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Single, Stressed And Guilty

Question:

I am 28 years old, single and without children. Being single and childless doesn’t decrease my amount of stress, though. I have a full-time job and have to put in unpaid overtime because I performed poorly last year and haven’t improved enough yet. I also will need to take a second job due to financial problems. In addition to my work, I volunteer at several organizations and have (somewhat) active social and family lives, and I rent an apartment that requires a certain amount of care. I also have bipolar disorder, which requires management with medication, monthly visits to my psychiatrist, and visits with my therapist every other week. My problem is guilt. If I can’t see a friend because I have chores to do or need to work late, I feel guilty. If I can’t work late because of a volunteer commitment, I feel guilty. If I can only contribute a certain amount of time to some activity that I am doing outside of work, I feel guilty. If I can’t see my family (most of my family lives an hour away) because of other plans, I feel guilty. All those feelings are only compounded by the guilt I feel when I screw something up or disagree with someone. I’ve found myself becoming very resentful toward the people I care about, because I feel like I’m not supposed to disagree with, express anger or hurt toward, or say no to anyone. The side effects of my resentment include passive-aggression, gossip, sniping to or about people, crying spells, depression, and addictive behaviors, especially concerning food, money, and men. By many self-help definitions, I am codependent. I know I need to set boundaries, but I don’t want to appear cold-hearted or selfish. I’m suspicious of anything 12-step-oriented or religious-oriented, and my therapist hasn’t offered me any concrete strategies.

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Answer:

Every person on this earth has a limited capability to get things done. In order to be healthy and to keep stress under control, it is vital that a person can say ‘no’ to requests that they do different things when doing those things would make them overloaded. If they don’t learn to say no, they take on more stress than they can handle, and they suffer the consequences of a stress overload.

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p> Now you’ve got a lot on your plate to begin with, having to deal with Bipolar disorder on top of regular life. It is vital for your health that you don’t put yourself in a situation where your self-maintainance rhythms get messed up. A failure to take medication on a regular basis (for whatever reason, worthwhile or not) could have a very bad effect on your life. A manic or suicidal episode is not something you need to deal with if you don’t have to.

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p> Your inability to tell people ‘no’ is overloading you. As a mere mortal (like the rest of us) this will ultimately catch up with you and something important to you will give (your health, your sanity, etc.). The solution to your problem is to cut back on doing things that aren’t necessary. Only you can’t do this because it would mean breaking your internalized perfectionistic rule that you must not disappoint people. Your failure to assert yourself and say ‘no’ sometimes (even often) is probably what is bringing out the passive aggressive stuff in you. You know you can’t legitimately handle all the commitments, and yet you don’t give yourself permission to not take them on. You have trouble accepting that it is your responsibility to say ‘no’ and not your friends and families’ to not ask and so you start blaming them, resenting them, for ‘putting you in the situation’. You smile on the surface, but are resentful under the surface.

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p> Assertiveness Training is what you need. You probably think any utterance of the word ‘no’ makes you cold hearted and selfish. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Most of the time it is more selfish to say ‘yes’ when you mean ‘no’ than to just say ‘no’ to begin with. This is because saying you’ll do something when you don’t want to do it is a setup for you to passive-aggressively act out on them and that does no-one any favors. You need to learn the difference between assertively saying ‘no’ (defending your legitimate boundaries) and aggressively saying ‘no’ (spitefully saying no to hurt someone else). There are a number of books on this subject such as “Your Perfect Right“, and Psychological Self-Help, but it is often most helpful to work with a therapist who can help support and guide you in actually implementing assertiveness in your life.

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