By Nancy Colier, author of The Emotionally Exhausted Woman
Nine times out of ten, when I ask a woman: “Who’s taking care of you?” she starts to cry. Modern women are emotionally exhausted, depleted at the core, bone-tired; and it’s not just because we do too much, can’t say no, and don’t prioritize ourselves. That’s all true. We do and don’t do all that, but the important question is why? What’s the real disease below all the talked-about symptoms?
The problem starts young. From the time we’re little girls, we are conditioned to be sweet, generous, caring, and above all else, selfless. We are valued when we take care of others—and not just valued, but also respected, included, and ultimately, loved. Taking care of others ensures that we matter. In short, it ensures our emotional safety.
As a selfless self—conditioned to believe that we are responsible for taking care of others—our primary mission then becomes to be likable. If we are likable to other people, then we won’t be cast out and rejected, which means we’ll be safe—we will survive. So much of what we do and say—how we interact as women—is motivated by the drive to be likable, and the primal need behind it: to be safe.
In our relentless pursuit of likability, however, we lose touch with our own sense of self; we know who we are to other people, but we don’t know who we are to ourselves. We know who we are inside all the roles we play, but we don’t know who we are outside or separate from the roles. We see ourselves through other people’s perceptions, but lose sight of who we are to ourselves. Ultimately, the link between safety and our likability leaves us absent of a self-experience altogether; we exist only as far as our place in other people’s lives allow us to exist. And so, we end up imprisoned—inside our likability cage, existing within a very small space of expression; we can be like this, but not like that, and we know all too well what the “this’s” and “that’s” are, and the labels and judgments that await us if we step outside the cage. Still, we are instructed and encouraged to live bold and authentic lives, to be our full selves—all from within our cage of likability.
Sadly, we learn that if we show up authentically—as who we are, with all of our parts and our full experience and truth—we might not be so likable. If we show up as the full expression of our self, it might not go so well for that self. Consequently, we figure out that the best way to take care of ourselves is in fact, to disappear—to abandon ourselves and create a version of ourselves that will be liked. And so, we do. Starting often around the age of twelve or thirteen, girls decide (without consciously deciding) that we are better off turning away from our real self, not speaking (or even knowing) our experience, not being who we really are—paradoxically, so as to protect ourselves.
But that tween who decides that her authentic self is a danger to her emotional safety, then becomes a teen-, twenty-, thirty-, forty-, fifty-, sixty-, seventy-, eighty-, and ninety-something, who still believes that to be true—that being likable and taking care of others is her best shot at being happy.
As a result, we women end up disconnected from ourselves; we know who we are to and for other people, who we are inside our many roles, and yet we have no idea who we are—to and for ourselves, outside of our roles. We know what everyone else wants and needs, but we don’t know what we want and need. When we go looking for what we want and need, we find a blank space. We can feel great compassion for others, but don’t know how to feel compassion for ourselves. How can we feel compassion for a self we don’t know? That still small voice of our truth—our real experience, the voice that had to be abandoned all those years ago—is no longer audible. The place where a separate self might have existed now feels empty, as if no one is there. Having become everything and everyone to everyone else, we are left appropriately selfless at last, untethered from our most vital life force: ourselves.
This is where the self-care industry steps in to help, with mani-pedis, cashmere wraps, soy candles, and essential oils—all designed to make us feel better and become better versions of ourselves. But unfortunately, pampering won’t heal our profound exhaustion. Instead, we need a complete paradigm shift in how we relate to ourselves and others, and how we walk in the world. We need to start listening to our still small voice again, the voice of our truth—to invite our own wanting back into the conversation, and start listening to our own experience. So too, we need to start telling the truth: our real truth, and not just the sweetened, managed, and manufactured one—even if it costs us a bit of our likability.
Replenishment comes from a new relationship with ourselves, when we realize that we are not to blame for being who we are, and getting rid of our unwanted parts is not the answer to our safety or happiness. We realize that our authentic self is not a danger to our safety, or to other people, as we had learned and believed. To disappear and not know ourselves may have served us at one point in our lives, but it no longer serves us; it diminishes and drains our essential life force.
We recover from emotional exhaustion when we start welcoming our own experience back into the conversation, and owning and standing in our own truth. And furthermore, we discover that our truth is in fact our most reliable source of safety, our most trustworthy ground. In reality, we don’t need more bubble baths and we don’t need to become more likable. What we need is to come home to ourselves and become independent beings, who exist separate from who and what we are for everyone else—women who exist to and for ourselves.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, and author of Can’t Stop Thinking, The Power of Off, Inviting a Monkey to Tea, and Getting Out of Your Own Way.