these things. I do not enjoy going to the Funeral Home, but I choose to pay my respects to my friend’s husband. While I may not enjoy doing this, it is something that I choose to do. This is not a “should” but rather a “want.” It is made out of an expression of choice.
The key word in this theory is “want.” What do I want? Many of us have spent much of our lives doing what others expected of us. We live and make our choices based on what others want. Many of us either have never asked the question of ourselves or, if we have, we don’t know the answer. Sometimes we don’t know because we’ve not allowed ourselves the question. This is either because of the guilt in putting the emphasis on what we want or no one was ever really interested in what we wanted. We didn’t know we had the option.
I find that asking clients what they want is a key factor in helping their emotional growth. When they can’t identify these wants, we concentrate on what they feel. We can start by asking ourselves what is important to us. Is this activity worth my time or energy? Is this something that I would choose to do? If they can start identifying their feelings, they’ll soon come to a recognition of what they want. Most of my turmoil that Christmas was that I knew what I didn’t want, but I hadn’t asked myself what I did want. I honestly didn’t know that that was an option.
What I’ve discovered through these years is that I have more choices than I thought. In some cases, when I no longer enjoyed an activity that I regularly participated in, I found ways to eliminate it from my schedule. I have also found that having a conscious awareness of the people that I value in my life allows me to be more proactive about spending more time with them. Acknowledging what I want allows me to make more definitive choices in my life. It has also forced me to look at how my choices affect others. All in all, knowing that I have the freedom to choose has given me the opportunity to experience a well-lived life. For that, I am very grateful.
Mary Fitzgibbons, Ph.D.
Mary Fitzgibbons, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and the director of West County Psychological Associates (WCPA). She began WCPA after having worked in education for twenty years. Previously, she had been an elementary teacher, and then a counselor and Guidance Director at Lafayette High School. One of the great joys of her life has been being able to practice therapy in a way that she believes has long-lasting and effective results: the therapeutic relationship is the basis of what creates change.