What is compulsive availability?

In the past I have tended toward what I call "compulsive availability." Compulsive availability is when you cannot stop yourself from responding to the desires and needs of others, even when it is causing harm to yourself.It's a coping tactic that keeps you from facing your fear of disappointing others. You might tell yourself:

  • I can't disappoint my kids, my friends, or my colleagues!
  • I can do it. I can get the job done.
  • Who will it really hurt if I bend over backwards just one more time?

Many women are hard-wired to want to care well for other people. There is so much going on in our world right now, the last thing any of us wants is to add more challenges to someone else's plate. You may justify your compulsive availability due to altruistic reasons. For example, you:

  • don’t want to break a commitment
  • desire to meet the needs that are presented to you
  • want to finish a job that you’ve started
  • don’t want anyone else to suffer as a result of your actions.

The problem is that compulsive availability may be keeping you from caring for yourself in the way God would want. (And, spoiler alert: it might not be good for the people you love, either.)

How do I know

Here's how to tell the difference between responsibility and compulsive availability: when showing up for others is causing harm to yourself.

If this is your situation, you might think of compulsive availability as an anxiety response.It's when your conditioning prompts you to always respond to the requests of others, even when it's you who needs your attention.


You might have to disappoint someone, and that might indeed cause him or her pain. But, that doesn’t always mean you are doing something wrong. In order to disappoint others with integrity, you must have a clear sense of the “Yes” you are moving toward, even as you say “No” to other people.Here are some good reasons to face your fear of disappointing other people:

1.) You or a loved one are going through a crisis and need space for your own healing.

2.) You have made new commitments at work, home, or church, which means you will need to scale back old ones.

3.) You are going through a major life transition, such as a move, a marriage, a divorce, empty nest, or having children.

4.) You are growing personally and healing parts of you that have related to others in unhealthy ways. Perhaps you have become aware of parts of you that have enabled other people. Or, you might have realized you’ve formed a habit of over-extending yourself. Extracting yourself from those relationship patterns may indeed cause disappointment, but growth requires it.

5.) You want to take more time to grow spiritually. God wants all of who you are. He won’t hesitate to nudge you toward more time with him and more time with yourself so that you can grow into more of who he made you to be. Stepping back to take more time to grow your roots deep might mean you have to disappoint other people.

Each of these items will require you to create space for yourself in new ways. When you create more space for healing and growth, you will inevitably disappoint other people. But remember: if it is good for you, it will also be good for those around you.

You can disappoint others with integrity.

Once you understand the healthy "Yes" you must say, you can then work on disappointing other people with integrity. The trick is to learn how to disappoint people without adding insult to injury. Here are some examples of how:

1.) Make a clean break.

If you have to let someone down, be clear and be kind. Don’t let it drag out. For example, if you have to end a commitment or a relationship, it’s better to be upfront about it. They might be hurt or angry, but they’ll also be free to move on apart from you.

2.) Don’t apologize if you haven't done anything wrong.

This is a hard one for many women. For example, I had to work hard not to "apologize" for my health situation, even though it was obvious that I had done nothing wrong. Instead of apologizing you might say, "I regret that I can't continue on with this group," or "As hard as it is, I have arrived at this conclusion."

3.) Don’t lie or make up excuses.

This is closely related to not apologizing. We tend to want to soften the blow by making up excuses that may seem more palatable to the other person. But, lying isn't good for you and it's not helpful to other people.If you have to back out of a commitment (or say no to one in the first place), try to state the facts as honestly and simply as possible. For example, you might say:

“I need some time to myself right now. I'll be 'off the grid' for awhile.”

“I have to pull back from this commitment for personal reasons. Here’s what I can do to support you as you find someone else.”

“I appreciate you, and I need to focus on my self/family/health. If you don't hear from me, please know I'm doing what is best for me right now."

"I won't be able to take on that project. In order to honor my existing commitments, I have to say "No" to this one."

4.) Don’t make it about you.

When you disappoint someone, it's OK for them to express their disappointment. If appropriate, respond with empathy, such as, "I know this is hard for you. I understand it is an inconvenience." You can honor their experience without apologizing, getting defensive, or backtracking. It’s also not their job to make you feel good about this decision you are making. If they do, that's wonderful. But, you are not looking for validation at this point. Your goal is to communicate honestly and effectively.

5.) Don’t take abuse.

While it’s not their job to take care of your feelings, it’s also never OK for the disappointed person to become abusive toward you. Letting someone down might bring up emotion. That’s OK, but if the emotions turn toxic, you can simply excuse yourself. If the relationship is worthwhile, you’ll work through it. If not, then it's better that you found out the kind of person you are dealing with.

As you face your fear of disappointing others, you gain humility and you gain confidence. You can’t please everybody around you, and it's not a healthy goal to set for yourself. Instead of pleasing others, learn the power of saying "Yes" to yourself and "Yes" to the life God wants for you.

“To obey is better than sacrifice.”—1 Samuel 15:22