Are Those Your Fingerprints on That Ransom Note?

Are you sending yourself ransom notes?

The question is not as preposterous as you may think. I’ll reframe it, and you choose the answer below that fits best:

You feel called upon to accommodate someone by doing something for their sake, convenience or comfort. You experience:

1. A twinge of fear. If I don’t comply, my own needs may not be met. I may not be welcomed into the club, my boss may not approve of me, my spouse may not love me.

2. An anticipation of shame. What kind of parent would I be if I didn’t satisfy my child’s demands for my time, attention and love?

3. A flush of gratification. Happy to oblige!

If you feel pressure instead of pleasure at the thought of meeting someone else’s needs before yours, you may be holding yourself a hostage of sorts to misplaced expectations. The uncomfortable sensations you feel are, in effect, self-addressed ransom notes.

We are all prone to think that we were put here to please others—family, co-workers, clients, even our pets! All of them encourage us to feel a bit obliged, if only so that we will do what they want, when they want.

Society at large also plays a hand in this. Take advertising aimed at convincing you of all the goods you must possess if you are to please other people and win their approval.

A friend once told me that it wasn’t my job to please other people in hopes that if they were happy, then I would be too. “You can’t stand on your head in enough different ways to suit everyone, so stop!” she said.

You do not need to earn anyone’s permission to be happy: it is your birthright. Nor is it selfish to focus on making yourself happy. I am not advocating irresponsibility—there are ways to please yourself without costing others their happiness. What I do urge is that you refrain from piling unwarranted obligations on yourself, or ones you have no desire or ability to meet.

We do this at work all the time. Have you ever been overloaded yet agreed to take on more work, although you lacked the time or energy to do it well? Maybe you wanted to be seen as a team player or especially productive, earning you praise that would make you happy. Then, because no one came close afterwards to showing all the appreciation you felt you deserved for your extra effort, you became resentful, angry and stressed. In a word, unhappy.

The next time, try telling your manager, “I know it’s important to you that this extra work get done, but I already have more to do than time to do it in. I can’t perform an additional assignment properly right now.”

Most of the time, your manager will simply move on to seek another volunteer. Now, I’m not naïve. I know bosses have authority to override even the most reasoned and respectful “no.” Still and all, if that happens, you can at least feel happy that you stated your position.

Start focusing on pleasing yourself. You will soon discover that, not only do you have more to give, but you can give it willingly, rather than as ransom for your needs.

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