I am generally on the giving end of most of my relationships. I do enjoy giving to others and doing people favors and I feel great happiness when I’m able to help someone out in any way. As is common with most people like me, I have a hard time asking anyone for anything. I try to be independent so that I don’t have to ask anyone for anything, even from my very own family. I know it’s very unbalanced but that’s how I am, and I was always OK with the way things were.
Last week I had a health emergency. Thank G-d, everything is alright now, but I had to call Hatzalah and they felt they needed to take me to the hospital. My son had to be picked up from a playgroup shortly, and my other two children were going to be getting off the bus very soon. My husband’s commute is over an hour, so I knew that he couldn’t get home in time for the kids.
Aside from that, since I wound up being in the hospital for two days, I needed help with certain errands for myself and my children while I was in the hospital. And even though I’m not crazy about asking anyone for a favor, I decided that being in the hospital was a good enough reason to start calling in some of my chips, as uncomfortable as it made me feel.
I started going down the list of the friends and relatives I’ve helped many times, for many years. These are people who know that if they are in a bind, they can call me and I’ll drop whatever I’m doing to help them out, even if it isn’t the most important thing in the world. I’ve helped people out in small ways and sometimes in very large ways. Not that I’m keeping score, but I wanted to reach out only to people who I felt would be happy to repay some of my thoughtfulness that I’ve extended to them over the years.
I cry as I’m writing this, but would you believe that of the two relatives and four really close friends (so I thought) I called, no one was able to help? Some of their excuses sounded plausible, but some were feeble if not downright pathetic. I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It wasn’t like I needed their help because I was on a cruise somewhere. I was legitimately not well. After crying to my husband over feeling so abandoned in my time of need, he told me to not worry, and that he would take off the next few days from work in order to hold down the fort. My husband only recently started at this new job, and I think we were both nervous about him taking time off, but we had no choice. I just couldn’t get myself to make any more calls and listen to any more rejections.
In terms of the actual day that I was taken to the hospital, I ended up calling a woman down the block who recently moved in. I barely know her but somehow she was the angel I needed, ready and willing to help with my kids that day until my husband got home from work. Ironically, as I said, I barely know her and never did her any favors, and yet she didn’t hesitate to help me out.
Now I’m starting to reevaluate myself and my friendships, wondering whether I’ve picked the wrong friends, whether I give off the wrong messages, whether I should learn how to say no in the future when someone calls me for a favor … In other words, this was a real lightbulb moment for me and for my husband. It felt deeply disappointing and extremely hurtful. I never want to go through something like this again. It cut me to the core. Should I tell my friends how they made me feel? Do I just move on and look for new friends? I’m not really sure what my next move should be in this regard.
Dear Schnook (I really don’t like that name!),
It’s unusual for any two people within a relationship to be totally equal in all ways, whether it’s between a husband and a wife, two siblings, or two friends. We each bring different things to the table, and so there is never absolute parity between what two individuals are willing to offer the other. And that’s fine, assuming that the gap between each individual’s nature isn’t remarkably contrary to the other. Because when it is, as you’ve just experienced, it does not feel good. And it really doesn’t work in a practical or emotional way.
Clearly, you’ve just had a painful experience. I’m assuming that from a physical perspective, all is good and you can put this awful experience behind you and hopefully not have to think about it again. However, it opened your eyes to a different issue that you believe needs to be dealt with. You have a number of questions, and they are all really good questions because when six out of six people let you down, something is wrong. There is definitely some kind of pattern going on and it’s time to take stock and figure out what it is and how it came to be.
So let’s start with you. Obviously, you are a kindhearted individual who enjoys helping others. I would hate to encourage you to be any less giving. It’s a beautiful trait and you need to hold onto it. However, it sounds as though you feel the need to put yourself last … always. As you mentioned earlier, when someone needs a favor from you, you drop everything in order to accommodate. Sadly, some people interpret your behavior as a statement that they matter more than you do. Not everyone would come to this conclusion, but clearly some people do. You’ve trained them to see you that way. They’ve fallen into the belief that you need nothing but are nevertheless always there at their beckoning.
When you are feeling a little less emotional, I do think it’s a good idea to discuss with your family and friends what this experience was like for you. They need to hear that you, too, have needs and feelings, despite possibly hiding those needs from them all these years. You will no doubt feel somewhat vulnerable, but if you’re not real with them, it’s hard to expect them to be real with you. I’m hoping that they will be able to really hear you and actually feel your pain. If not, it might be safe to say they are missing something necessary to qualify for the status of being considered a good friend.
Going forward, it’s important for you to try to understand yourself better and figure out why you feel you have to give so much more than you take from others in order to be considered friend-worthy. Do you believe your friends would still like you even if you weren’t the person they constantly call when needing a favor? And if not, why not? Why do you need to sell yourself in this way? And if it’s not about selling yourself and simply about loving to help out, why have you not allowed others the same satisfaction of helping you out (almost) equally?
Many of us fall into behaviors that seem like the right thing to do for all the right reasons. But when we start experiencing a nudge, and in your case it was more like an aggressive push, that something is totally off-kilter, it’s time to start observing and tweaking actions that aren’t really working very well and addressing the underlying issues that have gotten us to faulty outcomes. It’s as much about you as it is about everyone else.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone, Zoom, and FaceTime sessions. She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295. Read more of Esther Mann’s articles at 5TJT.com.