Are You an Emotional Butler?

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Beth Killough

Maybe you consider yourself a people person. You’re someone who just loves doing nice things for others, favors, listening to problems, or finding ways to include the odd man out. Or perhaps you find yourself in a peacekeeping role, righting the ship, and calming down the storm so the heated meeting or friend group drama or play date meltdown can pass and we “can all get along.” You’re the parent who clears your teenager’s plate or puts her laundry away or wakes her up in the morning. You’re the sibling who apologizes to the waiter and leaves a giant tip when your sister was drunk and rude at the restaurant. You’re the one who calls your mother-in-law so your spouse doesn’t have to. You think you are managing up, but you’re really covering up your supervisor’s poor decision making and impulse control problems. You’re a yes man. You listen and nod as your friend blames everyone in his life for his failures but refuses to look at himself. 

You’re an emotional butler. And, it’s not working for you. 

We all have tipping points, even in the roles we willingly signed up to play. Too often, we think we’re showing up for the common good, a belief that can keep us propping up other people even if it’s hurting us and blocking them from growth. We think we’re supporting or nurturing or being compassionate. But really, we’re like a butler, pouring the tea and providing a warm and cozy blanket that covers up the realities of life.

We know from the attachment research that infants learn to self soothe in their first year of life. So why do we spend countless hours trying to soothe grown adults? If you look at Stan Tatkin’s interpersonal neuroscience work, he helps us understand how our nervous systems are connected when we are in a relationship. So, if we soothe others, we are also taking care of ourselves. It’s in our best interest, as bonded mammals, to take care of others because it helps our collective nervous system stay regulated. In essence, attending to the needs of another is one of the ways we take care of ourselves. You can really feel this in the horse herd which operates like one large body comprised of the many horse bodies. 

So where do we draw the line between compassion and codependency?

Here’s the thing. Yes, there is a thing. 

When we skip over taking care of ourselves and instead serve the needs of others, we give up our emotional leadership. Usually, when we feel some urgency to take care of others, it is because their discomfort or distress is actually making us feel pressure or pain. Humans are funny creatures. Rather than do what we need in order to relieve that pressure or pain for ourselves, we start tinkering with everyone else. 

I try to imagine our lead mare, Sally, doing this with the herd and it makes me laugh out loud. She shows up every day, all day, taking care of herself and creating her own stability. Her emotional stability helps everyone know that things are okay. If she started scurrying about the pasture micro-managing everyone else’s emotions, the herd would be in chaos and in total fear and reactivity. 

When humans do this, we call it experience management. It sounds like this: I need you to be okay and happy with what is happening right now so that I can be okay and happy. We have it backwards. 

We don’t have to give up our call to be caring people. The simple change is to start with how we care for ourselves and our needs at any given moment. Leadership always begins with how we lead ourselves. Dan Siegel says that mammal nervous systems will sync up with the most regulated one in the room. See what you can do to soothe yourself and watch a beautiful peace ripple into the world around you.

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