How to stop guilt about putting your self first
August 31, 2016 7:50 PM   Subscribe

What helped you stop fearing that you're a bad person for putting your needs before others wants, when those people were really suffering? (Context: relatiobships)

I've just ended a relationship with someone who was clearly suffering a lot mentally, but that was draining a lot of my energy. I love and care for him but can't fix him and was not happy with the relationship because of his current lifestyle and how it was impacting on my life, which also led to a lack of sexual atraction that I felt and still feel guilty about.

I've ended others for similar reasons (alcoholism, depressed but refusing to seek support for mental health etc)

All of these people bar the most recent have felt abandoned/betrayed/let down by me - the last one has reassured me that he doesn't feel that way but it has been me feeling as if I have done this, even though I am much happier being out of the relationship.

I still feel selfish, uncaring and unsupportive for putting my needs first when people have had horrible life experiences, but recognise that this is unhealthy thinking.

I am terrified though that other people will hear what happened, weigh up the details and decide that I'm a bad person. I'm scared that maybe I am, because these people have had tragedy in their lives and I have been very lucky in mine and that I should have been able to be a more loving partner.

What have you done to change this pattern? What helped?

(Booking back in for therapy today btw)
posted by Chrysalis to Human Relations (17 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I am terrified though that other people will hear what happened, weigh up the details and decide that I'm a bad person.

There are in fact people who will do this. That I can promise you (as someone who has been in similar shoes). Would it be the end of the world? Other people--the kind of people you want in your life--won't.* A good place to find these other people would be an AlAnon or ACOA meeting (you don't have to be in a current relationship with an alcoholic to qualify for AlAnon btw), or even just a good therapist if the 12 step model leaves you cold.

*Here's the great thing about the folks that fall away or that you have to walk away from when you make self-care decisions they don't agree with: healthier people take their place, and it's easier and easier to stop feeling guilty for breaking out of a pattern of being shoved into the savior/martyr/compassionate whipping post role. Also, it's not the worst thing in the world if folks primarily looking for a "fixer" can sense a "no vacancy" sign in your life for that dynamic. At first there's fear, pain, and loss, and even grief and (healthy) anger over lost time, but then--I can't even tell you what a relief it is to be on the other side. It's a pattern/stage of your life that can be left behind for healthier, happier pastures.
posted by blue suede stockings at 7:58 PM on August 31, 2016 [9 favorites]

Good for you for taking the steps to break up!! That is a HUGE step towards putting yourself first. You could call it "putting yourself first" or simply taking care of your own needs. I've been there, done that, and have been working hard now at avoiding ever doing it again. Or, realistically, be aware of my own patterns and tendencies and those in others. It's an ongoing process and I know your therapist can help you reflect and make progress. Rome wasn't built in a day and neither was prioritizing self-care after having spent years of doing otherwise. But it's totally do-able!! And the more little steps you make, the greater overall confidence you feel and the easier it is to stay on track.

For now I'd keep reminding yourself that, while you may have your doubts, you made the right choice here. I find talking through my decisions with friends and family helps because they can mirror my speaking and also advocate for me when I have trouble advocating for myself. This technique may or may not be effective for you depending on your personality and support system but it's helpful for me. I also find articles on self-care, about setting boundaries, and gaining confidence to be great little reminders.
posted by smorgasbord at 8:03 PM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Your purpose isn't to sacrifice yourself to help people who don't want to help themselves. Maybe now's the time to read or reread the Emotional Labor Thread.
posted by quince at 8:06 PM on August 31, 2016 [16 favorites]

I've had a lot of trouble with this in the past. I am a people pleaser - well, I like to please everyone excepting myself, as I very often don't feel that I deserve pleasure. It sounds like we are perhaps a bit similar in this respect.

A few things that have helped me:
- Self-care. I've started to view self-care as a necessity, not as a luxury. For me, self-care includes but is not limited to: engaging in a hobby, buying myself nice things (tools for my hobby, good chocolate, clothes that fit and make me look good), taking warm baths, going on walks, eating fresh fruit... the list is long. In fact, when I was young, I once felt very sad, and I took a large sheet of paper and wrote a list of everything that made me happy onto it. And then I added another large sheet of paper, and another. Why not list out the things that bring you joy, the things that make you feel good, and start trying to fold them into your routine?
- Therapy. Oh, therapy. Reading lots of books. Thinking a lot about my place in the world. Feeling the feelings that I held inside somewhere from when I spent time with partners that wanted me to be smaller, or with partners that did not really love me. Feeling anger, processing that anger, feeling sad, etc. Working through my emotions with a good therapist is incredibly valuable. If nothing else, it gives me space every week where I am supposed to focus on myself. As part of this, I also learned to pay attention to my feelings when not in therapy sessions, and to use my feelings as information as I interact with the world and other people in it.
- Aging. As I get older, I care less about what others think of me. I do not have time for people who think they know my life better than I do, people who think that the limited information they have about me is enough to pass judgment. I've started to realize things about what I will and will not put up with simply as time slips away.
- Being kind to myself, which is closely related to both therapy and self-care. Saying nice things to myself, and removing things from my life (so many mirrors, for example!) that seemed to cause me to say unkind things about myself to myself.
- Getting a hobby! Hobbies are awesome. A social hobby, one where you interact with other people, can be really great. I knit and make a point to attend "knit nights" every week in my area. Knitting makes me feel competent, and it has given me access to a large group of people who are very different than the people I typically interacted with. I didn't just have partners that treated me poorly; I had friends who treated me badly as well. Getting a social hobby connected me with people who were a lot more mentally healthy than my previous friends. From these people, I learned a lot about healthy relationships simply by observing them and by experiencing interactions with them.
- Reading the book Codependent No More by Melody Beattie. Wow. WOW. I figured out that a lot of what was going on with me had to do with my excessive need for control - which manifests in literally every area of my life, so the fact that I didn't think it was part of this puzzle until reading this book is interesting - and that this was not a good pattern for me, or for others.

Best of luck to you. I am very proud of you for doing something that was difficult but necessary - leaving your ex was an act of self-care - and wish you all the best.
posted by sockermom at 8:20 PM on August 31, 2016 [12 favorites]

I feel this real hard. I had a very close friend who had many issues including intense mental health stuff, most likely problem drinking (he was very mean to me when drunk or even just drinking), homelessness and even when housed, the constant threat of homelessness, not being able to see his kids, and also, extreme tendency to mansplain to me all the time and rely on me to do all the emotional labor in the friendship. It was one of the hardest things in my life to distance myself from that, but the defining moment was when I realized that not only was I not getting anything from the relationship anymore (it had started well), I was actively being harmed by allowing myself to be subsumed by his pain and suffering and filling my life with it.

My realization was that if a relationship doesn't fulfill me in some way and contribute joy to my life, and is actually making my own mental health worse, it's not wrong for me to save myself, "the only life you can save," as Mary Oliver said.

Relationships need to be equally satisfying and consume a fairly equal amount of emotional energy for each person. It's okay to let go of something that's far too heavy to carry. It isn't your job to carry that weight, it's the other person's job to carry themselves.

Things that helped me be okay with this: seeing how much happier and less anxious I felt without him. Letting go of the massive guilt I had that I was housed and he was not. Allowing myself space from that entire situation reinforced that I need my health more than anything else. Filling my life with friends who are able to support me in return and that I don't feel irrevocably sad around.

Take care of your pink little heart, an old friend used to say.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 8:28 PM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Everyone else will cover the rest comprehensively, so I'll just throw this out there:

All of these people bar the most recent have felt abandoned/betrayed/let down by me

No shit! You dumped them! Being dumped sucks! This is universal! There are songs! books! movies! You could dump the most emotionally stable person in the world and they're probably gonna feel let down. Unpack the rest of the issues in your question for sure, but please unload some of this burden by recognizing that the majority of one's romantic relationships end, most end unilaterally, and dumping and being dumped suck no matter what else is going on with either of you.
posted by good lorneing at 8:31 PM on August 31, 2016 [8 favorites]

A (therapy) professor told us (something like): Imagine you're a well. Many of us give water and give water and give water to anyone who needs it. We are so concerned about other people's needs that we pick up the moss at the very bottom of our wells and wring that out to give other people water. How is that sustainable?

We need to refill our wells. We need to take care of ourselves and do those things that fill up our reserves. We need to give water to others -- but only that water that is so abundant that it's overflowing our own wells.

What are you doing to refill your well?
posted by lazuli at 8:34 PM on August 31, 2016 [7 favorites]

Perhaps this will help relieve some of your guilt: you are not, and never are, the savior of your partner. Many here would relieve you of any burden you feel to be holding together the life of someone else. Some of the best relationship advice I've received is that if you are looking to your partner to help you feel self-actualized, whole, or complete, it's destined for problems. Additionally (and I think a reasonable corollary), if your partner views your relationship as something that he needs to "fix" his life, it is also not a healthy view of a relationship. As such, you should never feel as if you are in a relationship where you solve the problems of other people, versus both people being responsible for their own stuff, yet being there for each other as a support, rather than a solution.

If there are emotional demands being placed on you such that you cannot be healthy, and as such not the flowerbed for love in ways that overflow out of your genuine affections and desires, you can feel okay knowing what your limits are. Besides this, you don't need a publicly approved reason to not continue a relationship with someone else. If you don't want to do it, or it doesn't feel right, you can simply say it was not a good match. It's nobody else's business what lead to it.

I found that when I felt like you feel, it was often grounded in feelings of shame or illegitimate familial obligation that crossed boundaries when I was younger. It's hard to shake those feelings of guilt, because they get wired into us as "normal" life patters. It might be worth asking if there was a time when feelings of obligation to the emotional needs of others started, and whether it's worth considering if there were better ways to reframe who was actually responsible for what, if you were to give advice to your younger self.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:38 PM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

these people have had tragedy in their lives and I have been very lucky in mine and that I should have been able to be a more loving partner.

"Be a more loving partner" sounds like code here for both "doing all the work for both sides" AND "be able to suffer more" which is codependence personified. Oh, if only you could put up with more of their crap! No, that's not a thing to aspire to, and not a thing to be proud of when you do it.

No amount of loving is going to change someone's lifestyle, you can't strain hard enough to make them want to change it.

And, it takes away all the other person's agency. They're not a Barbie doll; they get to choose the lifestyle they want. They get to be how they choose to be, and they get to choose how much they care about your feelings. You get to like it or go.

It's your job in life to be self-ish. Your job is to take care of you first and others second, and for other people to take care of themselves first and you second. That's what being an adult is. And other adults - actual grown-up ones - know that. It doesn't matter what shitty people say about you, because they are shitty. Selfish isn't an insult, it's a fact of life. ("You're selfish" usually means "I'm mad you won't do the thing I want!")

There's no obligation in life for "lucky" people to partner up with people with problems. Surely you would consider that an absurd requirement for someone else - does Oprah have an obligation to dump Steadman and go find the seventh most put-upon person in the country to be with instead? Should all happy couples be forced to split up to more evenly distribute their happiness to the less fortunate?

(I mean, sure: there are circumstances so bad you should wait to leave. But you can't wait forever. And when even the other person is all "no no, you did the right thing", that's kind of a sign.)

It can help to "follow the money", so to speak: what's your payoff? If you stay longer and suffer harder, do you get more Heaven Points? Do you get to ignore your own issues in favor of someone else's more distracting ones? Does it guarantee an unending source of being needed instead of participating in the intimacy of give-and-take? What are you getting out of it?
posted by Lyn Never at 8:41 PM on August 31, 2016 [7 favorites]

So I am not completely recovered from this, and, I come from a collectivist sort of culture, and I do believe sort of fundamentally that I (and we all) should be our brother's keeper. I think support matters, connection and community matter. And I'm still not so great at resisting the urge to be "helpful". But I am much better. It took

1. Really getting the fact that as much as I wanted to, as hard as I tried, I just couldn't make any horse drink the water if it didn't want to.

You ever get the idea that someone you care about should do something (much more banal than not drinking) that you think will improve their life? You wish your mom would start exercising, say. You send her links to informative websites. You ask if she'd like to join you at a Zumba class (because you know she likes dancing). Nope, Mom is not up for it. She's tired, she's got no time, she's got tons of reasons.

Three years later, you learn that she is thrilled to be spending her pre-breakfast time beating her score on her Wii Fit. She loves it, she's got tons of energy, her sleep is better. What the heck? You gave her the info, you knew it would help. But the timing wasn't right three years ago. And she couldn't have cared less about Zumba (and it really was poorly scheduled for her). When she wasn't so tired, and had reached her own tipping point and felt open to the idea of fitness, she saw a Wii Fit display, and that looked neat to her (because she likes games and is competitive), chatted to the charming kid selling it, and that was it.

People do things when they're ready, if they're going to, and they do them for themselves. It's the only way it works. It is also disrespectful to assume you know what's best for others. (You can be wrong about things, too.)

2. Realizing that getting sucked into someone else's drama made me less able to be helpful in a way that was actually helpful. It's good to empathize, good to bear witness. But suffering along with people to the point that you're hindering your ability to be of any actual use doesn't do anyone any good. That's two people taken down. In caring for yourself, you are better positioned to contribute to your loved ones and community. Can you take care of someone unwell if you're sick yourself? Can you give someone a loan if you're broke? Nope, you cannot.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:01 PM on August 31, 2016 [10 favorites]

Guilt is a small price to pay for freedom.

It takes some work to decide to live with the guilt and the bad opinion of others. It's okay to feel a little guilty or defensive or whatever and that doesn't make your decision wrong. A bit of guilt doesn't kill us and it's not necessarily a problem to solve.

(I am working on this also.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:08 AM on September 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

It doesn't sound as if you were married to these people, or as if you'd made a permanent life commitment to them. Even if you HAD been married, there is a point where someone's inability or refusal to try to help themself is their way of breaking a vow to the partnership; and so even in marriages, dissolution of the bond can then be unavoidable to preserve your own mental health.
But that's in a marriage. It sounds as if these were relationships that had not yet reached the stage of permanent vows. In these cases, it is actually your obligation to yourself to end it when you recognize that it isn't going to sustain you permanently. Relationships like this -- even when passions and emotions are intense -- are implicitly in a probationary period, until they aren't. You really don't need to feel guilty for leaving when you realize it isn't your life partner, even without doing all the work you'd put in before leaving an actual life partner.
posted by flourpot at 3:24 AM on September 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

People do things when they're ready, if they're going to, and they do them for themselves. It's the only way it works. It is also disrespectful to assume you know what's best for others. (You can be wrong about things, too.)

Exactly this. I am a pleaser and even though I am a grown-ass woman was raised in an environment where it was my kid-job to basically appease grown-ups who could never be totally happy (one drunk, one narcissist) and never take responsibility for that fact. Poor kid me, that was tough.

So I make bad choices in partners sometimes (not lately! more on that in a minute) and I have some emotional vampires for friends (in addition to my other friends) and I do live with a lot of guilt that I am not doing enough, I have a lot of energy and a pretty good life. I've also gotten better at boundaries and how to tell if the amount I'm doing is appropriate or really overblown. I mean I literally can't tell if I am doing too much or not enough, almost always, it's a weird feeling.

Things that help me:

- as cotton dress sock says, sometimes all you do is prime the pump to help someone make their own decision later. Short of your own children (maybe?), other people need to come to their own decisions in their own time. It's a problem if you think you can wrestle people to better life choices through your own force of will, and it's a classic thing adult children of alcoholics do (often because it's the lie the alcoholic told them "I need you to save me!" fuck those guys)
- sometimes people aren't going to like you and ultimately there should be higher bars in the world than just being liked and you can decide what those are. That is to say that being likeable is a good trait but making that the most important one of all can be a little self-abnegating. Think about what else you want for yourself.
- sometimes you need to actually not believe things people say. This is hard. I want to trust people and I want them to be honest with me but I've definitely heard "I can't live without you" and "You are my only friend" and "If you're not here for me, then no one is" and at some level that may be a true feeling for them but it may not literally be a true statement. And you're not a bad friend/partner if you make your own assessment of the situation.

I am much happier being out of the relationship.

Your happiness matters and should not take a backseat to the needs and feelings of others. People feel bad when they are broken up with, sure, they may even dump that on you, that's normal. You then having your own assessment about whether you feel like you handled yourself well and were decent to them is your own job.

I have a partner now who is an LDR partly because I fell in love with someone who didn't live in my town but also because this helps me with boundaries and not basically being the "fixer" for all of his stuff. We're committed in a relationship but he runs his own household and I run mine and when his life got overwhelming, I helped him with it for a decent amount of tie but then was like "You know, this is too much, you need therapy" and he got some and it was helpful. If someone's life requires two people to run it (absent children), that is not really a functioning life and functioning adults need to step up if that is the situation they're in.

Perspective helps, talking to friends or MeFi or even a therapist to help get your compass a bit more settled in a normal area. I still think I may be one of the most selfish people there is, but my friends don't agree and that may just be one of those feelings that I have to sit with and not having it turn into something I have to DO anything about.
posted by jessamyn at 5:26 AM on September 1, 2016 [9 favorites]

it's a classic thing adult children of alcoholics do

True also of adult children of people with some mental illnesses or personality disorders, or who grew up in high-conflict households

posted by cotton dress sock at 6:47 AM on September 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

Time away helps, if you can fill that time with things you care about and want to be involved with. Also, if you had stayed in these relationships long enough, chances are eventually the guilt about potentially breaking up would've worn off, leaving you so sick of being drained and miserable from the relationship that you wouldn't even care anymore. In my experience, it's easier to end a bad relationship when that happens, but I think it leaves you feeling more damaged from the overall experience. It made me less likely to backslide, but I definitely felt raw and horrible about the entirety of that relationship for a long time after I ended it.

Know that it isn't your job or responsibility to pull other adults out of the various life holes they get themselves into via a romantic relationship, especially when they haven't shown by their actions that they're willing to do their part to get themselves out of that hole. Also, know that while it is painful for both parties for a relationship to end, ultimately it's probably for the best for both of you, even your partner. It puts him in a position where he has to do something to make his life better because now you're not going to do it for him. It might be that he still won't manage to ever improve his situation. But that has nothing to do with you.
posted by wondermouse at 7:07 AM on September 1, 2016

This quote actually changed my life:

“If your compassion does not include yourself it is incomplete.”

I've seen it attributed to the Buddha/various Buddhist figures. I don't actually know who said it for sure, but it's brilliant.
posted by stockpuppet at 7:56 AM on September 1, 2016 [8 favorites]

Love needs to be symbiotic, not parasitic. If all the benefits accrue to them and all the costs accrue to you, it is not love.

I learned to feel okay about walking away because you aren't doing them any favors by helping them become a better parasite. That doesn't make them a better person.
posted by Michele in California at 10:08 AM on September 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

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