When your whole life revolves around taking care of someone else, you might find yourself losing touch with who you used to be
I’d like to talk to you about something that affects a lot of women as they enter their middle-years. As women, we are practically raised from birth to be caretakers of other people. We’re taught to put everyone else’s needs ahead of our own, to the point that we feel like we’re being selfish if we take 5 minutes for ourselves. Our whole identity is defined by what we do for other people.
This is something I call “Over-Giver Syndrome” What I mean by Over-Giver Syndrome is what happens to someone whose whole existence revolves around taking care of other people. Whether that’s your kids, your parents, your spouse, your co-workers, or someone else… If you consistently put other people’s needs and priorities above your own, you might be an Over-Giver. And while that can be noble and generous up to a point, if it goes too far it will just leave you exhausted, resentful, and burned out.
We may think of ourselves as a wife, a mother, a nurse or a teacher. But the day will come when the kids grow up and move out on their own. Your spouse might leave, or pass away. You could retire, become disabled, or lose your job. And if that was how you defined your whole identity and your purpose in this world, then it’s inevitable that you’d feel lost and confused once those things are gone.
When you pour all your energy into other people without saving any for yourself, especially when it goes on for years or decades, you can wake up one day and realize that you don’t even remember who you are anymore… what YOU wanted out of life, and what makes YOU happy.
Here’s the thing. Being a wife, a mother, or a teacher… those things are not what you are. Those are things that you DO. When you define your self-worth by something that you do… it’s only a matter of time before you can’t do it anymore. And then you have to figure out, “what am I worth, if I don’t have kids or a spouse to take care of anymore? Who am I, if I’m not the person who gets up and goes to work every day?”
I can give you an example of this from my personal life. I’ve been training in the martial arts since I was 14 years old. I fell in love with it because it made me feel strong and capable. It gave me confidence when I had none, and I loved the feeling of being able to do hard things. I went to the dojo up to 5 times a week for my entire adult life. It became who I was.
But inevitably, I had injuries (or a 2-year pandemic) that kept me from training. Every time something would happen to keep me from training, I would get severely depressed. And I found myself eating to feel better, which resulted in weight gain that just made me feel worse. My identity was so tied up into being a martial artist that when I couldn’t train anymore… I literally felt worthless. Because I’d defined myself by what I could do. And suddenly I couldn’t do it anymore.
That’s when I realized that what you do is not who you are. But it can be a clue to figuring that out. So if you’re lost and trying to rediscover your identity and purpose in your life right now, I have some advice that might help you. So grab a pen and paper, because we’re going to figure this out!
Step 1: However you’ve been defining your identity up until today (wife, mother, teacher, lawyer, etc…) I want you to write down what personal qualities about YOU made you really good at doing that. Was it your kind and generous nature? Are you really good at being focused and organized? Are you a big-picture thinker who doesn’t get derailed by small distractions? Are you good at coming up with creative solutions to problems? Whatever it is, write a list.
Now I know that you are probably your own worst critic, and you may have a hard time seeing your own strengths. Often times, the things that we’re good at come so naturally to us that we don’t even recognize them as gifts, but other people do. So if that’s you, ask 10 of your friends and family (the ones who really love you) what they think your top 3 superpowers are. Or just write down what other people usually compliment you on.
So write a list of the personal qualities that make you a unique bad-ass at getting through life. Circle your top 3 favorites. And then move on to Step 2:
Step 2: Think of some of the worst times in your life. Some of the hardest things you’ve ever had to face. And again… write down what were the personal qualities about YOU that helped you get through it? Was it your determination to never give up? Your ability to stay focused on your vision for the future? Did you draw strength from your love of family? How did you find the power within yourself to get through those challenges? Don’t talk yourself out of anything, no matter how trivial you think it is. Don’t downplay your gifts! Just write it all down and pick your top 3. Then go to the next step.
Step 3: Think back to when you were a kid. Back when life was full of adventure, and you were just overflowing with curiosity and enthusiasm. If you had an unhappy childhood, just think back to a moment in your life when you WERE happy, even if it was only for a short time. And then answer these questions:
What were the things that you used to get excited about? What did you love to do so much that you never got tired of it, and would lose all track of time when you were doing it?
Was it drawing or painting? Spending time with your best friend? Riding your bike? Playing with your pets? Whatever it was, write it down.
Then, next to each thing, write down specifically how that made you feel when you were doing it. Actually name the emotion, because doing that will help you identify what really inspires and energizes you. These emotions are your answers for Step 3.
4: Now you’re ready for Step 4: Close your eyes if you can, and really immerse yourself in this one. Imagine traveling forward in time to meet your wiser, elder self. Clearly see yourself as you might be toward the end of your life, still healthy of mind and body, having lived a truly satisfying and fulfilling life with no regrets. When this person sees you, she smiles and embraces you, and invites you to sit down and talk with her. You can ask her anything you want. So ask her, “what is truly important for me to pay attention to in my life? And what could I spend less time or energy worrying about?” And remember… this is the version of you who has lived a truly fulfilling life with no regrets. Listen to what she tells you, and hear it without judgment. Don’t dismiss it or come up with reasons why it’s not possible, or not the right time. Just take it in, and write it down.
Now, after going through those 4 steps, take a look at what you wrote. What you have is a solid list of things that describe you… at the core of who you really are. You can see the strengths that have helped you become who you are today. You can see the gifts that helped you get through the biggest challenges in your life. You can see what filled you with passion and inspiration before life started to weigh your spirit down. And you can see what is really important, at the most essential level of your true self.
Ready to put this all together? We are now going to create your identity statement. Here’s where you’re going to reconnect with the person you used to be… and still are.
Fill in the blanks with your answers from…
List 1: I am someone with strong values of _________ .
List 2: And I am capable of incredible _________ .
List 3: I am someone who thrives on _________ .
List 4: The things that fill me with purpose are _________ .
And here’s the good news: You don’t have to wait until the end of your life to start living in a way that insipres you. To start creating a life that you won’t have regrets about later. No matter what has happened in the past, you can choose what you want to learn from that, and how you want to use that knowledge as you move forward. Those gifts and those strengths that you just wrote down are still yours. Now you get to decide how you’ll use them from this day forward, to start living the life you want to live, and to become the person you’ve always wanted to be.
If you enjoyed this article, please see the companion 3-part video series entitled "Over-Giver Syndrome" under the Videos tab.
If you need help reconnecting with who you really are, I'm here to help. Click the button below to schedule your free call with me, and let's get you back on track toward your "True North."