Do it for love, or not at all!



It’s frighteningly easy to say ‘yes’ to things because we think someone expects us to, and then discover at the end of the day that we’ve taken on too much and can’t finish it all.  Not only do we end up disappointing the very people we were hoping to impress, but worse still, we let ourselves down because we STILL haven’t made time for that one special thing that we’re yearning to do.

We end up breaking promises, running up debts and backing out of commitments, and are left feeling frustrated, martyred, and resentful of the people who asked us to do the stuff in the first place.   Either that, or we keep up the fiction that we can ‘do it all’, and carry on trying to juggle seven plates and a flaming torch…until we drop ALL the plates and burn ourselves out completely, because a physical or mental health crisis comes along and we have to stop absolutely everything.

I hadn’t realised how deeply I was stuck in that particular behaviour pattern, until someone did it to me – and then proceeded to explain, in a beautifully clear and well-thought-out way, exactly why she’d changed her mind about the commitment that she’d made to me.   At first I was upset about it, but after sleeping on it, I had a new breakthrough.

What I realised is that through living in Tanzania, I became a world expert in putting other people’s needs ahead of my own – because other people’s needs were usually urgent and sometimes life-threatening.  I didn’t care if I had to sleep on a bed made of sticks with a couple of animal skins thrown over the top, and get bitten to death by fleas, as long as I was ‘making a difference’.  It didn’t matter to me if I had to live on boiled maize and soya beans for three days, as long as The Work got done.   As for savings – forget it.  Pah, who am I to worry about a savings account when the mother of the plumber that I’ve hired to fix the shower (yes, this is a real-life example…) has cerebral malaria, and her life depends on medicine that costs $10, and I’m the only person in the plumber’s immediate orbit with a ‘spare’ $10?

There was always a `plumber’s mother’, or some other such walk-on character in my drama, who seemingly had a greater need for my time and my money than I did.

Yet after coming back to the UK, I started carrying that same sense of obligation into other things, which weren’t matters of life and death.  The kids want to go to Tanzania and visit their family?  Of course they must – even if I have to put it on a credit card, and don’t have a plan for paying it off.  The teacher at the village nursery school wants me to take over paying his salary, because his funders have pulled out?  Well, I wouldn’t want the nursery school to be forced to close – even if I’m behind with my bills.  Someone wants me to do this, buy that, go there?  Has to be done, I suppose – even if I can’t really afford it.

But recently, I’ve started to examine my own motivations every time I’m on the point of saying ‘yes’ to a substantial commitment of time or money.  That doesn’t mean I’ll never offer to help anyone again, but it means I’ll try to be more realistic with the promises that I make, and ask myself questions like these:

Am I doing this because I really, truly care about it?  (Or is it because I’m afraid that you’ll think badly of me if I say no?) 

If yes: Have I got the time, energy and resources to do this properly, without hurting myself or anyone else?  (Or would it be at the expense of my true soulwork, if I agreed to do it?)

If yes: Am I the right person to do it?  (Or would it actually be more helpful, in the long run, if I just directed you to someone who already has this skill set?)

If yes: Is this the right time for me to do it?  (Or would it be more appropriate to wait until later?)

This still makes me squirm and feel selfish.  But I’m going to keep trying until I’m comfortable with it, because like Ani DiFranco in ‘Circle of Light’, “I ain’t got time for half-way, I ain’t got time for half-assed’.  I’m tired of wearing myself out with half-hearted commitments, and doing things ‘just for the sake of the money’.  Money is essential to life, of course, but money loves to flow wherever Love is – and when I’ve tried to do things `just for the money’ in the past, they haven’t tended to work out well.

My aim is to reach a point where if someone asks me to do something, I can either do it for Love, or delegate it to someone who really will love it…



8 thoughts on “Do it for love, or not at all!

  1. Elisa says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this Gemma! I am from Mexico but moved to Australia after married to an European and we both love to live so far especially the fact of being separated from our extended family and this has been the only thing I ever did for myself. but I personally struggle to feel good about not supporting enough mi Mexican family financially. I am 40 y/o and have not children of my own and not planning to have and for this I am constantly labelled as a selfish. My mother has been depressed and suicidal since I remember and I had to raise my three younger siblings since I was 6 years old, they are now adults but still depend financially from me along with my mother and I really don’t know how to end this dependance and even feel guilty of just thinking about it. Also in the other hand my cousins have lots of children without thinking about how they are going to provide for them and keep sharing with me that they don’t have enough money to send they daughters to school or that their husbands have no job etc. And whenever I help them Its under the expense of my own needs and I end up feeling angry at myself I am currently in a stage of life were I getting more and more angry at myself for this and want to stop getting worried about them and think only about myself for my own mental health but I am finding it so hard and cannot cut the vicious circle of emocional dependance that I have been stuck from such an early age. I am realising that I learned to be a good girl only if I am looking and worried about others and feel that I don’t know who I am if I don’t do that anymore.

    • gemmaburford says:

      Thanks for your comment, Elisa! It’s really challenging when we are raised as caretakers for other people and get into thinking that our sense of self-worth and identity comes to depend on our caring role. Two books that helped me a lot were ‘Codependent No More’ by Melody Beattie, and ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron. And two simple tips that I can give you from ‘The Artist’s Way’ are to write three pages of whatever comes into your head when you first wake up in the morning, and to make a date with yourself once a week to do something you really enjoy – put it in your calendar and treat it like an actual appointment! For me, those two steps, combined with walking in nature and visiting ancient sacred sites, were the beginning of the change. The thing to remember is that you HAVE to fill your own well first before you can help others effectively. You can’t keep giving and giving or you’ll burn yourself out.

  2. Kevin says:

    Thanks Gemma for a lovely reflective and thought provoking post. Having been through that mill myself I thought I was clear of that reasoning. I realised that I had failed to see some friends feeling trapped in the same situation. Now I can offer some useful comments to them.

  3. Helen says:

    Truth is so freeing and sometimes it requires real difficulty to see it. But regardless of the cost to us or others, we must embrace it or be untrue to ourselves. I am sure you have sown some very deep seeds, that will bring rich harvests. Not only to those you’ve given to, but to you. Nothing we give is ever lost, if we open our heart to receive.

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