As a child, I was programmed to never say no to others' requests or demands. I was taught that a good girl complied with what others wanted, and that compliance was the way to get love and approval. I was taught that saying no to others was selfish and that I had to consider their feelings before my own. I learned my lessons well.
However, it didn't work out the way I was told it would. Not only did I not receive the promised love and approval in return for giving myself up, but over time, always trying to please others and ignoring myself devastated my health. Over 30 years ago, my immune system was failing, and a number of doctors told me that I was headed for cancer or another serious illness if I didn't change something.
But I didn't know what to change. I exercised daily and had been for years. I had been eating very well for many years—all organic with tons of veggies—but still, my health was failing. What I didn't know at that time is that the stress of self-abandonment can kill you.
Most of us now know that stress erodes the immune system, but I had no idea that not saying no to others' demands and requests was causing extreme stress. It took me getting quite ill before I came to terms with the fact that unquestioning compliance wasn't loving to me—or to others. It was a shock to discover that giving myself up was the opposite of being loving—it was a form of control. I was trying to control others' love and approval rather than learning how to love and approve of myself.
Having been deeply programmed to take responsibility for others' feelings and needs and to ignore my own, I realized that I had no idea what I felt or needed. How could I say no when I didn't even know what I wanted to say yes to?
The first thing I had to do was learn to be present with my feelings. I had spent years and years becoming very sensitive to others' feelings and needs, and now I had to become sensitive to my own. It took much practice to adjust my focus from external to internal. And then it took a lot of courage to start speaking up for myself rather than to continue giving in to others. I remember feeling terrified and guilty when I first started to love myself and say no to others.
The more I learned to stay true to myself rather than try to control others, the healthier I became.
Now, while I'm still very sensitive to others' feelings and needs and I do all I can to be of help to those in my life, I no longer take responsibility for their feelings and needs instead of my own. Rather than making others responsible for my well-being, I give myself the love and approval I need. Rather than giving myself up, I now say no when doing what someone else wants me to do isn't in my highest good. Rather than ignoring my feelings or judging them or numbing them with addictions, I'm now very attentive to my own feelings, which has done wonders for my immune system.
I might even go as far as saying that learning to love myself saved my life.