Who Has to Learn to Exist?

Lisa Martens


Photo by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

Short answer: I do. People pleasers do.

As a child, I was in foster care. I lived with various relatives. I eventually came to live with my biological parents, but both of them believed strongly in hustle culture. My job was school—I had to do well.

I remember minimizing myself and my needs. I remember being angry at having epilepsy because that meant I was causing problems for my parents. I felt guilty for existing. I didn't want anyone to have to feed me, to take care of me. I felt uncomfortable with having needs and often wanted to disappear.

I was always very independent. I made breakfast for myself and packed my own lunch. My aunt remembers me pouring myself a bowl of cereal when I was four. I was proud of myself for not being like other kids...kids who were so, so needy. I was independent. I didn't cause problems.

As I got older, I realized that what I thought was a strength...was actually a weakness. I had problems existing. I had problems making my needs known. I had problems being open with people and with saying no to others.

Some Struggles with Existence:

1. I can just exist, and I do not have to earn the right to exist.

I used to think everyone had “jobs.” Everyone had to do their job, otherwise they didn’t deserve to exist.

This was taught to me by a number of sources, and I’m sure it’s something many people struggle with. Self-love demands that you love yourself even when you’re not productive.

I used to overwork because it was the only way I could justify existing. I had meaning, because I was productive. I had two, even three jobs, and that meant I was doing the right thing.

Asking for help? Living for free? Receiving assistance? These were all bad words to me, even as a child.

As such, I never felt relaxed or safe. Now, I see the value of feeling safe.

I used to feel like I was in some kind of debt as a human being. I had to crawl out of this hole by working and by being good enough.

That’s not true. It’s okay if I exist as I am. I do not have to earn relaxation by overworking.

It feels strange to even type that, because it’s a believe I held for so long, and it’s a belief that many people still feel is correct. I no longer feel that way.

The work I do, I want to do. I want to do what I want with my life. My life is not something to sacrifice. I am not a martyr…nor do I want to be.

I didn’t ask to exist, but I do. And I’m okay with existing without feeling guilty about it.

2. I can have my own problems.

As I was growing up, I was unwilling to make decisions that would have a long-term impact. I did not want to commit, or have children, or even pick a career.

Why? Because I felt like I couldn’t have my own problems. My parents had problems. Other adults and other people had problems.

I had to stay as a somewhat free agent to help others with their problems. If I committed to a particular way of life, that was me being selfish.

I thought having my own life and my own problems made me a selfish person. Then I came to realize—It’s okay to be a little selfish.

It’s okay to have problems that are mine. It’s okay for me to try a career path that is unusual. It is okay for me to have my own problems that stemmed from my own decisions.

I can have my own problems…it’s a part of existing, and everyone has problems.

I do not have to keep myself problem-free so I can adopt the problems of others. I am capable of making my own mistakes, thank you very much.

3. It's okay for me to take up space, have preferences, and decide what to do with my own life.

I still struggle with the anxiety of taking up space. I once starved myself to be as small as possible. I never wanted to say what I wanted, out of fear of seeming “needy.” For a long time, being “needy” has the worst thing I could be.

But everyone has needs. Everyone is needy! I do not have to pretend that I do not have needs.

This has only hurt me in the past. I have been in relationships—with family, friends, and romantic partners—where I pretended I did not have needs or feelings. And this actually just attracts terrible people. Not having clear boundaries or needs attracts the kinds of people who will cross boundaries and who will not try to fulfill needs.

4. I do not have to be liked by everyone, and that does not threaten my existence.

As someone who, at an early age, tied being invisible to survival, I became a people-pleaser. I would hear judgments and then internalize how to be good. I would change depending on who I was with, not out of any real intent to deceive them, but I tied being liked to having a place to live.

I remember thinking I had to have friends as a part of my “job” of going to school. I felt afraid, often for what appeared to be no reason. I had a family and a home. I went to good schools.

So why did I live in constant fear? Why did I need people to like me? Why does that continue to plague my life?

I have to get used to the idea that not everyone is going to like me and not everyone has to. Also…my survival doesn’t depend on it. I can have a few close relationships, a job, and live my own life. Not everyone will approve of what I do, and that’s okay.

5. I can say no and people can be upset with me.

This goes with the second issue, the idea that I cannot have my own problems because I need to help others with theirs. Once I decide to exist and have my own issues, this means I will have to say no to others. They will ask me for something, and I will have to decide if I can or should do something. I will have to make decisions in my own best interests.

This is difficult for me because for most of the beginning of my life, I minimized my needs. I thought being needy was bad, and I had to work to earn the right to exist. Moving from that way of thinking toward a more existence-positive mindset...by that I mean not just being okay with existing, but actively making decisions that are good for me...has been and will probably continue to be very difficult.


I had issues validating myself.

I needed the approval of others, and I tied that approval to survival. This was why it was extremely difficult for me. It wasn't as simple as wanting friends...because actually, when I started these behaviors, it was difficult for me to make friends. It was something I felt forced to do. I did it because I was afraid.

I believe being in foster care and having multiple caregivers contributed to a fear of abandonment. Sacrificing my needs to be my own person came after survival. This is how I became stuck thinking always in terms of survival.

Now, the struggle is to learn to be my own person. To meet my own needs and to understand them. Not just to exist...but to thrive on my own.

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