From here I can give
Updated: Nov 22, 2022
At the beginning of September, I travelled to Bilbao to attend the "Like a Pro" training from the School of Consent. This deeper dive into the Wheel of Consent® is aimed at practitioners and attracted an encouragingly wide range of professions, from outdoor pursuit guides to traditional therapists.
Studying “The Wheel” in depth during my Sexological Bodywork training changed the way I work with clients, my own felt sense of consent and boundaries, and the way I experience just about every human interaction! I was curious to see what else could possibly change if I immersed myself in this practice fully.
It was such a rich week of learning and connecting in the way I enjoy most - by slowing down and letting go of assumptions. Some parts of the experience are still synthesising. Despite seeming so simple on the surface, the true gifts (and challenges) of The Wheel run deep. After all, it invites us to rethink most of what we have been taught about giving and receiving.
One of the learnings that stands out vividly in my mind was something a participant shared after one of the exercises, which was: "from here I can give".
They were referring to the experience of having their own needs met and how, from that place, they then felt resourced enough to truly be in their willingness to give.
It may seem quite obvious - after all, any of us who have travelled by plane will have heard the safety briefing telling us that in case of an emergency we need to put on our own oxygen mask before we can help others. AND YET, very often we don’t take care of our own needs day-to-day when it comes to our desires to be touched, witnessed, loved, or cared for.
Sometimes we might feel that our needs are not valid, acceptable, or important, so we don’t voice them at all. More often than not, we "make do" with whatever IS on offer perhaps because we fear that being “too demanding” or “picky” will mean that we will lose what little we have.
It's not uncommon for people to find themselves stuck in a chronic state of willingness, prioritising the desires and needs of others or, at the extreme end, enduring something that they clearly don’t want.
I invite you to ask yourself - how often have you asked for and received EXACTLY what you want without fear or guilt, without the other person second-guessing what else you might like and adding their own "enhancements", and without the expectation of reciprocation in some form?
Most of us have roles or relationships in our lives in which we are at least sometimes in service to others, whether as a parent or caregiver, employee, friend, or partner. To consistently take action to benefit others - whether that’s giving our time, our attention, or our voice - can be an incredible act of generosity, but it can also have its traps.
Some of us are drawn to careers or roles that centre our willingness to be in service because we feel so compelled to help others. However, when we don’t feel able to uphold our boundaries - or are working within an environment that actively discourages us to do so - our willingness can become stretched to the point that we are giving beyond our means. We might still be saying yes, but this yes may come from a sense of obligation rather than willingness. Burnout unsurprisingly has a high prevalence in service-oriented roles. For example, a survey by Third Sector found that 9 out of 10 charity workers experienced stress, overwhelm, or burnout in the previous year, and a recent report on physicians found that 43% were displaying signs of burnout.
And why does this even matter?! Surely it’s a kind and polite thing to do, to put others first?
When we aren't getting our needs met by making clear requests, we tend to employ other strategies. These were often initiated so far in the past that we now do these things by default without conscious awareness.
Existing in the realms of serving becomes a way of indirectly getting your needs met. Perhaps you want to feel loved and cared for but settle for the sense of being needed or useful. Because our true need isn’t really being met, it can lead to us wanting to give more and more, slipping into habitual people-pleasing behaviours and martyrdom. Perhaps you will feel some resonance as you read this example:
“Her entire existence was organized around serving us. Yet, that was not the whole story: she had a lot of power over us. She decided almost everything around the house, and she governed all of us through guilt. She would make sure to remind us how much she worked and how much she had sacrificed for the family.”
(Manon Garcia, speaking of their grandmother who played a serving role in the family)
Being “selflessly in service” can be a way to avoid taking responsibility for ourselves, to avoid the vulnerability that comes with receiving, or to avoid the guilt and shame that we may feel if we were to fully own our desires. It can become a breeding ground for resentment or can lead us to unconsciously take from others - sometimes in very subtle ways like offloading on our friends without asking first if they are willing to listen.
When we delved into this topic during the training, it was so fascinating (and relieving) to hear everyone in the room sharing the ways in which we go about trying to get our needs met indirectly. We are all doing this to some extent so it’s not about judging ourselves harshly but acknowledging (with lots of compassion) how hard - and sometimes against the norm - it can be to ask for what we need.
If you can’t receive, you can’t give.
By practicing learning the distinction between giving and receiving, we are able to build our integrity. We can become more aware of who is benefitting from our actions - for example, noticing where we are slipping into doing for our own benefit - and we can acknowledge this and make a choice as to how we wish to proceed.
Betty Martin, the creator of The Wheel, recommends that we should all start by learning how to receive. Maybe you already feel quite comfortable and confident asking for what you want but can you allow yourself to be vulnerable in this, to fully expose your heart’s desires?
For some people, asking for what they want is really alien. Often this shows up by us not knowing what we want. It’s as though somehow the voice of our desire has been drowned out over the years to the point that we can now barely pick up its whispers. The good news is though that the voice IS still there. We are born with desire in our hearts and it doesn’t go away. It’s not a brand new skill that we have to learn, but more like a practice in learning to tune into it again. This is where slowness and letting go of assumptions really can be the biggest gifts.
None of this is to take away from the gifts of being in service or to imply that everyone serving has ulterior motives. Instead, this is a call for all of us to take care of our own needs so that we can fully and wholeheartedly choose to be in service from a place of resource, which means taking responsibility to put your own desires on the shelf temporarily AND being able to set your limits.
If you are really struggling to know what you might want, here are a couple of tips:
Focus on what it is you might want to FEEL, rather than on what you might want to DO (or have someone else do).
Sometimes getting clearer on the "WHY" you might want a certain thing, can open up more possibilities for "HOW" you might meet it. For example, I might have a desire to receive grounding touch to help me relax. My preference might be for my partner to give me an hour-long massage when I next see them. If they are not able or willing, what next? Do I dismiss that desire as irrelevant or too much?! No! I explore other ways in which I can experience this. I might notice that it's the sensation of weight on my body that calms me. Perhaps they might be willing to rest some weight on me rather than massaging me, or I could get myself a weighted blanket, or I might book in with another practitioner.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7604257/ for stats on burnout in physicians but also a little more about how this is measured.
https://blog.apaonline.org/2021/04/28/submission-is-womens-destiny-but-we-can-change-that/ Article by Manon Garcia about female submissiveness
https://www.thirdsector.co.uk/nine-10-charity-workers-felt-stress-overwhelm-burnout-past-year-survey-shows/management/article/1705083#:~:text=More%20than%20nine%20out%20of,conducted%20by%20Third%20Sector%20shows. Third Sector report on burnout amongst charity workers (mostly managerial roles)