I define overproviding as giving more than is sustainable for you and often for the wrong reasons. Accurate but kind of bland. A better definition comes from my friend Jeanie: “Over-providing? That’s when you pour everything into growing everybody else while withering yourself.”
Withering yourself. That’s what you do when, instead of bringing the requested two side dishes to the family holiday dinner, you show up with five sides, a salad, two pies, gravy, and a ham. Withering yourself is hosting a fund-raiser, handcrafting the food and decorations, and handling all the details, then ending up in bed with pneumonia. Withering yourself is inviting your elderly mom to move in with you, even though she has a support system and enough money for good care, and finding yourself gaining weight, neglecting your creative passions, and cultivating a big ole’ grudge.
Obviously, overproviding is not in your best interest, and yet we all do it, at least some of the time. Why, oh why? Here are a few of our compelling reasons:
• We were raised in a culture that still proclaims that good women give endlessly and good men provide.
• Our biology: humans are hardwired to belong. Overproviding keeps us in the tribe.
• We’re empathetic. We want to help.
• We may believe that what we want to give isn’t worthwhile enough, so we gush like a broken fire hydrant lots of other things — money, advice, time — to make up for what we perceive we lack.
• We forget we’re human, with human limits of time and energy — easy to do in these uber-speedy times.
• We haven’t learned (yet) to trust ourselves, to trust our bodies and hearts when they say, “Enough.”
Also, overproviding can be very difficult to recognize. Look for signs like:
• a hollow feeling of never getting enough done
• a jittery compulsion to fix people’s pain, to do something to make it better
• resentment — everybody else gets what they want but you
• rarely focusing on your own dreams and desires
• hearing yourself say things like “When I finish ____, then I will” and “I just had to do ____ for _____. Who else would?” and “If I don’t do ______, I will be a big failure, get fired, end up homeless, and…”
Clearly, overproviding is not the best choice for your health, your career, or your sanity. Now, what to do? Sample these simple balancing antidotes:
• Write down everything you do for others in a 24-hour period.
Hard but so worthwhile.
• Start the day with five minutes of extravagant self-praise.
Imagine this praise in the form of hummingbirds streaming into the back of your heart.
• Navigate by desire.
Make a practice of asking, “What do I want?” or, “What would I really love to do here?” Learning to know what you want, even if you can’t have it, is a life-changing practice and one I teach in more depth in my book The Life Organizer.
• Deputize a few beloveds to check in with before you say yes to something else.
Hearing yourself trying to talk yourself into something can be very enlightening.
• Get used to saying, “Let me get back to you.”
Make a list of all the reasons you must do this thing you’re considering taking on. Then go down the list asking, “Is that true?”
• Deepen your practice of self-trust.
When faced with a decision or choice, ask yourself, before you ask anyone else, “What do I think? What do I want?” We develop self-trust by checking in with ourselves (a key part of the Life Organizing practice from my book and app), taking action on our best guess, and then asking, “What do I know now?”
• Forget hard-and-fast rules.
Some situations call for overgiving for a period of time. When my dad was dying, it was important to overprovide for him. The guideline? Are you checking in with yourself? If you want to give more, are you capable of doing so without hurting yourself?
Yes, avoiding overproviding is a privileged problem. And that isn’t an argument for you to be a martyr. Instead, become a force of love and balance in the world in hopes that one day all people can choose an emotionally and physically sustainable life.
It’s tempting to get your kicks from being everything to everybody. It can be hard to believe there is another way, and yet, once you see your pattern, you also see how overproviding is a less-than-truthful existence. It keeps you from giving birth to your truest life. Seeing that, painful as it can be, will motivate you to listen and choose the middle way — a little me, a little them — more often.
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helped start the self-care movement with her first bestselling book, The Woman’s Comfort Book
. She has written five more books, including The Life Organizer
, just out in paperback.