Yes, There Is a Cure for the 'Disease to Please'

From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 17, 2000 -- Talk show host Oprah Winfrey calls it the "disease to please" -- the tendency of some women to put the wants and needs of others well above their own.

Experts say many women put themselves last, behind their friends, their partners, their family, and their colleagues. They are so busy taking care of everybody and everything that they rarely find a moment for themselves. Often, these women's emotional, physical, and spiritual needs fall by the wayside.

The result? Stress, depression, fatigue, headaches, stomach problems, anxiety, sleeplessness, and irritability. But by learning how to take better care of themselves, such women can dramatically improve their health, their overall quality of life, and their relations with others, says one expert who has written a book on the subject.

In her book Self-Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself As Effectively As You Care for Everyone Else, Alice D. Domar, PhD, director of the Mind/Body Center for Women's Health at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, writes that the first step is for such women to figure out exactly what their needs are. "Then, you can think about who in your life can help you meet those needs, and what needs you can meet by yourself. Self-nurturing can be done alone or with others," Domar tells WebMD.

"It may sound odd, but women need to start thinking more like men," she says. "So many of us are brought up to think that a woman's role is to take care of others, but now that the vast majority of women work outside of the home, none of us are being cared for and we are not caring for ourselves."

And "if you don't take good care of yourself, how good of a wife, daughter, mother, friend, or employee will you really be?"

When it comes to meeting these goals, there is no one magic answer for every woman, she says. But one way to start, Domar says, is by taking 30 seconds every morning when you first wake up to think of one thing that you can do for yourself that day -- whether it's calling your best friend, making time to read email jokes, or buying yourself a delicious piece of fruit at lunch.

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"This will make your whole day better," she says.

Another useful technique is a time-out she calls a "mini": "Take focused, slow, deep breaths when your child throws a temper tantrum, when you are flying, stuck in traffic, or when you feel down to relieve tension."

In Domar's book, she aims to help women develop specific nurturing techniques for each of the four seasons. For example, in springtime, Domar emphasizes physical strengthening and healing through exercises, yoga, and creating a more positive body image -- just in time for summer's arrival. During winter, she suggests learning how to relax through meditation.

Tracy Denise, a 30-year-old New Yorker, says she has been suffering from the "disease to please" for as long as she can remember.

For example, "I take personal calls from friends in distress even when I am on a tight deadline, instead of asking if I can call them back later," says Denise, a marketing executive for a medical finance company.

"I am on call 24-7 for friends and family, even at the expense of myself," she tells WebMD. "I don't like to be in the center; I like to be by the sidelines, making sure everyone is feeling happy and fed." As a result, she says, "I'm totally exhausted."

These tendencies are taking a toll on her, she says, but she is taking steps to address the problem. "Along with my therapist, I am working toward trying to prioritize my relationships and obligations and downsizing the toxic relationships in my life," she says.

Virginia P. Williams, PhD, president of Williams LifeSkills, a program that teaches coping skills in Durham, N.C., suggests that the first thing Denise and others like her must do is become aware of when they don't want to do something.

"If you decide that there is something that you don't want to do, putting yourself first starts with keeping your 'no's very short, with no explanation attached," she suggests.

Acknowledging that saying no can be difficult, Williams says, "Don't feel guilty when you say no. If you feel yourself obsessing, silently yell 'stop!' Or distract yourself through breathing deeply or meditation."

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