Ask an Expert: How Much Service is Too Much Service?

By Janice Dorn 02/02/15
Today's question is on whether it's OK to say "no" to yet another service opportunity.
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I've been sober in a 12 step program for 3 years and some change. Presently, I do a lot of service. I have 6 commitments that take at least an hour a week, usually more like 2-3 hours, plus several sponsees. I keep being asked to do more, and I keep saying yes. We're supposed to say yes, right? My sponsor and network say I'll figure out how much is too much by taking too much, and I understand that, but I don't even know how to say no to it. - Brady

Janice Dorn: Thank you so much for bringing this issue to the attention of our readers.  It’s a powerful one that touches so many lives and has implications that are far-reaching and often complex. You may not like what I have to say to you, but I am saying this out of enormous compassion, concern and my own personal experience.

You have been sober for three years, so congratulations are in order. If you continue to do what you are doing at present, everything positive about your recovery is at high risk for reversal.

Let’s start with the fact that you are on overload. In addition to your job, you are spending maybe up to 18 hours in “service” plus sponsoring some people. I suspect you are relatively young and trying to hold down a job to support you and possibly another person. You are saying “Yes” - and you assume that “we’re supposed to say yes, right?”  Wrong. What you are doing is putting your recovery in jeopardy by saying “Yes.” In your words,” I don’t even know how to say no to it.”

Let me attempt to scratch the surface of this issue. You have many characteristics of what is sometimes called “people-pleasing.” As such, you have learned, likely from childhood, that you will be loved and accepted by your parents, siblings, friends or peers, if you go along and do things that people ask you to do. Don’t rock the boat.  Don’t be stubborn or act out. Go along to get along. Just say “Yes” to any and all requests or demands and you will avoid conflict, confrontation and be liked by everyone. 

In the process of doing this, you give up one of the most important aspects of self-growth - finding out who you really are. You wear a mask that says you are cheerful, pleasant, supportive, helpful, hard-working and ready to help with anything. Underneath this mask is fear and resentment. You are afraid that, if you say “No” people won’t like you, will abandon you, or speak badly of you. As a result, you find yourself worn out and feel like you are being taken for granted and not appreciated.  

You state “My sponsor and network say I'll figure out how much is too much by taking too much, and I understand that.” Yes. You understand that on an intellectual level, but you are not self-actualized (don’t know how to calm yourself or care for yourself or manifest your self-esteem) enough to truly understand that, in fact, you are taking on too much. Even if you do understand it (as is clear from your comments), you do not know how to stop. Why? Because you never learned how to stop. You are continuing to act out the script of your childhood drama - this time substituting your sponsor and network for other authority figures you have had in your life. In the process, you are becoming increasingly unsettled and frustrated. In other words, you are at high risk for burnout and relapse.

What can you do? The most important thing is to start taking care of you first. As much as you may hear the opposite, there is a true virtue to being selfish. If you are selfish enough to take radical self-care, to rest and restore and recharge, you then have more and more energy to give to others. If you do not do this, you are like a battery that has run out of charge. You are drained and will continue to be drained until you re-charge. Your stress levels are high and will get higher if you don’t take action to change your behavior.

The tasks ahead of you are not easy and will take time. You must begin slowly to break the pattern of being addicted to pleasing people. What follows are a few suggestions to get you started. They are not the be all and end all. This will be a gradual process for you, so please be gentle with yourself: 

-Become aware of what you are saying or doing to please people. Be aware of that feeling you get inside of you, that little twinge or actually physical sensation in your stomach or pain in your neck, that tells you that you are doing something that you really don’t have time or energy to do. Acknowledge that your brain will trick you, but your body doesn’t lie to you. Use these bodily sensations to guide you to hold back on accepting anything else or agreeing to do something. This is the beginning of learning to say “No.”

-Make a vow to yourself that you will stop saying or doing things just to please others.  Don’t be afraid to say or do what is really in your heart. Stop apologizing or feeling guilty. You are not perfect and not a superman. You simply cannot be all things to all people. Start slowly and practice gently with assertive words and gestures. Watch and learn from others who have learned to be assertive with grace and integrity. It’s absolutely OK to say “No” if you learn how to say it. Practice doing this until it begins to feel comfortable and natural to you. It will take time, but the rewards are worth the effort.

-Think about what you are saying “Yes” to when you say “No.”  Things like more time to spend on your own recovery, quality time to enrich precious relationships with friends or family, time for radical self-care so that you have energy and enthusiasm for outside tasks and can approach them with vitality and vigor.

-It may become necessary for you to have some therapy to heal whatever childhood wounds you are carrying with you. In the process, you will begin to develop a true sense of who you really are. Your self-esteem will increase, you will be much more comfortable around people, body aches and pains will diminish. You will begin to develop clear boundaries between where you end and others begin.  You will begin to feel real and natural in your own skin.

All of this is a process. It’s a discovery of the true you. It takes time to learn to be as gentle and loving and giving to yourself as you are with others. The risk is great for you, and probably a little scary right now, but I assure you that the rewards are magnificent.  I wish you every happiness and success in finding the true you that wants and deserves to be loved for exactly who you are. Perhaps the great leader Mahatma Gandhi said it best:  A 'No' uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a 'Yes' merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.

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Janice Dorn, MD, PhD, specializes in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. She holds a PhD in Anatomy and has done extensive research and teaching in brain anatomy and physiology. She is also an expert on addiction to stock trading and on stock trading itself. Her second book, Mind, Money and Markets, with co-author Dave Harder, is scheduled for publication in the fall.   Full Bio.

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