I had one of those dreams the other night that startled me awake and left me feeling cold. It was incredibly realistic featuring major characters from my life and the events in the dream, while disturbing and unpleasant, were entirely plausible. I woke up wondering if what I believe to be true about those closest to me are, in fact, realities or scenarios that I create to maintain the relationships.
As I grow older and try to tinker with my thinking and behavior, I find that there are certain fundamental characteristics that are virtually impossible to change. Yet, I will always challenge this thinking as I struggle to identify which of MY characteristics are the ones that should be kept around and which should be put out to pasture for retirement. Aspects of myself that I believe are positive and valuable often don’t interact well with others and create challenging dynamics. I generally turn inwards and look at what I can change in myself because I long ago realized that I cannot try to or expect anyone else to change for me. I am the only one I can truly influence and shifting my thinking and behavior is generally the best path for me to take. But I often wonder if I am continually exorcising parts of myself that were worthy and relevant for the sake of maintaining relationships or accommodating others. I like to believe that the universe will guide me in ways to understand myself better and guide me in my journey of self-improvement but, as a human, I often get lost in the weeds and lose sight of myself while I am busy looking at and taking care of everyone else.
As a child, being highly insecure and emotionally abandoned, I developed a belief that I had to somehow win or earn the love of others. It was never as simple as someone likes me and therefore they want to be around me. I always had to up the stakes. I had to prove value. With my family, I would always be the dutiful daughter or sister. Whatever anyone wanted, I would deliver. I was at their beck and call. My needs never came first because I had no idea what my needs were. I never luxuriated in those thoughts. My primary objective was to survive and be loved and I would do whatever it took. I suppose, perhaps, I was meeting my needs because what I needed was to be loved so I was working to achieve that. With my friends, I found myself bribing them. Either I would hand over prized possessions or do them favors or simply make myself indispensable. If they needed me and saw that I brought value, they were less likely to toss me aside. This, of course, all coming out of the mind of an immature girl who didn’t understand real social dynamics. Because of much more than the trauma I experienced as a child – because of how I am hardwired – I knew only one way to interact with others. I put myself last.
When I went to therapy as an adult, I learned to find words to describe how I operated. I called myself a chameleon. I changed my skin to adapt to my surroundings in hopes that I would blend in and survive. I had few opinions about what I liked or disliked because I never took the time to figure that out. I was too busy jumping on everyone else’s bandwagon so they would accept me. I didn’t gain perspective on who I was as a person because I could shape shift myself into whatever you needed me to be. This worked well for me professionally because I could take nearly any job and figure out how to do it well. I was so moldable and so incredibly adaptable to any situation. And, on the inside, I was lost. I developed a series of relationships, both romantic and platonic, where I was a tool. I had little control over the dynamics and simply allowed myself to be led around, obeying all the orders and incapable of making decisions. What right did I have to choose? I took what I could get and smiled about it. And I became empty, perpetuating the cycle of behavior because I was always looking for something to fill me up and did whatever I believed I had to in order to make that happen. I simply could not see how destructive and demeaning the pattern was.
As I have grown older and matured, learning more about the roots of my behavior, this is one of the areas of my life I have spent a great deal of time thinking about because it’s a featured element of my personality. On the plus side, I have managed to extract some very meaningful elements that I am quite proud of. Conversely, I, unfortunately, still carry many remnants of that girl who felt like she had to win love. I have managed to harness the power by showing gratitude. I am almost neurotic about acknowledging others who do things for me. I take great pride and pleasure in this element of my life because I am modeling behavior that I believe is at the core of who I am in a very powerful and meaningful way. While my gratitude is completely authentic, I do admit that I am still surprised when someone actually goes out of their way to do something nice for me without being asked. Because of my roots, this stills feels sadly unfamiliar. I take responsibility for my part in that because I have learned to expect little from others and even control situations so that I limit my ability to be disappointed. I do all the nice things and never expect anything in return. I go out of my way to take care of others, and rarely ask for help, trying hard to avoid any situations where I need to rely upon others to help me. Yes, I’m still broken.
But things are different for me nowadays. I still demonstrate many of the same behaviors as when I was a child but they are packaged differently and they are processed differently. I no longer believe I have to buy the affection of others but it has become second nature to me to go out of my way and do things that are so above and beyond what is expected. This is a source of pride for me and has become my calling card, my signature. I don’t do it for everyone but, for those I care most about, there are few boundaries. And therein lies a bit of a landmine for me. I do take pride in this part of who I am and I worry that I create a dynamic that gets taken for granted. I begin to feel obligated and, even those closest to me become oblivious to my good-naturedness and start to develop an expectation. I become the catchall. I am always there. Always available. I am the trusted resource – something that has become a bit of a double-edged sword for me.
Admittedly, people confuse me. As much as I can observe and analyze behavior and dynamics from afar, I have great difficulty in understanding people when they are up close, under my nose. I lose the gift of perspective. Just when I think I have someone figured out or feel confident about my feelings, things shift and I am once again trying to gain my footing. It is those times that I rely upon my core skills, my rudimentary behaviors. Show value, be grateful. I never trust that just being me is enough. I always have to take it one step further. And, sometimes that is a great thing and makes me very special and magical. And, sometimes it is very, very bad.
For me, the challenge is to really see people. The closer you are to me, the harder I struggle. My husband, my children, my close friends. There are no boundaries. There is a connective tissue that runs through these relationships that prevent me from separating myself. I often cannot see if they are taking me for granted and, generally, I really don’t care. Until I do care. And when that bell has been rung or that switch has been flipped, I am changed. It hurts me to my core and feels like betrayal. You have taken the gift that I so generously offer and have abused it. It’s not always their fault and I have to monitor that closely. And, in truth, I know that I can never unring that bell. I can not unknow what I have figured out. I struggle to overcome being taken for granted because it cuts so deeply. It is so jarring when I figure it out and the pain is extraordinary. The signs are usually all around me and I ignore them but the neon billboards tend to shine more brightly and the noise gets louder until I am forced to pay attention. And then, I’m done. I break. I’m finished. It is time to move on.
This is a cycle of behavior I am trying hard to improve by doing things differently. By being more present and aware. By not allowing myself to fall into those traps of ubiquitous compliance. By demanding more from others. By expecting more in return. But, I cannot change who I am at my core. I cannot stop being the little girl who was programmed to comply in order to be loved. I can intellectually evaluate my relationships and the situations surrounding them to try to make better decisions but I simply cannot change the essence of me. I will continue to seek out those who appreciate me for who I am and love me for my quirks. I will continue to try to avoid those who don’t appreciate all that I bring to the table and take advantage of my kindness and generosity and emotional availability. I will not be hardened or change my innocent vulnerability because that is part of what makes me special.
And I will not be taken for granted. By anyone.