We feel powerless when:
- We don’t think we can say no without suffering some consequence (damaging a relationship, losing a job, feeling guilty, etc),
- We desperately desire a particular outcome that we believe is outside our control, or
- We don’t see any way out of a negative or toxic environment, either at work or home or elsewhere.
Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say
The biggest issue I tend to see in my practice (and one I’ve struggled with myself!) is guilt. “Isn’t it selfish to say no when I could say yes?” we ask.
On one hand, helping others is one of the most fulfilling experiences in life. It is good to look out for the interests of others, and not just for our own. If we have the resources to help, and we want to help, then we should help.
But that “want to” is key – the whole thing hinges on the concept of choice. In order to say yes from your heart, you first have to have the ability to say no. If you don’t feel like “no” is an option, then a “yes” can only come from compulsion (not from love). If you find yourself frequently saying yes when you want to say no, you are not actually being selfless – you’re being hypocritical.
The Apostle Paul says that we should each give “what [we have] decided in [our hearts] to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7). Saying yes when you really mean no breeds resentment, and can cause you to withdraw from a person who makes demands (the “passive aggressive” approach), which damages relationships far more than simply saying what you mean. Over time this sort of disconnect between who you really are and who you present yourself to be can also lead to problems with anxiety. (Remember, emotions are symptoms of a problem, and not the problem itself!)
A prerequisite for any healthy relationship is freedom. So let your “yes be yes, and your no be no” (Matt 5:37).
The Law of Sowing and Reaping
Newton’s Third Law of Motion says, “For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.” In the same way, there are also consequences for our actions in life. Good consequences are reinforcing — they teach us, “Hey, I want more where that came from, so I’ll keep on doing what I did to get it!” while bad consequences teach us, “Well, that stunk. Better not do that again.”
There’s an apparent exception to this rule, though: you can step in and shoulder the consequences for someone else’s actions, and circumvent the process. Most of us will agree on a moral basis that it’s not okay to steal the positive rewards of someone else’s labor. But there’s disagreement over whether shielding someone we love from the negative consequences of his or her poor choices is a “loving” thing to do.
What it comes down to is this. If the person you love recognizes that he has made poor choices and is sorry, then he’s not as likely to make a similar choice in the future. In that case, shielding him from the consequences may be loving – as long as you want to, have the resources to do so, and haven’t already bailed him out multiple times in the past!
However, if the person you love does not recognize that he has made a poor choice, by shielding him from the consequences, you are preventing him from learning from it. That’s called enabling. Proverbs 19:19 says, “A hot-tempered man must pay the penalty; if you rescue him, you will have to do it again.” It’s best to let this kind of person reap what he sows, and learn the hard way.
How to Respond to Energy Drainers
Energy drainers can come in the form of difficult people or of unwanted circumstances. When faced with an energy drainer, there are essentially three ways you can respond:
- You can change the situation;
- You can change yourself so that the situation becomes tolerable; or
- You can leave the situation.
It takes wisdom to identify which of the three is appropriate. It’s never possible to change another person (and if you try, you’re almost guaranteed to make the problem worse). But you might be able to set limits on a person, by saying, “If you continue to speak to me harshly, I will not continue to associate with you.” This does not change the other person; she can continue to be rude if she likes, but you won’t be around to hear it. In that case, you have changed the situation. And this is not selfish: remember, we are not responsible for another person’s needs, desires, or feelings. We can help as we want to and as we are able, but ultimately the needs, desires, and feelings of others are all their responsibility.
If you aren’t in a position to set limits, consider re-framing the way you view the situation. Maybe the inefficiency of your coworkers becomes an opportunity for you to exercise patience. Maybe you can de-escalate a conflict by deciding to stay calm, rather than reacting with anger. We don’t have control over other people, and we don’t always have control over our circumstances, but we do have control over ourselves.
There are times when it’s appropriate to cut your losses, though. Abuse of any kind is never acceptable, but it takes support from others to leave a toxic relationship, to walk away from an overly demanding job, or to withdraw from an important person. You definitely need spiritual and emotional support in order to make such a major change in your life, so make sure you find a good support group of friends, family, or other like-minded people who will be there for you through difficult times.
If you constantly feel worn out, I’d highly encourage you to identify the energy drainers in your life. Sit down in a quiet place with a pen and paper and write out your sources of stress. When you identify the biggest one or the biggest several, see which of the three approaches (change the situation, change yourself, or leave) is most appropriate. Cultivate the support you need to keep you accountable and help you through (including a qualified counselor if you feel that is necessary)… and then take the steps you need to take to help you regain power over your life.
For more on this topic, I highly recommend “Boundaries,” by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.