I recently came across a fascinating talk on YouTube by Dr Gabor Mate, a physician with a background in palliative care who wrote the book When The Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection. His talk covers the link between compulsive care-giving/people-pleasing behavior, and physical illness.
I really relate to what he says. I used to have a successful Engineering career from which I burned out several years before I came down with CFS. I too was a compulsive care-giver and people-pleaser.
While working as an engineer I was heavily involved at my local church and did volunteer work on a 24 hour telephone crisis line. I enjoyed the feeling of helping people in crisis, but I can see now looking back that I was in a constant state of stress. I often did late night shifts at the crisis centre with a migraine, doped up on codeine-based pain-killers and desperate for the shift to end so I could go home to bed before yet another suicidal caller rang. Meanwhile my relationship with my girlfriend of the time was slowly falling apart, I was losing interest in the career I used to love, and my faith in the religion I was brought up with was going down the toilet.
I was in complete denial at the time about the amount of stress I was putting my body and mind through. I was putting everyone else’s needs before my own out of a misplaced sense of obligation and bottomless craving for other people to like, respect and appreciate me. It just wasn’t healthy.
Dr Mate’s talk also mentions the adverse health effects of not dealing with anger constructively, which has been another challenge I’m still learning to master now at age 48. It also touches on his relationship with his mother, which in my case has been a major source of stress in my life.
The video is well worth a watch. Here are some choice quotes from it:
This compulsive and automatic concern for the needs of others while ignoring your own is a major risk factor for chronic illness.
Regarding obituaries: Often what we value in other people is what kills them in the first place.
This compulsive and rigid identification with duty, role and responsibility rather than the needs of the self is a major risk factor for illness.
The suppression/repression of healthy anger is a major risk factor for illness. It actually suppresses the immune system.
The need to please other people all the time will kill you… and these reasons are not psychological, they’re physiological. They have to do with the body, the immune system and everything else.
This part regarding the impact of our competing needs for attachment and authenticity as children really nails it for me:
… we suppress who we are, we suppress our authenticity, and we suppress our awareness of our gut feelings because the expression of them would bring us into conflict with our caregivers and threaten our attachments. And so our problem as adults is that a lot of our behaviours are still coming out of our need to attach so we’re still behaving as little kids who need to attach and to be liked and need to be approved of at the expense of our authenticity. And that people is what makes us sick.
You have to learn that you are more important than your attachments.
And finally, his take-home exercise:
When did you last say “no”?
Here’s the video: