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Ask Izzy: Finding balance — Navigating relationships and personal boundaries

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Photo by cottonbro / Pexels
Photo by cottonbro / Pexels

Ask Izzy is a biweekly advice column about relationships, mental health, and sexuality. Written by Isabel Mata — a Seattle-based lifestyle writer, podcast host, and mental health advocate — Ask Izzy offers tangible expert advice so all readers can have stronger relationships, better sex, and healthier mindsets.

Dear Izzy,

My roommate is 32 and quit his job as a budtender without having any backup job. I got him working very part-time with a friend that owns a window-washing company, so he can make rent, which is less than $800. It's been over six months now, and he still hasn't found a full-time job. He doesn't put in the effort to get on food stamps either.

So the problem is that I buy all the food and make it. He won't do any dishes or clean anything in the house. I have to ask multiple times, and he still won't. I'm not sure what he does with his day, but my fiancé and I, who work full-time, have to do all the chores. It's like I'm mom and he's a teenage boy that expects people to just take care of him.

I don't want to be mean, because he has depression issues, but he spends money he doesn't have and doesn't take care of the things he needs to. What should I do?

— Resentful in Renton

Dear Resentful,

This sounds like quite the conundrum. Not only is someone you know clearly struggling, but it is starting to impact you and your own interpersonal relationships.

A few questions: How long have you known this person? How long have you been living together? Why did he quit his job? Did you have a conversation before moving in about splitting the tasks and responsibilities?

It sounds like this person has never had to take care of himself, and unfortunately as his roommate, it is falling onto you. While it's important to be empathic, I am sorry to say that your roommate is taking advantage of you.

You mentioned that your roommate has depression. Has he ever seen a therapist or psychiatrist? Does he realize how bad his self-care has gotten? If not, talk to him about it.

This reminds me of a situation I was in last year. I had a friend who also had severe mental health concerns (depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety), and it got to the point where I was being impacted by her inability to take care of herself. And as someone with my own mental illness, this then affected my well-being.

So, finally, after months of letting her lash out at me and then come running back apologizing, I decided that enough was enough. I set a boundary that if she did not get professional help, then I could no longer be her friend and be there for her. While harsh, it was the wake-up call she needed to get her shit together.

Now, six months later, my friend is doing better than ever, and she is back in my life, albeit with boundaries in place to protect myself. I knew she wasn't a bad person and didn't mean to hurt me, but if I had kept letting her walk all over me, then I would have resented her and the friendship would have inevitably fallen apart.

I know your situation is a little different, but if you really care about your roommate, then you need to stop enabling this behavior. If this relationship is merely a roommate dynamic and you aren't close friends, then I would stop cooking, cleaning, and doing other chores for him until he starts to contribute.

It was really nice of you to find him a part-time job so he can continue to pay the rent, which I know impacts you, but if I were in your shoes, I would honestly start looking for another place to live or ask your roommate to find another place.

You can of course try and give him an ultimatum like I did, but if he has a track record of this type of behavior, then I am not sure it will do any good.

You have a good heart and are coming from the right place, but you need to save yourself before the whole ship sinks. Once you have established some stricter boundaries that protect you and your fiancé, I would also take some time to look inward and see if there are other relationships in your life that have played out similarly.

Do you identify with the term "people-pleaser"? A people-pleaser is someone who puts others' needs ahead of their own and, according to VeryWellMind, "can also have trouble advocating for themselves, which can lead to a harmful pattern of self-sacrifice or self-neglect." Does this resonate with you?

People-pleasing is a hard thing to overcome, but as someone who has unlearned a lot of this same behavior, I know it is possible.

Here are a few things you can practice if you want to unlearn any people-pleasing behavior that you may have taken on over the years:

Set clear boundaries: This might be hard at first, but you need to make it known that you have limits, and they are not to be crossed. One helpful tip from VeryWellMind is to "start by saying no to smaller requests, try expressing your opinion about something small, or ask for something that you need."

Set priorities for yourself: The number one thing I tell people is that taking care of yourself is the best thing you can do for those you love. This means your priority first and foremost should be taking care of your own well-being by practicing daily self-care. Once you've done that, you can decide where you want your energy to go. 
Since you are engaged to be married (mazel tov, BTW!), I think it's clear that your fiancé needs to be your second priority. Keep going down the list, and every time you get a request from someone else, ask yourself where this falls on your priority list. And stick to it!

I believe that you will make the decision that is right for you and your future, and do so in a way that is empathetic, kind, and compassionate. Stay strong, friend.

Cherry, K. (2023, March 21). "How to Stop People-Pleasing." Very Well Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/how-to-stop-being-a-people-pleaser-5184412