Preface: When It’s Never About You

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“You have inherited a lifetime of tribulation. Everybody has inherited it. Take it over, make the most of it and when you have decided you know the right way, do the best you can with it.”

– Murray Bowen

In my philosophy of life, things don’t just happen without rhyme or reason. We don’t aimlessly walk around making choices with no purpose, meaning, or significance to our lives. I say this because I believe you picked up this book for a reason—perhaps because you need a change in your life. Many choices we make, including the books we decide to read, shape the way we think and lead us to make meaningful changes in our lives. All these meaningful changes start with awareness. This makes it important for us to read and educate ourselves in ways that can help us with whatever we might be going through at a particular point in life, bringing more awareness to that situation. My purpose for writing this book is to help you build a strong sense of self, agency, and competency—something I call self-full living. If you find yourself in a people-pleasing pattern in your relationships, you may be experiencing a loss of self, a loss of awareness of your internal world. You may constantly find yourself completely neglecting what you want—or not even knowing what you want in the first place—in order to do what you believe someone else wants.

I get it. I created the word self-full while trying to find a healthy balance between being selfless and selfish in my own life. Born into difficult family circumstances, I did everything possible to cope. My efforts to be helpful, which ultimately involved conforming to everyone’s expectations, weren’t very helpful at all. However, I kept doing the same behaviors, even when they weren’t working. As much as I wanted to be more aware of myself, I found that over time, my mission to build myself up was thwarted by my resistance to being viewed as selfish. My experiences make it easy for me to understand that it’s hard to adopt the open-mindedness it takes to become truly self-full, perfectly balanced between selfishness and selflessness. So, let me be the first to commend you for taking the initial step toward self-full living.

Creating a Sense of Self Within Your Relationships

I want you to reflect a moment on the following question: What is the force that holds the solar system together? As you bring yourself back to 5th grade science, you may recall that the answer is gravity. Gravity is the powerful force that keeps our universe together. It helped form our solar system, the planets, and the stars. It’s what holds the planets in orbit around the sun, and moons in orbit around the planets. If there were no gravitational force on planets, people would float off into the sky. So it’s safe to say that gravity plays a significant role in our survival.

If you only see the solar system as planets out in space acting on their own without influence, you’re likely to miss the bigger picture: that each planet works as part of a greater system, in which everything influences everything else. This same idea applies to viewing an individual as a single entity with no influence from the outside world, failing to see that each person is part of a system of relationships that influence each other. Dr. Murray Bowen, whose ideas make up Family Systems Theory, a common approach to family therapy, proposed that people should not be understood in isolation from one another, but rather as a part of the emotional unit of their families of origin. Seeing the family as an emotional unit suggests that what one family member does will affect the other members of that family system. A family isn’t just a bunch of separate people walking around freely; the gravitational pull influencing family members is the emotional connection they have to one another.

We live in a culture that sees problems as residing within individuals. We tend to see people out of context, as if they were isolated from their surroundings. Our planets could not possibly exist without gravity allowing them to orbit, and so it is with humans. We do not exist without our relationships. Real change begins with the awareness that we create our sense of self within our relationships, not apart from them. This book is designed to support you in becoming self-aware in the context of your relationships and honoring that problems do not reside within individuals, but in the interconnections with others. I wrote it to show how the gravity that pulls us all together connects us in important ways, ultimately making us who we are. This book will assist you in understanding this process more deeply so that you can put these lessons into action in your own life. My hope is that what you read will inspire you to become more aware of the part you play in your relationship systems, and that this will lead you to explore new possibilities for yourself and your emotional unit.

Selfless Narrative

Throughout this book, I’ll be sharing my personal narrative, along with a few of my clients’ stories. But what’s most important is your story. The story you feel has been written for you by other people. The story that doesn’t fit with your true nature, because it’s overly focused on others. Your life experiences may have led you to believe that you must spend your life saying yes to everyone. This selfless narrative will convince you that you’re only as good as the good you do for others. This story must be re-written—and you must be the author of that rewrite! No matter your age, circumstance, race, sex, or religion, now is the time to stop the cycle of people-pleasing. Living to please others is draining, lonely, and damaging to your health. If you’ve started to discover this in your own life, you might be thinking, How do I even begin to change it? Well, I’ve got good news. By picking up this book, you’ve already begun the change process. You’ve started to re-write your narrative by realizing that something needs to be different in your life. As with most significant life changes, it’s up to you to create that difference. You, more than anyone else, deserve to be the author of your own story. So, let’s start writing it!

About Me

Before we go any further, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Ilene Strauss Cohen, but many people refer to me as Doctor Ilene. I hold a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy, and I work with clients who have no sense of self—essentially, people who have a hard time knowing where they end and other people begin. These people are prone to pleasing behaviors, and they often suffer because of it. Using my knowledge—both personal and professional —about what it’s like to live this way, I’ve dedicated myself to helping people-pleasers live differently.

Do you have a tough time saying no? Do you struggle with thinking you might be letting people down? Have you found yourself wishing you could make yourself a priority but unsure how to do it? If so, I feel your frustration. I know how hard it can be to live your life that way, never feeling good enough, constantly feeding an impulse to please, finding it hard to say no to others and yes to your needs. Life isn’t just complex, it’s straight up paralyzing at times—particularly when you’re trying to be what everyone else expects you to be. But you’re likely to find that even if you comply with everyone’s wishes and whims, they still won’t be happy. And, of course, you won’t be either! Welcome to the paradox of relationships; welcome to the deception of people-pleasing.

Growing up, I discovered that I had a certain automatic way of dealing with stress, which I thought helped guide me through some tough times. As challenging as things sometimes were, I continued to engage in the same behavior patterns, thinking I would get the outcome I wanted. My most difficult moment came when my grandfather died. Not only did I lose someone very close to me, but his passing set off a series of events that changed my life forever. After his death, I was left in charge of handling his estate, something I wasn’t mentally prepared to take on at 24 years old. I decided that the best way to handle the challenge of becoming an overnight executor of a complicated estate was to accommodate my family members’ every wish. This strategy ultimately backfired on me, like this way of thinking always had. I found myself consumed with worry about everyone else’s well-being and happiness, never taking into account my own.

I believed that by constantly aiming to please others, I was making everyone—including myself—happy. As time went on, I started to realize that this strategy wasn’t working very well at all. As my urge to please became overwhelming, my drive to become my own self grew stronger. I had spent my life constantly giving in and doing things for other people, negotiating things that should have been non-negotiable in my relationships. Living selflessly affected me in many aspects of my life. I wasn’t able to say no. I felt guilty all the time. I didn’t do things for myself. I let go of my own dreams. Eventually, I found myself empty, alone, and endlessly exhausted. My relationships became one-sided; they seemed to work fine for everyone else in my life, but they were no longer working for me. I started to lose myself in my relationships with others and thought that if only I could do a little bit more, I’d feel better about myself. But this didn’t work. In fact, it had the opposite effect.

For years, I tried to find myself by losing myself in my relationships with others. Naturally, it didn’t work. I wound up feeling alone and lost, at a complete standstill in my life. Although I knew the way I was living wasn’t working, I still had a strong urge to do everything that was asked of me. I didn’t know how to stop it, and parts of me didn’t want to. The truth is, I was addicted to people-pleasing—or, at least, it felt like I was. Doing what others wanted and expected from me made me feel euphoric at first; but after the high wore off, I realized I wasn’t helping anyone. I was only making things worse. This led me to start resenting the people who continued to make the same mistakes in their lives, no matter how hard I tried to help them. I thought, if only I can get better at helping them, they’ll finally make better choices, and I won’t need to do so much for them anymore.

My grandfather’s passing was the singular life-altering moment that pushed me out of this state of being, allowing me to focus on myself. It left me with no choice but to toughen up and grow a stronger backbone. I knew that if I didn’t, everyone in my life would suffer. I had no time to accomplish my own goals and aspirations, and no energy to do so either. My grandfather’s death opened up the opportunity for me to realize that I had no boundaries in my relationships. My family and friends had become so dependent on me to do so much for them that I couldn’t keep my head above water. At first, I wrongly thought that if other people in my life would just be less demanding, or if I could just cut out the difficult people, then my life would be easier and I could be the person I wanted to be. But what I didn’t realize is that I was drowning in a pool that I—and no one else—had filled with water.

Constantly falling into the trap of people-pleasing, I eventually started to wonder if I’d ever get around to accomplishing my own goals. Would I ever find a way to make others feel happy and appreciated while also tending to my own wants and needs? Exploring this question marked the first step of my journey.

Through my own process of self-discovery, I went from being a shy girl with little nerve to a self-reliant, self-confident woman with plenty of moxie. When I finally got sick and tired of trying to be everyone’s hero, I changed my mindset and started to champion my own cause. I turned the negative effects of my grandfather’s passing into motivation for honoring his legacy appropriately. This fueled my ever-changing process of growth. Through this book, I can show you how to change your perceptions, behaviors, and relationships so you can design a fulfilling life for yourself. When viewed and understood through different lenses, life can be amazing. But you won’t know how amazing it can be if you have no direction or goals for yourself. I changed my response to people by carefully examining every situation that presented me with the choice to please others, take blame, or act more for self. This process taught me how to live self-fully. Now I’m here to help you make similar discoveries in your own life. Are you ready to take the journey with me?

Self-Full Living Guide

I’ve created this guide after reading many books about many subjects. My brain is the kind that seeks to know everything about everything: psychology, neurology, world religions, finances, biology, history, and the list goes on. I’m revealing my inner nerd to make the point that reading has aided me in obtaining information, understanding concepts and theories, and indulging in the universe’s many complexities. However, much of the information that guides my life and work has been derived from Bowen’s Family Systems Theory. I have read extensively, researched, and attended trainings in order to become well educated in this specific theory. I did this not only because it has been instrumental in helping my clients live more fulfilling lives, but also because it has changed my own life.

As valuable as education is, the knowledge contained in books is only meaningful if it’s applied through mindful and purposeful action. My true knowledge developed when I tried the ideas on for size in my own life and found tremendous value in doing so. I want the same for you. I hope you can use this book as a guide for gaining the strength to live the life you’ve always known you deserve. I wrote this book in such a way that the ideas can easily be applied to anyone’s situation. Follow the guide in whatever way makes sense and feels right to you. Make decisions based on what feels like a good fit for your circumstances.

If you read my blog, you know I’m all about challenging commonly held beliefs. Ideas and beliefs are very powerful, because most of us go around treating them as facts and truths. We let them dictate how we live our lives. People who go through life people-pleasing don’t challenge common beliefs about what people should do or how they ought to behave; instead, they take them on as true. As you read this book, I want you to open your mind and start challenging the beliefs and ideas that got you into the people-pleasing position. I especially want you to challenge those ideas that don’t match with your experiences. Once you do that, you’ll have more freedom of choice in your life. I give you permission to challenge some of the advice I offer here as well. Keep only what fits for you and what you think can help you start making yourself a priority. Let go of what doesn’t work for you. This book is only a map to guide you; where the journey leads is totally up to you.

I wrote each chapter with the intention to explain new concepts and offer specific ways to apply those concepts through simple activities included at the end of each chapter. You’ll likely find it most helpful to concentrate on one chapter at a time, applying each activity to your life for as long as you believe it’s creating meaningful changes. In traditional therapy, you see your therapist once a week and use the time between sessions to apply any new skills you’ve learned. I wrote this guide with that process in mind. What’s important is that you be intentional about applying the concepts without feeling constrained by time. Learning new behaviors takes a lot of patience, persistence and time. There’s no need to rush.

To continue reading my book “When It’s Never About You” order it on Kindle today! It is available for customers to pre-order here. If you want to wait for a hard copy, no problem, it will be available on October 24th!

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