Do you sell yourself short by being indispensable?


Alice Williams


Last night my partner’s family emailed me about to see if we were coming to a birthday event. “Why are they emailing me?” I asked. “Because you’ll remember and get organised, whereas they know I’ll just forget,” he said.

It’s not just birthdays, I’m the go-to person for family counselling, fridge re-stocking, remembering which friend has what dietary requirement at dinner and when the cat’s vet day is. When did I suddenly become so indispensable? But when I look around my friends I see a lot of women who were indispensable in their workplaces, families and social groups.

I asked a male friend if he felt the need to be indispensable. After a thoughtful pause he replied “I guess I’ve got two priorities.” Work and family? “Number 1. Doing as little unnecessary work as possible. And the other one depends on whether I’m hungry or horny.”

While my friend’s attitude hasn’t stopped him from progressing, somewhere along the line women have come to believe that if we’re indispensable, we’ll be rewarded. And somewhere we’ve given the impression that we’ll settle for compliments and approval instead of cash.


A friend of mine, a successful writer, knows this phenomenon only too well. “I get letters all the time saying ‘I love your work, now can you edit / help me write my book for free because I think you’d really enjoy it?’” Her partner, also a writer, gets fan letters and paid job offers, but no requests to work for free. “Is the assumption that he’s too busy? Or is it just that people think I’ll have endless time when it comes to being useful to others, because that’s what nice women do?”

Oddly enough, the people from whom I most feel pressured to be accommodating are other women, not just socially (my partner is apparently incapable of deciphering ‘bring a plate’), but also professionally. An editor I used to freelance for told me she’d budgeted $400 for my story, ‘but it would be amazing if you could help me out and do it for $300.’ Why would I need cash when I could be called amazing? Funnily enough she never tried the ‘because you’re a nice person’ card on my male colleagues.

“It was a shock to realise that looking after everything as I’d been taught to had left me a seething ball of resentment with a crap income, and chronic stress,” says my friend Marnie, an online entrepreneur. “It was only when I let everything go to hell in a hand basket that my business took off and my health improved.”

How to be utterly dispensable and happier for it?

1. Get used to not being liked

If being liked is like crack for women, then having someone ‘disappointed’ in you is like kryptonite.

“If you’re meeting everyone’s expectations, you’re not going to be meeting your own,” says Marnie. “Build up your tolerance for letting people down. Not caring if others think you’re a nice person doesn’t mean you suddenly morph into some nightmare megabitch. It means you act in accordance with your own values, and less in accordance with the values of others’.”

2. Let things fall apart in small doses

“We have this fear that if we don’t do it, it won’t get done. It’s painful to let things crumble around us, but worth it for long term gain. So a few people don’t get birthday cards for a while, and someone doesn’t have a matching pair of socks. Do YOU have matching socks? Yes? Then you’re all good.”

Channel Jessica Stillwell, The US woman went on household strike until her family started cleaning up after themselves. Sure, new life forms appeared in the kitchen, but her kids eventually picked up the slack.

3. Don’t do for others what they can do for themselves

“In being indispensable we’re denying others the chance to learn and take responsibility. How do you teach people to make their own breakfast and press the buttons on the washing machine? You let them wear stinky t-shirts go hungry and for a few days,” says Marnie.

4. Be kind because you want to – not because you have to

Being indiscriminately indispensable breeds resentment. “If you’re doing something you don’t want to do because you think that’s it’s expected of you, it lacks grace,” says Marnie. “I retrained my family not to expect me to turn up to everything. Sure, they thought I was anti-social for a while, but now when I go to things I’m genuinely happy to see everyone, rather than faking happy and feeling like a tired, grumpy martyr.”

5. Value your own stuff – be it work, hobbies, or free time.

Won’t pursue a hobby or interest because ‘family/kids/partner won’t give me the time’? If we wait for other people to value our interests or give us permission to follow them, we’ll be waiting forever. I invented a weekend yoga class I had to teach which was actually ‘sitting in a café reading’.

Marnie saw this firsthand when she was first trying to get her business off the ground. “There was the idea that I could drop what I was doing any time someone needed me, because my business was ‘just a hobby’ and I wasn’t earning any money from it. I had to decide to see that work itself as indispensable, even if others couldn’t. What I lost short-term in other people’s approval, I gained in self-worth. The people in my life just had to figure their own shit out for a while, which they did. I guess it made me realise I was more dispensable than I thought! And infinitely happier for it.”


Alice Williams is a Melbourne writer., @AliceWillalice



  • Excellent article and advice. I am now 64 years old and after reading your article have realised that not much have changed since I was a young girl. My parents brought me up to be polite, well-mannered, to never offend others and always put the other person's feelings ahead of my own. In my early 40s I decided that although well-meaning, my parents got it wrong and forgot to tell me that my feelings also matter and that I should also be treated with the same courtesy and respect that I show others. Maybe others viewed my niceness as weakness and took advantage of me. Mea culpa. Not to worry, I still treat others with respect but will also tell them to back off when they step over the line. Some people will always let others carry the burden if they can get away with it and in the end it's up to us to set the boundaries. Easier said than done with some people but here we go.

    Date and time
    September 11, 2013, 11:10AM
    • Or to summarise: Act like an alpha male.

      Date and time
      September 11, 2013, 11:56AM
      • I have to admit that I am exactly like this (especially points 2 and 3). I think I got it from my mother. I just feel like everything will fall apart if I don't keep on top of things.

        Real World
        Date and time
        September 11, 2013, 1:46PM
        • A fantastic list of advice, and advice that isn't necessarily limited just to the issue of being indispensable.
          There are so many articles that present themselves on this site that revolve around the issue of unfair judgements and expectations, where the two available options to address them are:

          - address your own personal value of and reactions to judgement from others, or;
          - change the entire world so that not a single person places any expectations upon you that you do not wish to have ever again

          Strangely it seems that so many continue to only see the Sisyphus-style option two.

          Date and time
          September 11, 2013, 5:21PM
          • Excellent article! The vast majority of women I know hold down full time jobs and run a full time household with all the coordination and hard work that entails, while their men get to watch tv, go to the pub with their mates, play sport, whatever they like. No wonder many women are reluctant to climb the corporate ladder when they have minimal support at home. We teach people how to treat us, and it's high time many of us starting teaching some new lessons.

            Date and time
            September 11, 2013, 5:26PM
            • This is so true.

              Date and time
              September 11, 2013, 7:09PM
              • "If you want something done, give it to someone who is busy". Why? It's obvious. Would you entrust an important task to someone lazy and idle?
                The paradox is, when you ask something of someone you KNOW has the time, they refuse you with "Sorry, I'm too busy". Yeah, busy watching tellie, playing games... actually, busy enjoying themselves!

                Date and time
                September 11, 2013, 9:33PM
                • Thanks for this article, Alice. It came at a good time for me today. I've been feeling crap since yesterday, when I made myself a little unpopular at work telling some people some home truths. As I said to a allied colleague afterwards, "The hard-working people were nodding. The ones throwing me daggers were the lazy ones."
                  The weight just dropped off my shoulders as I read #1. Thanks.

                  Date and time
                  September 12, 2013, 9:30AM
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