As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been the type of person who shows up when someone needs me in any way. I don’t think twice. Not only do I feel it’s my responsibility to help someone when in need, but I feel honored to be given the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. The more serious the issues, the better I feel about making a difference. It makes my life worthwhile.
Growing up with a sister and a brother, I was always aware that they weren’t as ready and happy about doing me any favors as I was ready to do for them. I considered them selfish and, after a while, even though it took great effort, I forced myself to be less ready to help them out. It made me sad that we didn’t have that kind of closeness, where we all had each other’s backs all the time and each was the go-to person for the other. This way of living went against everything I naturally believed in. But what could I do?
I’m now 48 years old and things haven’t changed for me all that much. Forget about my siblings; we’re all living separate lives and really don’t have a lot to do with one another. But when I look at my life — my husband, children, and even friends — I realize that I am constantly being disappointed. Honestly, I can’t think of one person I can count on to always be there for me in the way that I am there for them.
The disappointments have built and built over the years, and I’m at the point right now where I’m wondering if I’ve been so naïve my whole life, thinking that it’s a kind and generous world — because it’s not! For instance, my husband is a nice guy and we get along, but if, let’s say, I’m downstairs and he’s upstairs and he needs something from downstairs and calls down to me to bring it up to him, I don’t hesitate. But when the roles are reversed, he’ll say he’s busy. I know that’s a silly example, but more recently, I had an important doctor’s appointment that I was nervous about. I asked him if he could take off a half a day of work to go with me and he simply said that he couldn’t. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rearranged my schedule to be there for him.
My children are no better. They know they can call me day or night for a favor and, without question, I’d show up for them in any way they want. I so rarely ask anything from them, but when I do, the response, more often than not, is something like, “No, I don’t think that would work for me.” Do I ever wonder whether a favor for them works for me? I just make it work.
With friends, it’s not as extreme, since I so rarely ask for anything, but recently I had an emergency and needed help. I had to call five different friends until I was finally able to find someone willing and able to come through for me. However, when they’ve needed me in the past, it’s rare that I don’t come through.
So my question is whether I’ve gotten this wrong my whole life and whether it’s time to rethink how I live my life. Maybe I should start worrying more about myself, less about others, not be so quick to help out, and, as hard as it might be, learn how to say “no” to all the people who constantly bombard me for favors. My level of frustration has been mounting lately, and the inequity of it all is finally reaching a tipping point that is getting me down.
Though relationships rarely feel exactly equal, the imbalance shouldn’t be as starkly different as what you are describing. It sounds like something is very off in the way you show up for others and their disinterest in doing the same for you.
You sound like an exceptionally giving person and it has always felt right for you to be that way. You gained tremendous satisfaction from affecting the lives of others in meaningful ways, and that sense of fulfillment you experienced from helping others was something you enjoyed and cherished. So far, so good. The problem, perhaps, is that you taught others that you were all about giving and not necessarily about receiving. For better or for worse, we all teach others how to treat us. And it sounds as though the lesson you’ve taught the people in your life is that you will be there for them no matter what and, basically, they don’t have to feel any obligation toward you in return.
Though I understand that this is your natural state and comfort level, even the biggest “tzadeikes” among us needs some reciprocity, if only to feel that we also matter and are worthy of the respect that this signifies. So the question you really have to ask yourself is whether you can feel great about yourself because of all the good you do despite the fact that you are not receiving the same kindness from others. From your letter, it sounds as though that concept may have worked for you for a time. But for whatever reason, at this stage of your life, you are reevaluating your relationships, how they look and feel, and whether they need some readjustments. And it seems like they do.
It’s hard to change behavior. For you, it will take tremendous willpower to reign in your natural tendencies, but it is in your best interest to do so. That doesn’t mean that you have to become a selfish woman, one who cares only about herself, not that I believe that would be possible of you. But as easy as it might be, for instance, for you to run upstairs to hand something to your husband, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to question why he can’t come downstairs to get it himself. Or, when faced with an important appointment to which you would like your husband to accompany you, rather than just accept that he won’t come, stay with the conversation. Explain to him how much you need him by your side and how disappointed you would be if you had to go without him. Allow him to see you as a person with needs of your own.
Regarding your children’s reluctance to step up, it’s a fact of life in most families that parents tend to do more for their children in general than their children do for them. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t occasionally borrow their lovely line: “No, I don’t think that would work for me.” Let them understand what it feels like to hear “no” once in a while and maybe that would enable them to understand how you feel when they say “no” to you.
The same idea goes for your friends. You’ve clearly let it be known that you are someone who can always be counted on to help everyone else, and maybe the message includes a silly belief that you therefore need nothing from them. That’s got to change. Perhaps you need to be clearer about your needs, and, if necessary, maybe you need some new friends who have natures that are more similar to yours and therefore behave in a more thoughtful way.
There is work to be done as you subtly introduce the updated version of yourself. But through it all, be careful not to lose your essence — that kindness and generosity. You should never give that up because it is special and the world needs more people like you. However, fine-tuning is the key: a little more asking, a little less doing, and some conversations all around regarding your surprise or disappointment when you feel let down.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.