Just recently I was talking with a younger man striving to make major changes in the way he lives. Because he had a hard start and got little support and guidance growing up, he’s a bit young for his age (early 30s). He hasn’t lived up to his potential, but he does have initiative and he’s starting to really take charge of his life.
Seeing him turn a corner is pretty exciting, and while I’m hopeful, I’m concerned as well. He loses focus and sometimes makes poor choices. This usually is because of the people around him. He’s caring and compassionate, but, unfortunately, he’s a magnet for the kind of needy people who take, take, take when they can.
Most of us have encountered people like that, who will suck the life out of you if you let them. My friend is particularly susceptible. While he’s blind about such people when he meets them, his self-awareness is growing enough that he asked his friends for guidance about how to set limits when he does.
My input was a rule I’ve used a lot over the years, that is simply that you don’t do any more for others than they’ll do for themselves. It’s not an ironclad rule – I’ve bent it a few times when I felt the circumstances warranted it – but it is a guideline that I’ve found to be generally reliable. Like my friend, I’ve had people in my life who “took” until I got pretty weary of their constant “needs”. Their dependency and inability/unwillingness to take charge of themselves eventually undermined my sympathy, although, like my friend, I initially felt terribly guilty turning down someone who acted so helpless.
The guilt came from believing that they really couldn’t do things on their own, making me worry about what would happen if I declined when they asked for help. It seems grandiose to remember that I’d imagined they would suffer some grave consequence without my assistance (they encouraged this belief), but it was why I hesitated to stop trying to solve all their problems.
Yet when I did, it forced them to make a choice. I’d hoped they would show some initiative, but instead they just moved on to others and played the same game with them. It felt like a hard choice, and like I was being mean (which I was accused of), but it also opened my eyes about their real reasons for being in the friendship. That hurt, but it was also better to know.
Maybe you are like my friend and I, and you think you’ve got a real user in your life. Don’t worry about setting limits. You’ll probably get some negative feedback, but just by standing your ground, you’ll make them show how much they will do for themselves when they have to.