How to Listen to Your Heart When You're Used to Pleasing Others
Martha Beck: Hi, Aminah! You've been on my mind a lot since we talked. Tell me what's happening.
Aminah Akram: Well, I've started seeing a therapist.
MB: That's amazing!
AA: I also told my mom I don't think we should live together anymore. There was anger at first, but she finally said, "Okay, if that's what you want to do."
MB: Wow! Separating from your mother is the ultimate boundary setting.
AA: Of course, my sisters want to know how I'll find a babysitter for my daughter.
MB: You're breaking the family rules and getting pushback.
AA: I am, but I don't care anymore.
MB: You seem mellow. But also tired.
AA: Yeah, this is my day off, so I slept in.
MB: You're experiencing what a friend of mine calls "transformational tension." After you've spent a long time contemplating change, taking action is exhilarating. But when people try to pull you back into old patterns, it takes a lot of effort to resist. That may be tiring you out.
AA: It is exhausting when they say things that make me second-guess myself, like "Can you afford it?"
MB: This is what people-pleasers face when they set boundaries. Everybody who's benefited from your accommodating ways starts scrambling to reestablish the old rules. If they can't get you with guilt, they'll try fear—threatening conflict or telling you your decision is going to have horrible consequences.
AA: Yes, first it was guilt. "What's Mom going to do?" And then when they asked me about money, I felt the fear. But I have to live my life the way I want. I've also been reading Homecoming, the John Bradshaw book you told me about.
MB: You really do your homework!
AA: It's made me realize that the things I went through as a kid weren't my fault.
MB: You're feeling compassion for that little girl inside you, which is how you will ultimately begin to heal. We talked about giving her the chance to speak and be heard. Since this is our final session, it might be useful for the two of us to walk through that together.
AA: Sure, let's try it.
MB: When you think about feeling lonely as a child, does a particular scene come up?
AA: I can't pinpoint anything. I just always felt like I was lacking something—that I didn't dress like the other kids or have what they had.
MB: And you couldn't pour your heart out to your mother. It's probably hard to even imagine what a caring parent might have said to you.
AA: Right. When you don't have it, you don't know what you're missing.
MB: Let's play a little game. Say you're 10 years old, feeling horrible and you come home from school. I'll be a mother who's really tuned in to her child, okay?
MB: So, honey, how was your day?
AA: Mom, I felt strange because I was at lunch with my friends, but I felt like I was somewhere I wasn't supposed to be. I didn't belong, and it didn't feel good.
MB: That sounds terrible. Come sit and tell me more. Tell me everything.
AA: [Long pause] I—I'm sorry. [Tearily] I don't know what to say.
MB: Sweetheart, it's okay. You're doing so well. It's horrible to feel different, and of course you feel awful. Let it out. I'm right here.
AA: I'm sorry. I don't like talking about when I was younger.
MB: You don't need to apologize. When you're hurt, you get to cry. Now you're safe enough to replay those painful moments and see how it feels to be nurtured. Say to that little girl, "Tell me everything you're feeling." Then, "That must have been so painful. Tell me more. I'm not leaving you." Then, "Anyone who went through that would feel the same way. It was really hard." Give yourself the time. Say, "Here, let's put a blanket around you."
AA: It's just someone to hold me, more than talking.
MB: I hear you. I was never nurtured that way either, so I had to imagine it for myself. When my kids were little, I used to sit in the chair where I rocked them and think, How would a loving mother talk to me? I'd cry and cry. And you know what happened? I wound up befriending a woman just like the mother I'd imagined. When you can be a loving presence for yourself, you will draw more love into your life. I also imagine that loving presence as God. I don't know what your beliefs are.
AA: Yes, I believe in God.
MB: I would imagine that force in the room with its arms around me, and I started having very profound spiritual experiences. Whatever you vividly imagine from deep inside your heart, you begin to create as if by magic.
AA: Do you think this is why I'm obsessed with drawing hearts?
MB: That's your spirit writing you a message: I love you, I love you, I love you.
AA: But the hearts always have to be perfect.
MB: What other kind of heart would a God force draw? Think about that idea, a God force in your unconscious mind sending you messages. What does that feel like in your body?
AA: It's a little click inside my chest.
MB: That's your sense of truth—in body, heart, mind and spirit.
AA: It's like I've been in a lie forever. I've always felt that I'm supposed to be living a different life.
MB: What would that life be like?
AA: I want to be on the beach, not bogged down by mental issues, nobody stressing me out.
MB: Keep going.
AA: I'd own a restaurant, a little hut, just to survive.
MB: This is a fantasy, so you don't have to worry about survival. What would it feel like if you didn't have to do anything at all?
AA: I'd feel like a loser.
MB: Even in your fantasy, you can't let yourself imagine having no job. If I flew you to the beach right now, you'd still be anxious because you'd be yelling at yourself to get busy. Instead of that voice of fear, try letting in the voice of truth—the voice of God. Imagine you're sitting on the beach and you start thinking, I'm so lazy. What does God say?
AA: "No, you're not. You're a beautiful human being."
MB: Think of that verse from the book of Matthew: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin." But God takes care of them anyway. How, then, will he not care for you? You've been listening to that fearful voice screaming that you have to do more, more, more, because you're never enough. But another part of you is sending hearts and trying to tell you there's a different way of being. That part is pure love, and it's always with you. You've come such a long way. You're going to make a wonderful life for yourself.
AA: I hope so. Martha, this is the best thing that's happened to me in a long time—or ever.
MB: It's you finding you. You just have to step into your own miracle.
Martha Beck is the author of, most recently, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening.