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Do you feel taken for granted?

Since her days as a school prefect, Heidi Scrimgeour had prided herself on her diligence – until she started to feel taken for granted. Was it time to reform?

by Psychologies

Conscientious

6 minute read

Conscientious is my middle name. Not literally, obviously, but ever since my time as a school prefect, I’ve been proud of my a hard-working streak.

‘Conscientious’ was the word teachers wrote in my report, and I recall feeling a glow of satisfaction that they recognised how I threw myself wholeheartedly into my work. As an adult, I feel validated when an editor who needs a reliable – or 11th-hour-deadline writer – calls me.

It isn’t just a work thing. When my mates fancy a night out, I’m the one who makes it happen. I’m forever doing favours for friends and family – I can’t help it; we conscientious types are simply like this. And, while friends enjoy weekends with their feet up, I’m more likely to be mopping floors or sorting out sock drawers.

But, lately, I’ve begun to think that perhaps it isn’t doing me any favours. Instead of taking pride in being the person people call on to get something done, I’ve started wondering if they’re simply taking advantage of my can-do attitude. After all, other people are the ones who benefit most from my conscientious nature.

I recently volunteered to write marketing material for an associate’s business. I offered because I saw the need for the job to be done well, I had the necessary skills and it wouldn’t take up a huge amount of time.

But I started to feel that my contribution, although appreciated, wasn’t truly valued because, while other contributors were paid for their work, I was not. I felt short-changed.

Please walk all over me

I could see that my conscientiousness was to blame – if I hadn’t eagerly offered my services, I might have had the opportunity to be paid like everyone else. I felt I’d been labouring under the misapprehension that people thought of me as capable and conscientious when, in fact, they saw me as fair game when they needed a cheeky favour that savvier people would refuse them.

Maybe editors call on me when they need a piece written quickly – not because I’m quick and conscientious – but because other journalists would demand twice the fee to meet such a short deadline. Perhaps the school mums get me to organise drinks – not because I do it well – but because no one else can be bothered. And maybe my associate simply saw me as cheap labour and not a valuable asset to her business.

What’s the truth of these situations? Am I people pleasing at my own expense? And, if so, why?

I spoke to clinical psychologist Linda Blair. She says it’s important to distinguish between being conscientious and being a people pleaser because, while the two types of behaviour can look the same, the motivations behind them are different.

‘What matters isn’t what you are doing, but why,’ she says. ‘People pleasing suggests a lack of confidence, but what you describe sounds more like others recognising you as someone who gets things done.’ What’s key, she says, is whether I feel pressure to say yes when they ask for my input. I realise that I don’t – I’m perfectly capable of saying no to people when I want to.

Born this way?

Blair then suggests my conscientious streak may stem from my birth order. ‘Conscientiousness is a common trait in firstborn children,’ she explains. ‘The firstborn is the only child who starts out having complete parental attention, then loses it — and they develop a bit of an ache. They quickly learn that helping to care for younger siblings is one way to get back some of the attention they feel they have lost.

That resonates with me. I am not the eldest child in my family but I am the first girl and, having an older sibling with additional needs, it seems I’ve developed some characteristics typically associated with firstborns. I’ve taken on the ‘fixer’ role, forever organising others and volunteering for tasks, from hosting family parties to arranging office secret Santas.

‘This [dutiful streak] is also why firstborns typically do well in life but sometimes at great cost – because they always push themselves harder than they need to,’ says Blair. In itself, conscientiousness is no bad thing, she says, quite the opposite – it’s one of the ‘big five’ personality traits identified by psychologists.

Life coach Richard Harris agrees. ‘Conscientiousness is the biggest predictor of career success for most industries, so it’s a good thing,’ he says. ‘But your agreeable nature is probably costing you money.’

He’s right, and I’m determined to make conscientiousness work for me, not against me. That means valuing it in the first place and communicating to others that it’s a marketable skill for which I expect to be rewarded, not penalised. Harris continues: ‘People prone to agreeableness must do what is unnatural for them, and negotiate assertively.’ He recommends rehearsing negotiations with a friend or coach to help reduce anxiety over it.

But another aspect of all of this is that I want to allow myself more downtime – to switch off the conscientious me sometimes and relax. Blair explains that there are two dimensions to conscientiousness: industriousness (self-discipline and efficiency) and orderliness (a love of routine and tidiness). In terms of wellbeing, happiness and satisfaction, industriousness is beneficial but orderliness is not. She suggests I keep a note of the things I do for order, and to drop one habit every few days. ‘You may feel a shiver of naughtiness, like you’re getting away with something,’ she says. ‘When that happens, you’ll also feel a release of energy – direct that into an activity you want to do.’

To be or not to be…

I love that Blair’s approach means I don’t have to stop being myself. ‘If you’re the best at organising drinks, last-minute commissions or doing your friend’s marketing and you like doing those things, keep offering!’

It feels so good to reframe my conscientiousness as a strength and focus on channelling it towards doing things that give me satisfaction. It’s liberating to embrace my diligence but I also feel a new commitment to ask, without apology, for it to be rewarded when appropriate.

The prefect in me never realised you can be selectively conscientious. I have decided to step away from helping my associate market her business, and I feel no discomfort, just that shiver of naughtiness Blair mentioned. I’m learning to love that feeling and I look forward to working out how best to use the burst of energy that I know will follow. 

Image: Getty