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Living small to keep others happy

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It’s amazing how we can think we have done a lot of self-work and shifted many things when something completely new comes up or a different degree or angle of it comes up (back to that damn onion that always seems to have another layer!).

For me personally, I have once again been faced with living small to keep others happy. As is always the case I have had many of my clients working through the exact theme and have been so privileged to journey beside them in this process. While our stories are not the same there is no doubt they are mirroring for me aspects of not being authentic and the repercussions of this. Most likely this has also been mirrored for me now because of the beautifully unfolding development of my now three year old. In the last year she has been very focussed on what is acceptable and what is not and consequently has been learning to put on masks and modify herself in certain situations. I hate seeing this happen but know that we all go through this to varying degrees. The difference of course is in the degree to which we believe we need to modify ourselves in order to be good enough, acceptable, to fit in and to belong. The difference is also in the degree to which we move away from our authenticity and finally, in how conscious we are of the masks we wear and when we wear them.

Early in life we learn things like “If I don’t make a noise….”or “If I don’t cry when I am unhappy…”or “If I help mommy and don’t make a mess…” then I am good/receive praise/am loved. These conditions will vary according to the setup in which a person is raised and the beliefs of the caregivers. I find it very difficult to find the appropriate balance of setting boundaries and necessary limits but not enforcing too many unnecessary conditions. For me, safety is vital and my children have to be aware of the conditions that are necessary to keep them and others safe. In addition, I believe mutual respect and care is important. However, of course, the beliefs I have about what this entails will differ from others.

But here’s the kicker: my beliefs about these conditions for my children are very much informed by my own masks that I have integrated into my life, many of which are like a permanent second-skin, so subtle and enforced I can be very unconscious of them. Of course, it is both for my own good and for the good of my children that I acknowledge these and determine the benefit and necessity of the masks.

We could be completely authentic all the time but that would leave us very vulnerable and battling to integrate into society i.e. yelling at the priest in church because you don’t like his sermon, bumping the old lady out of the queue in front of you because you’re in a rush, or swearing at your child like you would the rugby ref during a game on the telly. You COULD do these things but it would not necessarily benefit you in the long run. So, instead we consciously choose to wear certain masks (or hats if you like) in certain situations and not others. We learn early that when visiting granny in the frail-care centre we don’t wear the same hat we wear when playing in the playground with our friends, telling fart jokes!

The problem is that there are unconcious masks which may have been necessary for survival and for adaptation in order to get by with minimal negative repercussions, but which become unnecessary as adults. Unfortunately, these obsolete, unconscious masks are still used as the default and can really impact on our behaviour, functioning and relationships if we are not being true to ourselves and our needs and not being authentic in situations when it is appropriate to be authentic.

One of the biggies for me has been the tendency to be a ‘good girl’ which entails not rocking the boat, not making a mess, not ‘leaving a mark’ and generally living small so that I don’t upset people. I have been conscious of this and have worked with it a lot. I will never forget when I was about to bungy jump and was naturally very anxious about jumping off the edge of a bridge. However, when the guide said to me “OK have a good time” I was extremely polite and said somethings along the lines of “Yes, thanks I will” in a sweet little voice. My mother was the one who pointed it out and made me conscious of this. In all honesty, inside I was screaming at the guy and saying “Are you ‘f’ing crazy – how am I going to have a good time and enjoy launching myself into oblivion?!!”

The problem with this mask is that I been guided to a large extent by wanting to keep people happy and this has lent itself to me taking on others’ “stuff” and easily taking on responsibility and guilt. In the long-run this means I am negating my own needs and lends itself to me being a fixer and rescuer which is not beneficial for others, as much as I may have thought I was helping. No big shocker that I became a pscyhologist then?! However, thank goodness for that as the process of studying to become a psychologist forced me to face a LOT of this and see how detrimental it could be to the work I do with clients.

However, recently I completed an incredible course focussed on mindfulness and movement and worked with with this mask on a whole new level. I had been conscious for some time prior to the course of the child self within me, the Good Kerry part. However, during the course and using movement I really connected with her. To say it was powerful is an understatement. Her movement is small and quiet and largely small. However, related to this part is another child part that ended up shouting and making a noise and stamping, and finally…. skipping around free and joyful! It was very freeing and had taken a process from inside my head that I was working with intellectually right into the body and that was when the shifts really shifted a gear.

As with all ingrained habits and masks it has not just changed overnight but the shift was big and I have become much better at speaking up for myself, asserting myself and listening in to what I really want versus being on autopilot and doing what I think I should do. I have been even more focussed on not making excuses for others but forcing them to take responsibility for their own choices. I have started to really focus on self-care as the needs of my youngest child are decreasing due to his increased independence, allowing me space to be me, and the real me at that.

This has been difficult for me. The Good Kerry part of me that has always strived to keep others happy, so as to avoid whatever may happen if she doesn’t, still gets anxious when I ignore her persistent prompting to be small and good. However, I know that I am not only doing myself a favour, I am doing my husband and children, and family and friends a favour too. When I am authentic I am respecting myself and I am respecting them by trusting them enough to be real with them. I am owning my ‘stuff’ but not theirs so that they can own their own ‘stuff’. I am showing my children that it is OK to be true to the self. And finally, when I care for myself I can care for others better and more consciously.

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