I have been exploring the sense of “self” over the last week. In my job, I ask people to describe themselves to try to get a sense of their understanding of themselves and life’s purpose. Many people define themselves through their job and relationships, and underneath there is a feeling of emptiness and lack of “self.” I was recently listening to a podcast from mysimran.info about life’s purpose. Simer Singh talked about how we can fulfill all the criteria that society gives us such as getting a job, getting married, buying a house, and still feeling empty (1). This is because we never worked on our real purpose to meet Waheguru (1). He talked about how, while worldly pursuits like sports and school are often competitive, our goal of meeting God is not about being first or the best (1). I often think we compare ourselves to others and think “so-and-so already has kids” or “this person already has achieved X, Y, Z.” That race to get this mental checklist completed causes us to miss the point that time allows us to learn, grow, mature, and when we are ready, God delivers what we need. Thus as Simer said, our goal of meeting Waheguru is about joining others to work collectively (1).
A co-worker I just met brought up the topic of the need to help or please others. I was interested to learn more about the concept of pleasing others as a purpose, of tying one’s self-worth to other people instead of God. Many people would call this “people-pleasing.” This happens, for example, when an individual seeks approval from others, fears rejection/criticism, or avoids conflict (2). Since this is driven by an underlying fear, it has a negative effect on individuals and eventually, a person starts to feel trapped, resentful, used, and gets burned out (3). What is the difference then between helping others in a healthy way and people-pleasing? Yong Kang Chan writes “A healthy compassionate person would take himself or herself into consideration… They please others but yet they don’t put other people first. They see other people and themselves as equal. ‘Selfless’ to them doesn’t mean disregarding themselves. It means disregarding the ego’s needs of feeling important and worthy from helping others. They don’t see pleasing other people as their responsibilities or obligation. They don’t burn themselves out from helping others” (2). This is essentially what Gurbani teaches us- that we are equals, we need to do sewa with humility and without ego, and that you can serve others while taking care of and standing up for yourself. Serving others is not a burden, because it is recognizing the Divine within you, and to take care of yourself is a sewa in itself.
Years ago I watched videos from Brene Brown, a shame researcher, about setting boundaries in order to be a compassionate individual. At that time, I still had not understood the concept, but it just clicked for me. On a podcast from the Lively Show, Brene explained that in her research the most compassionate people had the most boundaries (4). Compassion is “the belief we are connected by something rooted in love” (God) (5). Boundaries are not walls or emotional distance, but rather simply “what’s okay and what’s not okay” for you (4). It is the boundaries that make compassion sustainable and prevents us from burning out (4). She gives an example that you are holding a Christmas party but are reluctant to invite a friend who gets drunk every year (4). The boundary is that you tell your friend that you want her there but it makes you uncomfortable if they get drunk, and she can only come if she doesn't get drunk (4). From this we can really understand that we all have boundaries- for example, expecting that people show up on time. Say you move in with a roommate, or you just got married. There is that process of figuring out each other’s boundaries. I remember my cousin telling me that for a whole year after she got married she and her husband fought about keeping the doors locked. She grew up in a household where it only felt safe if the doors were locked and he grew up in one where the doors were always unlocked. I realize now that this was about their personal boundaries. I’m away from home so I called my mom to tell her about all these things I learned, and immediately recognized all the examples of how she has set good boundaries. She is very eager to help others but is also clear not to impinge on the things she values. For example, she turned down an extended family member's event because she wanted to go to my sister’s soccer tournament. These are what keeps her compassion and empathy sustainable.
In order for us to set boundaries, there is a process of figuring out what is okay and not okay for you, which is a process of discovery. It now made sense why I hadn’t originally understood the concept of emotional boundaries because it was only when I took a year away from school to reaffirm what I believed and valued, that I figured out what my boundaries were and how to communicate them. I knew a lot about giving but I didn’t know a lot about feeding myself. My spiritual awakening created a strong sense of self that allowed me to understand how to make giving sustainable and how to care for myself.
Brene’s work on boundaries comes out of her shame and vulnerability research. In order to experience the wonderful things in life- joy, belonging, love, it is necessary to experience vulnerability, because to connect to others we have to let ourselves be seen (6). In order to be vulnerable, we have to talk about shame, that feeling that you are a bad person/not good enough (7). That shame leads to depression, addiction, violence, bullying, etc. while guilt is inversely related to these (7). Guilt is when you can say I behaved badly, but I’m sorry and I made a mistake (7). Brene’s research shows men’s shame tends to be about being perceived as weak, and women’s shame is often about meeting conflicting, competing expectations/doing it all (7). How do we deal with the shame? When we are vulnerable, we have courage and we tell someone our story because the moment those words come out, the silence the shame hides behind is broken (7). It is important to share the story with someone empathetic; “people who earn the right to hear your story” (8). Empathy is how we communicate love for people so they know they are not alone- when someone says “me too”, which breaks the shame (7). Brene states “you show me a woman who can actually sit with a man in real vulnerability and fear, I’ll show you a woman who has done incredible work” and “you show me a man who sits with a woman who has just had it, she can’t do it anymore … and he really listens, I’ll show you a guy who has done a lot of work” (7). In order for us to have vulnerability, empathy, and compassion, we need to have boundaries (4). In order for us to fulfill the purpose of our life and meet God, we need to serve the Divine self, Waheguru within us. We are no longer working towards pleasing others, but God that exists in others with endless compassion and empathy.
I got this very relevant Hukamnama when I was writing this post:
rwmklI mhlw 5 ]
Raamkalee, Fifth Mehl:
kwhU ibhwvY rMg rs rUp ]
Some pass their lives enjoying pleasures and beauty.
kwhU ibhwvY mwie bwp pUq ]
Some pass their lives with their mothers, fathers and children.
kwhU ibhwvY rwj imlK vwpwrw ]
Some pass their lives in power, estates and trade.
sMq ibhwvY hir nwm ADwrw ]1]
The Saints pass their lives with the support of the Lord's Name. ||1||
rcnw swcu bnI ]
The world is the creation of the True Lord.
sB kw eyku DnI ]1] rhwau ]
He alone is the Master of all. ||1||Pause||
kwhU ibhwvY byd Aru bwid ]
Some pass their lives in arguments and debates about scriptures.
kwhU ibhwvY rsnw swid ]
Some pass their lives tasting flavors.
kwhU ibhwvY lpit sMig nwrI ]
Some pass their lives attached to women.
sMq rcy kyvl nwm murwrI ]2]
The Saints are absorbed only in the Name of the Lord. ||2||
kwhU ibhwvY Kylq jUAw ]
Some pass their lives gambling.
kwhU ibhwvY AmlI hUAw ]
Some pass their lives getting drunk.
kwhU ibhwvY pr drb cuorwey ]
Some pass their lives stealing the property of others.
hir jn ibhwvY nwm iDAwey ]3]
The humble servants of the Lord pass their lives meditating on the Naam. ||3||
kwhU ibhwvY jog qp pUjw ]
Some pass their lives in Yoga, strict meditation, worship and adoration.
kwhU rog sog BrmIjw ]
Some, in sickness, sorrow and doubt.
kwhU pvn Dwr jwq ibhwey ]
Some pass their lives practicing control of the breath.
sMq ibhwvY kIrqnu gwey ]4]
The Saints pass their lives singing the Kirtan of the Lord's Praises. ||4||
kwhU ibhwvY idnu rYin cwlq ]
Some pass their lives walking day and night.
kwhU ibhwvY so ipVu mwlq ]
Some pass their lives on the fields of battle.
kwhU ibhwvY bwl pVwvq ]
Some pass their lives teaching children.
sMq ibhwvY hir jsu gwvq ]5]
The Saints pass their lives singing the Lord's Praise. ||5||
kwhU ibhwvY nt nwitk inrqy ]
Some pass their lives as actors, acting and dancing.
kwhU ibhwvY jIAwieh ihrqy ]
Some pass their lives taking the lives of others.
kwhU ibhwvY rwj mih frqy ]
Some pass their lives ruling by intimidation.
sMq ibhwvY hir jsu krqy ]6]
The Saints pass their lives chanting the Lord's Praises. ||6||
kwhU ibhwvY mqw msUriq ]
Some pass their lives counseling and giving advice.
kwhU ibhwvY syvw jrUriq ]
Some pass their lives forced to serve others.
kwhU ibhwvY soDq jIvq ]
Some pass their lives exploring life's mysteries.
sMq ibhwvY hir rsu pIvq ]7]
The Saints pass their lives drinking in the sublime essence of the Lord. ||7||
ijqu ko lwieAw iqq hI lgwnw ]
As the Lord attaches us, so we are attached.
nw ko mUVu nhI ko isAwnw ]
No one is foolish, and no one is wise.
kir ikrpw ijsu dyvY nwau ] nwnk qw kY bil bil jwau ]8]3]
Nanak is a sacrifice, a sacrifice to those who are blessed by His Grace to receive His Name. ||8||3||
1 “Your Life Without Purpose Is " ____ _____ _____ ".” SoundCloud, Mysimran.info, 6 Nov. 2017, soundcloud.com/mysimran/your-life-without-purpose-is.
2 Chan, Yong K. “Psychology of People Pleaser: Why Do They Need to Please Others?” Nerdy Creator, 15 Sept. 2016, www.nerdycreator.com/blog/people-pleaser/.
3 Champion, Vickie. “Home.” Vickie Champion, 2010, vickiechampion.com/people-pleasing-quiz/.
4 Lively, Jessica, and Brene Brown. “#124 The Lively Show by Jess Lively on Apple Podcasts.” Apple Podcasts, Jessica Lively, 17 Feb. 2016, itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-lively-show/id815582351.
5 Brown, Brene. “Brene Brown.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Mar. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=BESvQB6J5rc.
6 Brown, Brene. “The Power of Vulnerability | Brené Brown.” YouTube, YouTube, 3 Jan. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o&t=941s.
7 Chan, Yong K. “How Brené Brown Helped Me in Overcoming Shame & Admitting Failure.” Nerdy Creator, 5 Aug. 2016, www.nerdycreator.com/blog/failed-miserably/ 8.
8 OWN. “6 Types of People Who Do Not Deserve to Hear Your Shame Story | SuperSoul Sunday | OWN.” YouTube, YouTube, 24 Mar. 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8Pp7QB6GrE&t=181s&list=PLm7ow7pt7XbwKIQg7WB7zucDVu_QUqne5&index=2.