dilemmas

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this week's problem

Amy finds it impossible to say no when her many friends ask favours of her. Most of the time she enjoys feeling needed, but she is starting to feel exhausted and drained when the phone rings. Having just returned from giving a sick friend a lift, she wonders how she can say 'no' without hurting anyone or feeling guilty

Some would call Amy a saint, some a compulsive carer. And some, the brutally honest, a people-pleaser. No, it's not a very nice term, implying a craven and toadying cast of character, but perhaps I'm only so hard on poor Amy because I recognise some of her characteristics in myself.

I know that Amy's attitude is not totally to be admired. She has respect for other people and their opinions, but none for her views of herself. She has given others the power to make herself feel good or bad, and that is why she feels terrified of saying "no". Far from being a saint, she is a self-abuser, allowing her own dignity to go down the drain for the sake of others. Although I'm sure she basks in the praise of her friends, she should learn to think of herself as not so much Mother Teresa, but more some desperate insecure actress who only flowers when the applause is ringing in her ears.

It is typical of Amy that she has a lot of friends. People who depend on the approval of others for their self-esteem tend to need a huge gang to keep the roar of approval alive. She probably also finds that she is best at one-to-one relationships, because it is difficult, with her chameleon-like personality, to keep two people happy at the same time, particularly if they have differing views. It's said that the worst fate that can befall a people-pleaser is to put him or her in a room with a Chelsea supporter and an Arsenal supporter.

As a compulsive people-pleaser, Amy should remember that she too is a "person", and she too should be "pleased". It is no good doling out favours to all and sundry if the price is at the expense of her own self. She has herself marked as a beast of burden, but, actually, if she were to own a donkey she would surely not allow it to be beaten and overworked to give rides to every person who needed to get from A to B. She would care for that donkey, feed it, and when it was tired tell those who knocked on the stable door that they would have to come back another time.

Amy could take assertion classes and learn that the word "no" is an entire sentence. Even quite strong people know that it takes a second to say "yes" and half an hour to say "no", what with all the apologetic additions we usually tack on to the end: "... because I don't feel very well, but if I feel better..."; "because I'm going away, but any other time..."; "I hope you understand, don't take this personally, lots of love...". But before Amy can get anything out of assertion classes, she has to believe that the skills they teach are essential to her health and survival.

However, no harm would be done were she to experiment with saying "no". Only by trying it out will she discover the pay-off - that the beaten donkey within her will kick up his heels with pleasure. She should remember, too, that she should sometimes ask for help herself. Other people like to be shown their friends' humanity and to be given a chance to do some giving themselves, too. It can make them feel good in the same way as caring for others gives Amy a buzz. Never to ask for help and always giving is just a way of getting off on others' pain and helplessness.

I'm hard on Amy because it is only disgust at the way she's treating herself that will help her to become the kind of person people will turn to in trouble, but not the person they will use when they are in trouble. Paradoxically, although she may find it hard to believe at the moment, sometimes saying "no" will make her more, not less, likeable.

readers' responses

Like Amy, I am constantly doing things for others and I, too, started feeling fed up and tired, but I have only myself to blame. I find it difficult to turn people down.

Before my health starts suffering, I must learn to say "no". It is a slow process. You lose a few so-called friends on the way (incidentally, those friends were never around in my times of need), but it is worth it if only because it gives me more time to myself.

Elisabeth Chia

Maidenhead

What Amy needs to realise is that the people who constantly ask her to do favours need to learn self-reliance to a greater degree. Amy should simply say "no", explain that she is tired and then (and this is critical) withdraw from that topic of conversation by walking away, putting down the telephone or changing the subject. Feeble excuses do not work, for they do not communicate the essential, but subliminal message, which is, "You are asking me to do something that I do not want to do".

Donald R MacLeod

Edinburgh

First, it is vital to realise that you are important. You need to appreciate yourself for who you are. Enjoy being with yourself; do things that make you feel good about yourself. If you feel good about yourself, people will like you. Believe me, it works.

Second, read a good book on assertiveness. Practise saying "I'd rather not" or "It would be terribly inconvenient". Get used to the idea that you have needs, too. How about asking friends to do things for you? Finally, block out time in your diary to be on your own. Use an answering machine to give you a break from the phone. Tell people that you can't talk now and offer to ring them back later.

Andrew Rolph

Surrey

Poor Amy, I know how she feels. Following early retirement I was inundated by people who imagined I had time for them when they needed it. After an exhausting year I did two things. I installed a telephone answering machine so now I can be available when it suits me. Also, when I'm asked to do things I know will tire me I'm always involved with a fictitious "friend".

I feel my relationships have improved. People respect that I have a life of my own, and I do not resent my friends as I used to when I felt weak and under pressure.

Margaret Mills

Cheshire

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

Yesterday, my eight-year-old daughter asked me: "Mummy, do you believe in Father Christmas?" Do I lie and say "yes" or tell the truth and destroy a piece of magic for her? How long is it realistic for a child to continue to believe in Father Christmas, and what is the gentlest way of letting her know the reality? Also, when she does cease to believe, how can I discourage her from spoiling the story for her younger sister? And, finally, is it dishonest to children to make them believe in this myth in the first place?

Yours sincerely,

Sarah

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate.

Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, the 'Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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