Ask a Counselor: How can I care for myself, when everybody else has so many needs?

Years ago, when I was overseas, in the throes of a nervous breakdown, my counselor at the time was trying to help me put healthy boundaries in place.

I was exhausted, barely able to get out of bed to come to counseling appointments, yet the thought of healthy boundaries was shocking to me, and I resisted the very idea that I should stop doing some of the things that had brought me to the brink of self-destruction.

“But how will the Arosi people ever get their Bible?” I wailed in a session.

I don’t remember how she talked me off the ledge that day, but I often think of my resistance to healthy boundaries when I hear the same kinds of resistance from my clients these days.

They tell me things like:

  • “Counting myself in” feels selfish.
  • I feel like I’m abandoning others when I care for myself.
  • I know I’m barely making it day-to-day, but if I stop, everyone will be so disappointed.

Our self-sacrificing behaviors are generally applauded and appreciated. Hardly anyone will tell you to stop meeting all the needs, and even if they do, those words of compassion often fall on our resistant ears (just speaking for myself here).

Over time, though, even the hardiest need-meeter will start to run out of steam. We’ll find ourselves exhausted, irritated, frustrated, burned out, losing function.

That’s when we’ll roll up to a therapist and say, “HELP!”

At which point our therapist will say, “Wow, you’re doing the work of 3 people. Let’s consider what healthy boundaries might look like for you.”

And then we will say something like, “But wouldn’t that be selfish? Won’t the Arosi people die and go to hell without their Bible if I stop to take care of myself?”

I love this little joke I first heard from Anne Lamott:

“What’s the difference between God and me? God never thinks he’s me.”

And it’s true: we need to examine our God-complex and stop thinking that we’re the answer to every need on earth. 

But why do some of us struggle with that God-complex so much more than others?

I think at least part of the answer lies here: those of us who have a childhood history of unmet needs often become adults who don’t want anybody else’s needs to go unmet.

This generally comes from a place of caring and kindness: we don’t want anyone else to be hurt the way we were hurt.

The problem, though, is that unmet childhood needs often are so impactful that they produce a kind of hyper-reactivity inside of us that makes it difficult for us to “scale” the need we’re confronting. Our own history of pain prevents us from accurately evaluating the needs before us. Because we’ve been so terribly hurt, we can’t allow others to feel any disappointment at all. We will drive ourselves to exhaustion and beyond to spare another person any pain whatsoever.

And while this may make us wildly popular as The Missionary Hero of the Century, this is not a sustainable way of life.

We need to learn how to SCALE NEEDS PROPERLY so that we can decide what we can reasonably do, given that we are human beings with limited capacity.

Scaling needs properly means that we evaluate whether the other person will have their expectations disappointed or their feelings hurt, or whether the person will actually be harmed if we fail to meet their needs.

Most often, unless we’re in the middle of an urgent medical crisis, we’re dealing with some kind of disappointment and not actual harm.

In those non-urgent cases, we need to consider where healthy boundaries lie. Here are a few questions that can help in setting healthy boundaries:

  • Do I have the capacity to meet this need at this time?
  • Do I desire to meet this need, is it in line with my gifts, my passions?
  • Is is necessary for me to meet this need, or is the other person capable of handling this for themselves?
  • If I take this on, am I crossing the line into codependency, protecting others from their own growth and necessary emotional work?
  • Is my “helping” just a nice way of being controlling?
  • Am I protecting myself from some kind of pain with all this “helping?”
  • Do I need to do some emotional work of my own, rather than helping someone else?

We can learn to include ourselves in the circle of Love that is the Body of Christ. Everything that needs to be done has already been done. It is finished. And because it is finished, you and I can rest easy and participate fully in the life of the Body, without self-harming.

We are not God, and we don’t have to try to be God.  

We are human beings with human capacity, human needs, and human limitations who are perfectly loved, safe, and chosen.

We live in the truth of Love: Love enough for us, Love enough for the needy, and we let it set us free.

Even if others have to cope with a little disappointment.

Even if we have to learn to live with a our own pain when we stop “helping.”

Love is enough for their disappointment, and Love is enough for our pain.

In Love, freedom is ours, and rest for our souls.

These are the gifts of God for the people of God, thanks be to God.

Tired of Trying to Measure Up, Jeff Van  Vonderen

The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown

Boundaries, Cloud and Townsend

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Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:

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