It’s official. I’m a giver. I like to help people and can never say no. It’s the way I’ve always been. Except I hadn’t quite realised how much I take on until this week. It took the words of my friend’s aunt with whom I’m staying in North Devon for me to sit up and take note. “You’re like a sponge Helen,” she said shaking her head. “You absorb everyone else’s problems. You’re forever trying to help people and investing all of your energy in them. When are you going to stop and help yourself?”
Auntie Chris blurted out the words after I received two texts and one email within the space of ten minutes. Each message was from a different person and each asked me to sort out a situation they couldn’t handle. AC, as I fondly call her, disapprovingly shook her head. The night before my tongue had spontaneously started to swell in front of her eyes.
You’re like a sponge
Hours earlier she’d seen me battle through an extremely stressful day work-wise. I’ve always thrived on the adrenaline of deadlines and juggling numerous pieces but the last minute demands on this particular day were off the scale. So the plan that night was to chill in bed with a book but my throat began to tighten within five minutes of settling down. “I can’t be having a reaction,” I muttered to myself. “Just have a glass of water, breathe deeply. It’ll be OK in a minute.”
Except the situation quickly worsened and when I checked the mirror my tongue was three times its usual size. I necked my medication. And swore. This is why:
- I’d made my dinner from scratch and hadn’t eaten any trigger foods
- I hadn’t exercised
- I wasn’t hot
- I wasn’t sweating
All of the above can set off a reaction – something I’ve painstakingly discovered over the past 18 months. So why the bloody hell was I reacting just as I’d hit the sack? I acted swiftly. And the meds stopped my tongue swelling any further – although it would remain grossly enlarged for the next 48 hours.
The next day AC sat me down in the dining room of her beautiful 200-year-old farmhouse and gave me a stern talking to. “I think stress is a factor,” she said with a beady look in her eye. “You had a nightmare of a day yesterday workwise. I’ve been watching you since you arrived. You’re supposed to be having a break but you don’t help yourself at all. You start work at the crack of dawn. Some days you don’t eat breakfast or lunch and you’ll be sat at your desk for between eight and ten hours. That’s not good.”
“But I can barely eat anything at the moment because of my reactions,” I retaliated. “It’s not good enough Helen. Your job, by its very nature, is stressful. You’re working for lots of different publications which place numerous demands on you at short notice, you’re constantly firefighting plus you’re working on your blog until the early hours of the morning. You put loads of pressure on yourself. It’s not healthy.”
I was lost for words (unusual for me). I knew I worked hard but maybe she had a point. Then my phone vibrated. “Who’s that?” she enquired. “My cousin,” I answered. AC noticed the worried expression that fell over my face. “I need to sort this out.” The very next minute I received an email from a work colleague who was asking for help. By this point Auntie C was ready to explode.
“You really cannot take on the world’s problems. It’s nice that you want to help people but you’ve got enough on your plate. Your body wants to heal but doesn’t know how to respond because it’s being bombarded by stress in all directions. Of course you can still help people but for the time being you need to invest time and energy in yourself, not others. You really need to learn to say no.”
Her words echoed around my head. Then I remembered something my dad always said: “Helen Gilbert. Other peoples’ messes cleared up by appointment.” At that moment everything started to sink in.
“Turn off your phone now,” AC ordered. Reluctantly, I agreed and although I went to check it three times in the hour that followed, I did not turn it back on.
Then I switched my out of office on before heading to Saunton Sands for an evening in front of the surf. I sat contemplating on that beach for 2.5 hours. And I left with a plan of action. For the rest of my time in Devon I’ll open the emails just once in the morning and once in the evening. Likewise, the mobile shall only be checked three times a day maximum.
Going forward, I’ll start prioritising and saying no to people *eek*. It won’t be easy. How the heck do you do this when it’s in your nature to help and worry about others? It feels bizarrely selfish. But being pulled in all directions is just not sustainable with the way my health is right now.
I’ll let you know how I get on and whether I experience fewer reactions as a result of simplifying my life. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you find that you spend a lot of your time sorting out the problems of others? Do people constantly offload on you but disappear when everything is going well in their life? How have you learned to say no and look after yourself?