Sometimes I need a caretaker myself...
May 14, 2007 10:36 PM   Subscribe

Some people seem to hold different expectations of me than they do of others. I used to think it was in my imagination, but lately a few of my friends confirmed that they've noticed it too. How can I make this stop? I need to be allowed to be human. Just because I'm a strong woman, doesn't mean I want to always HAVE to be.

&I have had a life of many ups and downs. Bad childhood, etc. As an adult I've done a lot of good stuff I've also made a lot of mistakes. No different than anyone else. Sometimes I'm strong, sometimes I'm not. Sometimes I'm happy, sometimes I'm not. Blah blah blah. I'm a good person though... I know that. Problem is, I've had to be a source of strength for other people so often that when I am feeling weak or that I need other people to be my source of strength or understanding, sometimes either they aren't there or they act disappointed that I'm being human. It's like just by me being human, I let them down because I'm not supposed to be. In turn, I've realized that it's prevented me from feeling comfortable with asking for help or support when I should be able to, which can be kind of lonely and scary at times.

The other day my Arabic teacher said to me "You're unflappable! Nothing ever gets to you! I don't know how you do it!" and I thought... no, actually I'm not at all unflappable. And I don't want to be, either. He meant it as a compliment, but it kind of bugged me.

This has caused me problems for years and it's frustrating. Here are a few examples:

• Years ago I took off work to nurse my ex-boyfriend like a pampered baby after he had a root canal (even though I've had four of them myself). But when I was bedridden & upset after I found out that I shouldn't have children because of a severe ruptured disk in my spine (my body can't handle the weight of carrying a child), he basically laughed it off, telling me that I was just being a whiny baby. He didn't help me when I was bedridden at all, insisting that I didn't need him to. (Yes, he is an ex -- no need to tell me to break up with him.)

• I have a few friends who I always counsel during times of trouble. I am their sounding board. But I notice that when I'm upset about things, they don't give me the same ear I give them, it's as though they assume I'm fine and try to change the topic back to themselves instead of trying to comfort me. Either that or they act like they're worried that I'm losing it. And I have to assure them that just because I have problems that I am sorting through and I'm not feeling my best doesn't mean I'm "losing it."

• Of my mother's five children, at 32 I virtually stopped my life to become my mom's sole caretaker after she had 2 strokes. Everyone else felt I could handle it by myself & expressed that they were glad I was around because they had other things to do. When I explained that I needed help and was feeling alone and in way over my head, one of my sisters actually lectured me on how unfair I was being to expect her help when I do things so well by myself. I was so offended by the things she said that I haven't really spoken to her since.

• Last year an old friend of mine suddenly started putting me down all the time. He was flippantly brutal and harsh and nobody has ever spoken to me that way. I knew he was going through a difficult divorce so I said that I hoped he wasn't projecting it onto me but asked if there was any way I was doing something wrong or could be a better friend to him. I really cared about him, but the next time I saw him he made such a scene in front of some of my friends that I had no choice but to end our friendship. A mutual acquaintance later told me that he had openly turned against me after I fired a client of mine. He told her that he lost all respect for me because I lost my temper with this former client (even though the issue with my client had NOTHING to do with our friendship). She said that his complaints about me made so little sense to her and that he went on about me so non-stop and unfairly that she eventually stopped being friends with him herself.

Here's the thing... I know people who throw temper tantrums all the time and nobody bats an eye. I just watched a friend become Bridezilla at her wedding as her fiance told her "I just want you to be happy, honey" over & over. I've seen people be verbally abusive or act like hypochondriacs, and yet people cater to them. I just don't get it. I guess I just so rarely lose my temper with people that when I do, some people just don't know what to make of it. You would think people would appreciate that someone is together most of the time.

I like who I am and I don't want to become high maintenance or demanding... I like that I'm generally nurturing of other people so I don't want to change that side of me either... it would just be nice to get love and support to help me through my difficult times in return instead of having to shoulder everything myself or have people turn on me. I need to feel that I can let my guard down and be supported in return.

Thoughts? Does any of this stuff make sense? Can anyone relate?
posted by miss lynnster to Human Relations (58 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Yeah, sorry it's so long.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:37 PM on May 14, 2007

I can identify, miss lynster.. I also come from a dysfunctional childhood.. I was always the "mature one," the "smart one," the caretaker... I have an innate ability to empathize with everyone, to be strong, to figure out how to solve everyone's problems... But, very few people seem to recognize when I'm the one who needs to be comforted and rescued...

I don't have any advice, but I'll tell you a quote that has given me some comfort... It's not from an officially published poem (that I know of)... I read it in an article...

"I have spent so much time taking care of everyone else's baggage, I haven't taken the time to see what I have packed."

Like I said, no advice, but I can certainly empathize... Hang in there... It's hard to be the "strong girl" all the time. (hugs)
posted by amyms at 10:44 PM on May 14, 2007

oops, I misspelled lynnster... (more hugs)
posted by amyms at 10:48 PM on May 14, 2007

I can, on a much lower level. You sound like an absolutely amazing woman, and I would love to get to know you better.

You're not high maintenance. Might take a while to get used to, because you rarely ask anything of other people, so any deviation from the norm seems like a big deal. But really, you're happy to help your friends, so in a healthy friendship, it shouldn't be unheard of that they help you, as well. It almost sounds like many people have you on a pedestal, they see you as the epitome of rationality, and if there's a perceived crack in you, there's a perceived crack in their stability as well.

I've had friends who were essentially forced to be 'rocks' for other people, and I acted in such a capacity for a while myself. It feels good to help people, and the more you do so, the more people flock to you. But not everyone who flocks to you is going to have your best interest at heart. There's nothing wrong with choosing to be close friends with those who will help you in return, nor is there anything wrong with putting yourself first once in a while. I mean, if you're cracking, who will take care of all your friends? (The last said completely sarcastically, since it shouldn't by any means an obligation of yours.)

Your description of your sister's behaviour worries me though. That's just rude and entirely unfair. Do you know if the others feel this way, and if you could get a bit of support from them, even nominally? I mean, you're not the only daughter, and you shouldn't have to shoulder the burden alone.
posted by Phire at 10:50 PM on May 14, 2007

I understand your dilemma lynnster, as I am afflicted with the inability to properly express my frustrations and instead act as the stable one, when I'm as full of turmoil as anyone else.

One thing you didn't touch on is how you communicate about the times you're feeling weak, when you need to be consoled or nurtured. I've noticed that for myself, communicating why I feel a certain way is the most difficult part, and I'm constantly afraid to communicate the way I feel, especially with conflict, because the costs of mis-communication both hurt the other person, and make it more difficult for my needs to be met.

It's not that the world is against you for being a good friend, there should be more people like you. I'm sorry you've been treated so poorly for acting on a human impulse to care.

Another thing which comes to mind, as something I face that might apply to your situation, is that you might feel guilty about imposing the weight of your feelings on another. Like you're taking up un-necessary emotional space in a relationship, when you can (obviously) control your emotional response. This isn't a fair burden to place on yourself in a relationship with an equal.

Again, your ability to control your reactions is admirable, it's not a flaw by any means. Just work on getting what you need without feeling like you're being intrusive or offensive.

Of course, most of this is me talking at myself, but that's why I wrote. Thanks for asking.
posted by emptyinside at 11:04 PM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the support. Unfortunately, lately I've been going through a really hard time so I've found myself just cocooning in my apartment with my face-licking puppy rather than dealing with trying to get support from human beings, which admittedly isn't entirely healthy. So I figured I'd give AskMe a shot & see who could relate. :)

My mom is doing a lot better now & fortunately we became so close after I took care of her that she is now a major source of support for me, which she wasn't before. My siblings are all pretty caught up in themselves & that doesn't change. That particular conversation with that particular sister ended with her saying, "But Lynn, my family has to come first. You don't have a family so you can handle this better than I can." This was disturbing first off because I'm her SISTER and we were talking about her MOTHER, which are also supposed to be family. But secondly, little will she ever fathom that a big part of the reason I didn't create a family was because during the time period where I should've been concentrating on settling down I was busy putting our mother's well-being on a higher priority than my own.

Anyhow, I think the biggest place I notice the lack of support is in romantic relationships, though. I have had various men in my life say they wanted to take care of me yet I have yet to see one man try to prove it to me. Meanwhile, I see other women wrapping men around their fingers & getting away with all sorts of manipulations that I would never even consider. You shouldn't have to do that stuff though, I don't think.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:20 PM on May 14, 2007

No, you shouldn't.

Well, to each their own. But you don't sound like someone who would be happy with manipulations. >< i hate the whole 'nice guys finish last' mantra, but it's true, too often. br>
They do finish though :) and slow and steady wins the race? *laughs* Pardon my cliché metaphors. *Hugs*
posted by Phire at 11:26 PM on May 14, 2007

I've gone through/am going through almost exactly what you describe, and I wish I had an answer. One thing I have realized about the whole situation is that you have to be selfish sometimes, for your own sanity.

I've given so much to my friends and family and when I've needed caring and made it very clear or not very both instances have received very little in return. Trying to express this feeling to them has resulted in defensiveness, with some people thinking I am "keeping score" when I am in no way keeping score and expecting tit for tat. It's simply the case that once in a blue moon, I need someone there for me.

I know it's easier said than done, as an innately caring person, but just put yourself first sometimes. Don't put yourself out if you don't have to in certain situations.
posted by wilde at 11:35 PM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

But secondly, little will she ever fathom that a big part of the reason I didn't create a family was because during the time period where I should've been concentrating on settling down I was busy putting our mother's well-being on a higher priority than my own.

But did you tell her that? Or did you just expect her to figure it out by looking at you?

One thing I've noticed about very capable people who are "rocks" is that they're very aware of how other people feel. They sometimes assume that the rest of the world is similarly capable, but we're not. We don't know what you're thinking, and we especially don't know why you're thinking it. You need to tell us, bluntly and blatantly, in so many words. And if we don't get it you have to tell us again, and make sure we understand why you're saying it.
posted by watsondog at 11:39 PM on May 14, 2007 [2 favorites]

"You're unflappable! Nothing ever gets to you! I don't know how you do it!" and I thought... no, actually I'm not at all unflappable. And I don't want to be, either. He meant it as a compliment, but it kind of bugged me.

Wow. Yep. That's me. My boss used to use those exact words all the time: you're unflappable.....and it bugged me too. Yeah, I can be calm and collected and make things happen with smooth efficiency while chaos swirls around me but that's just because I wasn't a total nutjob like she was. And sometimes I wanted help but knew she was in no way capable of giving it while she flew around in a tizzy being a drama queen.

And then a friend got all on my case the other day because I'd been out on a bike riding without a helmet twice in three months since "of all people you should know better. We rely on you to be responsible and safe." And that really bugged me too. Once in a while I'm gonna be all crazy and unhelmeted and someone else will have to be the responsible safe one.

It can be a pain to always feel like you're the one who can't fall apart, the one who has to have all the answers, the one that everyone depends upon for kleenex and chapstick and advice for the best gynecologist and directions to the portapotties and to be on time and to have all the paperwork done. But that IS a great thing and is super valuable. It's important to take some degree of pride in your strengths first of all. Not everyone can do what you do and though it can be a burden, it really is a blessing.

So when I'm feeling put upon it's always up to me to make those needs known. It's a drag but in my experience, people are really good about giving back support and reassurance when they really are aware that you need it. The trouble for me, is that I'm not really good at both recognizing my own needs AND then and making the needs known. This just takes a lot of time and practice and some self examination to be aware of. Quite often, in my case, I'm not good at letting others know I need to lean on others. I think they all need me but maybe they really don't. Maybe it's just me that needs them to need me? It's a tangled web, I think.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 11:44 PM on May 14, 2007

I'm not sure why you believe the problem lies in other people. Most likely the problem is you. Several people (and I suspect it's particularly common among elder daughter-types) have a distinct need to be perceived as strong, put together, unflappable and the one with all the answers. This combines with an over willingness to drop everything and help others even though nobody has asked so her to make such a big sacrifice. This quasi-savior complex ends up in feelings of righteousness about one's own character, resentment against others don't go to the extraordinary lengths that she does, and loneliness.

I need to be allowed to be human.

This is, frankly, a pretty childish thing to say. Nobody forcibly prevents from you from being human. You're the one that's doing it. And you don't need permission from anybody to do what you want. Really.

Take a step back and let others handle problems. Make a point of asking others for help and their opinions. And if a crisis does come up don't go rushing off to save the day. Instead try to work through it as a group and make it clear you expect others to pitch in. And don't be afraid to simply come out and say you can't, won't, don't want to, or just aren't feeling like it. Otherwise you're just asking to be taken advantage of. People who are supremely dependable and always ready shoulder every little burden are called 'suckers'. As for those friends who you did ask for help and didn't come through well they're not your friends. Know who you can count on and focus your energy on them instead of trying to be everything for everyone.
posted by nixerman at 11:56 PM on May 14, 2007 [21 favorites]

One possibility is that you go too far for people. If you do too much for someone, they can start to feel guilty, which can turn into a small form of resentment. They might start to think that you have an ulterior motive, or that you are helping them as part of some striving for moral superiority. Or they might suspect that you are setting them up for some huge future demand, trapping them in some future drama...

This will result in less sympathy for you, because when these people want to help you out they will be suddenly conscious of the debt owed, and it will feel like an obligation. Easier just to skirt past it.

I am not sure if any of this applies to you, miss lynnster; you sound like a real peach, and for all I know you are merely surrounded by selfish ingrates by bad luck.
posted by fleacircus at 12:00 AM on May 15, 2007

Response by poster: Well it's just weird because sometimes even when I'm clear about stuff, people don't get it that I have problems too. For example, when I ruptured my eardrum last year on vacation (honestly, who gets struck deaf on vacation? It's so freaking Biblical.), it was really awful. But I have had to handle it all entirely alone because it's something other people can't hear or see so people don't know what to make of it. I was telling the former friend I mentioned above about one of my appointments with an ear specialist to try to get rid of my tinnitis & he actually said, "Oh, you mean it's not all just in your head?" That he would even suggest that floored me.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:01 AM on May 15, 2007

Best advice a therapist ever gave me:

"There are givers and there are takers. Givers tend to find themselves surrounded by takers, which is draining. But what they really need most is to surround themselves with other givers. Only a giver can turly appreciate another giver and provide the support they need, looking for nothing in return."
posted by wayward vagabond at 12:09 AM on May 15, 2007 [18 favorites]

Response by poster: Well nixerman here's the thing... I was just using those as examples and not complaining about the instances in particular.

First off, I'm not an elder daughter type. I'm the youngest by many years. As a matter of fact, the sibling closest to my age is nine years older than me, and the sibling furthest from my age is 17 years my senior. I have no desire to be anyone's savior. What I did have a desire to do was to be able to look myself in the mirror and feel that I did the right thing. I was not on good terms with my mother but I chose to take care of her because if I was in her shoes I would've wanted someone to do that for me. I am not a martyr. Since that time, I put up my boundaries and moved 400 miles away so that other people could take care of my mother & I could get my life back. Since they didn't do so, my mom now hires someone to help her as I once did. It makes her feel comfort so I still talk to my mom about once a day on the phone though.

In regards to people letting me be human, you are taking that comment literally. I am human and I act human, I can't help that and nobody is stopping me from that act. I should've worded it differently I suppose. I thought it was clear that I'm trying to figure out how to lower people's expectations of me and nix their shock at viewing my weak moments. I try to be very down to earth and open in general so I'm not entirely sure where it all comes from, actually. I consider myself very human and far from perfect.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:13 AM on May 15, 2007

were your parents by any chance addicts or disabled? because this is pretty standard-issue stuff for people with non-functioning parents. a person gets let down when they're young, then they make a life's career out of keeping other people from feeling let down. then they wonder why those people they're helping *keep letting them down, just like their parents*. ad infinitum.

the thing is, we zero in on people who we sense will treat us the way we think we deserve to be treated. you may be volunteering to be let down in ways that you are not yet conscious of.

this is classic therapy material. and maybe ACOA or Alanon? good luck, you sound like a very interesting and talented person.
posted by facetious at 12:40 AM on May 15, 2007 [4 favorites]

I was talking to a friend only yesterday about this very thing. We are both single, independent women coping with demanding jobs in a busy city, she runs her own business, I work in a job where I have to make important decisions which impact on people's lives, we're both trying to renovate our homes, dealing with everything on our own, and sometimes it's so very difficult to do.

Example: The felt (shingle) on my shed roof is torn. I've bought a roll of felt, and the nails, and now all I need is someone to hold the ladder for me. I've asked three people if they can help me with this, and they've all kind of laughed it off that I can't do the job by myself. I need someone to hold the ladder, that's all!

I had to let a so-called close friend of ten years standing go because, after supporting her through her separation and divorce, I found that every single conversation we had would be her talking about herself, never asking me how I was, even though in the past 18 months I've had to deal with the shock and grief of the sudden death of my boyfriend, followed by the discovery of a lump, several months of tests and the eventual removal of a breast tumour.

The day my boyfriend died, I called her and left a message. Later that day she left a message for me, saying how sorry she was to hear that 'Bob' had died. His name was George. Last time I spoke to her, mid-January, I mentioned that I'd spent Christmas in the States. She said "you kept that quiet" and I thought (although I didn't say it, wish I had now) that maybe if she'd asked me what I was doing for Christmas when we spoke in December instead of yattering about herself for an hour she might have found out.

I realised that I was a sounding-board for her and that she had no interest in my wishes or feelings as long as her own needs were being met. She went AWOL when I needed help and support from her in my times of crisis.

People I know see me as the calm, capable person who doesn't get in a flap, who can be called on to give assistance at a moment's notice. My sister is the high-maintenance demanding type who's able to get her own way by using all the tricks that have worked for her all her life - being the giggly, pouty little girl. I do not know how to do that, even if I wanted to.

Another example: I went to Canada with a friend a couple of years ago. We drove to the airport, parked at one of the long-stay car parks off site, where there were lots of other people parking up and going off to get the courtesy buses to the terminal. I opened up the boot of the car and my friend stood there looking all pathetic and saying "HOW am I going to carry this" (her case weighed about 3 times as much as mine, there were matching shoes & bag for every single outfit) and several men dropped what they were doing to lift her bag out of the car and carry it over to the bus. Meanwhile I hefted my own bag out and carried it myself. When the bus came, her bag was carried on for her, and at the terminal it was lifted off by one man while another went and found a trolley for her. Same thing at the Canadian end, and on the way home. I don't think she touched that bag once in transit, whereas I hauled my own without assistance.

It's not that I'm incapable of carrying my own bag, but at one point, having observed how this worked for her, I tried the "oh, oh, this bag's so heavy" trick, batting my eyelashes and trying (obviously not very well) to look helpless and not one single person offered to help me.

So (phew! sorry, this is so long), yes, I relate totally to what you say. I, too, like being a strong, capable, nurturing person, but, once in that role, it's very difficult for others to accept that I have needs and insecurities too, that I can't do everything by myself.

Something I try to avoid is 'neediness'. I even find it difficult to acknowledge that I have needs, in case people see me as 'demanding'. As with the shed roof incident, when I let people know I need something, I don't get a positive response. Yet I see others who are (imo) excessively needy and demanding able to somehow end up with everyone running around trying to please them. WTF?! Some people are radiators, some are drains.

I hope this q & a isn't flagged as chatfilter, because I think from the replies I've seen that it's touched a nerve.
posted by essexjan at 12:41 AM on May 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

You can pick your friends but you can't pick your family.

Pick your friends.

And it is exceptionally difficult, especially as one gets older; because we understand the world as being one way and the more experience we have with it being one way the harder it is to live with it any other way. But understanding why you have the friends you do is the first step to making new friends (or your existing friends (and there is flexibility in friendship)) the friends you need.

Lastly, somewhat inanely, you make your own world. In a substantial way you also make the people you interact with. You need to understand what you need though and that is hard. I of course am perfect at it and if you just follow my example... (oh crap, did I lose you there? I always seem to lose them right around there...)

Don't "be" strong. And, you're gonna do fine.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:05 AM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]'re smart enough to ask for help (as you've done here). And that's going in the right direction.

(sorry 'bout the two legged... pressed 'post comment' too fast... )
posted by From Bklyn at 1:10 AM on May 15, 2007

If you don't already, try getting people used to helping you with little things. Not on the level of "oh, how will I ever lift this suitcase," but if there are little things where you could use small amounts of concrete help, don't always keep it in.
In your Arabic class, for example, if someone really 'gets' something you're having even slight trouble with, work with them. Some people might still ignore it, but others might get in the habit of thinking about you as someone they can help, that you're not out of their "help league" or whatever. Oh, and say things like "thanks, I really needed that" (again, for things on the order of holding a ladder) so that they realize helping you feels good.
Personally I like finding out that I can help people who never seemed to need anything. It does make them seem more human :)
posted by lullabyofbirdland at 2:10 AM on May 15, 2007

On post, that sounds kind of pavlovian..
posted by lullabyofbirdland at 2:15 AM on May 15, 2007

Well it sounds like you have been exploited (by your sister, ex, friends, etc.) and you have every right to complain, but since you can't change other people, you have to change your attitude to them and I do think it boils down to learning to be more 'selfish'. In a good sense.

You have to protect your interests first, not just for yourself, but because if people start draining you and you do nothing about it, then you'll grow resentful yourself and you won't be able/willing to be there even for those people who do deserve your time and attention.

For instance, you say you've been 'cocooning in my apartment with my face-licking puppy rather than dealing with trying to get support from human beings, which admittedly isn't entirely healthy' but I think you may be wrong there. I think you probably needed some time to recharge on your own and that is totally healthy. Especially if your friends are more used to asking you for support rather than giving it to you.

Unfortunately some people tend to take advantage when you make yourself available as a shoulder to cry on, and once you fulfill this role for them, all they can think is their own needs, not yours. The relationship becomes unbalanced.

The solution, I think, is not to try and swap roles by going to them for support. Once you've gotten them so used to taking it for granted that you're the 'strong' one offering comfort and advice, that's what they expect, and they expect more and more of that, not the opposite. In fact, if you open up and ask for support, they may even turn it 'against' you and use it to demand even more of you.

See your sister's reaction (although that's more complicated than relations with friends, and unfortunately in situations like taking care of an elderly parent there's often this kind of unfairness among family members... it's a bigger problem than just the balance of giving and taking between friends).

It's an involuntary thing, it's not necessarily meant to be disrespectful to you even if it ends up being so. It may come from people who do love and care about you, they just don't appreciate this imbalance.

I think the way to redress it is to force yourself to create some distance, learn to say 'no' and mean it, and not be afraid if this generates disappointment or resentment. Those who do care about you, and those who are worth your time, will learn to respect your boundaries. The rest, well, you have to consider how much you care about them and what you're willing to put up with.

But you have to set those limits yourself. It won't be nice but if you're so tired of this state of things you just have to do it. Then you'll find it easier to attract people for whom friendship is more of an equal exchange rather than a one way street.
posted by pleeker at 2:19 AM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

My best guess is that you're giving people the impression that you think you're better than they are. It may be that developing some sense of superiority was the only way you could get through hard times in the past, but it seems like it's not serving you as well at this point in your life. Try to accept yourself as just another flawed and vulnerable human being trying to make your way through life and it'll be easier for other people to see you that way. Sorry to be harsh but you're the one reading this thread and any suggestions for change have to be directed at you. FWIW it's clear from your contributions to the site that you have a lot of wonderful qualities.

Maybe rent "Good Will Hunting" if you haven't seen it in a while, the situation is very different but I feel like there might be something in it for you.
posted by teleskiving at 2:32 AM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

The other day my Arabic teacher said to me "You're unflappable! Nothing ever gets to you! I don't know how you do it!" and I thought... no, actually I'm not at all unflappable.

But did you TELL him? You HAVE to tell people that stuff bothers you, that you're human. Everytime someone calls you great or whatever, relate a story when you were at your weakest or ask for help with a current problem.

Because, as you noticed, being someone's very own personal hero, also makes you their bitch (at least in their mind). They expect more outta you, than themselves or other people and when you don't live up their mental image of you, they can get downright nasty.

Also, stop being there so much for others. You may be stepping up to do stuff because you think someone has to. Maybe so, but it doesn't have to be you. There's nothing worse than having a nurturing, giving person.

If you do step up, don't whine about it. Yeah it might not be fair or this or that. Whatever. Either do it 'cause it's right thing and you don't expect anything from it or don't do it. Yeah, it's hard, but that's ok. You were put here to do some hard stuff.

The man problem-- I think everyone dates exactly who they want to. Sometime we want the wrong things though. Perhaps you need to be more selective? And this statement really stood out to me: "I have had various men in my life say they wanted to take care of me yet I have yet to see one man try to prove it to me." Not a one? At all?

Then you're doing something wrong, either by selecting the wrong types or not asking/demanding what you want or not seeing what they're giving. Maybe some volunteer work somewhere, so you find a more giving guy?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:45 AM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I agree with wayward vagabond that there are "givers" and there are "takers" and, as a giver, you should surround yourself as much as possible with other givers. I'm a giver too, and this is why I choose my friends extremely carefully - because for me the meaning of friendship implies a lot of effort and support, and I'm not going to waste that effort on people who won't ever give back to me.

I wonder whether you are a "healer idealist" INFP Kiersey type, as I am. Or if you are an extrovert, you could be an INFP "champion idealist" personality type. Reading about my type has helped me understand why I act as I do, nurturing my friends so much, and also potential problems that these tendencies could cause me and what I can do about them.

In terms of romantic relationships, my father actually pointed out something that has been very useful - he told me that because I'm such a strong and independent woman, I tend to attract two types of boyfriends: those who are in some way weak and need to have someone to lean on, and those who are so independent themselves that they're happy to have a fairly distant relationship with someone who doesn't make a lot of demands. Neither of these "types" correspond with someone I'd like to settle down with in the long run, so it's very helpful for me to know about these tendencies so I can avoid getting involved with the wrong types of people right from the beginning.

But secondly, little will she ever fathom that a big part of the reason I didn't create a family was because during the time period where I should've been concentrating on settling down I was busy putting our mother's well-being on a higher priority than my own.

Seconding watsondog that if you didn't tell her this, you should. If you're surrounded by people whose natural instinct is to be "takers" then you have to be very direct when you need them to act as a "giver" in order to find out whether this is even possible for them. Some people might surprise you and "get it," others won't, but this is still important information to have.
posted by hazyjane at 3:02 AM on May 15, 2007 [6 favorites]

Here's the whole thing in a nutshell: You've got to stop taking care of other people. Regardless of what you can do for them, friends or family, only do for them what they would do for you.

Seek balanced relationships.
posted by ewkpates at 3:33 AM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

My mum, a psychologist, sees plenty of women in this situation (men too, but it seems to be more women) who do everything for everyone and have to be 'the strong one', can't say 'no' to anyone, can't delegate work, support their friends, family, etc. but come in to therapy in a welter of anxiety and depression because they're sick of giving without getting anything back and because they're sick of being 'perfect' and unable to show any flaws (you can probably tell that this has struck a nerve for me too :\).

There are usually two things that come out in therapy (I'm sure there are others): (1) no one can do it as well as they can and (2) it's their job to do and if they can't do it, it's an admission of failure. Part of the reason I can write this (and possibly the reason that you've got some of the answers you have) is that it's fairly common .

Speaking for myself, apparently I give off this aura of being incredibly competent at work so everyone piles work on me and I can rarely say no without getting a look or without it ending up in my lap anyway despite me saying no. A big part of the problem is that I never said no in the first place. I set up a situation where everyone understands (consciously or unconsciously) that I will not say no. lullabyofbirdland talked about it being pavlovian and I can't help but wonder if that's what's happening. It pisses me off and because I'm sick of spending every day at work upset, I've started a concerted campaign of saying no sometimes, of telling people I'm not available.

(And perhaps I'm reading (way, way) too much into what you've written, but is there possibly an element of confusion over your and your mother's roles in each other's lives? That is, we're brought up to believe that our parents support us (to whatever degree) and that when we're put into a position supporting them (and that happens to most people to some degree over time) it can throw us a little. Maybe (big extrapolation here) your sister finds that switching of roles too hard (and there are probably a few too many disclaimers in there, but hopefully you get what I mean).)
posted by prettypretty at 4:07 AM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, call people on their bullshit when they aren't giving to you.

Ex "Um, excuse, I just helped you through your divorce and sex change. Don't you think you spare 10 minutes to give me a pep talk." This will probably make them angry at first. If they stay angry, then you really don't be friends with them.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:10 AM on May 15, 2007

it is, as usual, all about communication. If you are not happy with the state of things, explain what is not working for you to the other people in your life. When they ask too much of you, say, I can't do that for you. You have to handle some of that yourself. Remember that it is a benefit to them to become stronger people, so it is not always a favor to
"do favors" for other people, especially if you are going to resent them for it anyway.

Many people are far more self-centered than you might think. They will simply not notice the correlation that you stayed with them when they were sick but they didn't stay with you when you were sick. When they were sick, they experienced immediate aches, a sense of nausea, the frustration of being unable to get up; when you were sick they experienced boredom and irritation and the knowledge that the guys were down at the pub & you obviously had everything you need. You have to remind people to help you out.

It seems like there could a number of different reasons this miscommunication has grown - friends could have it exploited it to get out of helping, or you could have enjoyed the notion that you were strong, and sort of fostered it inadvertently. It could have come about because you like to take charge of situations or just because you tend to listen or understand people's needs (a lot of "motherly" types are very good at this and never get cared for themselves). But the important thing is that you should not be afraid to voice your own needs, and perhaps, if you feel some of your friendships are not really reciprocal, to be a little less available to some of those around you.
posted by mdn at 4:35 AM on May 15, 2007

There are usually two things that come out in therapy (I'm sure there are others): (1) no one can do it as well as they can and (2) it's their job to do and if they can't do it, it's an admission of failure.

Wow, that's a great insight. (I fit in the "typical eldest daughter" role.)

I have high expectations for how people should act, myself included. You echoed this when you said, "What I did have a desire to do was to be able to look myself in the mirror and feel that I did the right thing." For you, 'the right thing' was dropping everything and going to help your mother. If it were me, I would also expect that everyone else in the situation would feel that way, and be disappointed with them when they don't. How do they look themselves in the mirror in the morning? Surely it bothers them? Why doesn't it?

I feel the same way in my own situations. When my friend was severely depressed last year, I dropped everything and went and helped, after months of his being "given space" by our friends, though they knew he was a real mess. And I just can't fathom that reaction. They knew and they did nothing. And eventually they came to me and asked me to go help. I do wonder what will happen when I'm the friend who needs help!

I'm coming to the conclusion that my basic expectations for how to be a good person are not the same as other people's expectations. Perhaps this is why people are so surprised at you ("you're so strong! unflappable!"), because your standard is very different than theirs.

I don't think you seem high-maintenance. But if your mother were to expect you to drop everything and help the way you did, I would think she was high-maintenance. (Assistance, okay, but you obviously gave more than that.) So perhaps you (and I) are high-maintenance in reverse, expecting a LOT from ourselves, and then we are startled when others are not like this.
posted by heatherann at 4:46 AM on May 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

I love hazyjane's father's advice.

Miss Lynnster, you are a fabulous person. Not just in an abstract, child-of-the-universe way, though that's true too, I mean you personally. I present you with a series of random thoughts; I don't have a coherent vision to present you this morning.

You might like Leanne Franson's "I Once Was a Nouveau Riche." It's long, but I think you'll like Leanne. She talks about the exact opposite phenomenon. The friends who had helped her when she was poor and starving dropped her as soon as she became self-supporting and could return the favour. She no longer fit into the dynamic they were comfortable with. Leanne was as hurt by being dropped by these friends as you are about being taken for granted.

When I was reading feminist women of colour literature in the eighties, a complaint came up over and over again. People would say, "Black women are so strong." It pisses black women off no end, because they aren't any stronger than anyone else. They just don't have a choice.

A man I was working with on a project last year was my rock when I was working myself up into a tizzy. The whole team was exhausted, Richard as much as anyone, but he was always patient and even-tempered, never displaying fatigue. I once commented on it and his answer was, "I'm like a duck. There's not much happening on the surface, but just look below and you'll see the action." You could use that with people like your Arabic teacher as a way of making your point without throwing a fit.

In your post you seem to be proposing being taken for granted and losing your temper as your two available choices. This is a false dichotomy, as I am sure you are aware. The middle ground is calmly saying No. As you have done with your mother.

I have your problem in my home relationships. I say Yes to as many requests as possible, and I expect my partner to reciprocate. I only say No if I really can't (or really don't want to) so I expect that I will only hear No when I am making an impossible or unreasonable request. There are times when I suspect that I am getting No when all it means is "No, that's not what I was thinking," but on principle I treat it as "No, your request cannot be entertained." I don't argue or complain or cry, I just swallow it and move on. I mean, what else is there to do when it's not possible to have what you want?

When I hear too many Nos and I am desperate to hear a Yes - I only ask for things I really really want, so I really do get desperate after a series of Nos - I have a tantrum. And my partner is completely stymied by this tantrum that appears out of nowhere.

I need to learn to say No more often. Because I only ask for things I really really want, I assume other people do the same and I do my utmost to get it for them. But that's simply not true. People ask for all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons. I don't have to get them for them.

I need to learn to pursue the issue when I hear No the first time. If someone says No and is never challenged, of course they think it's ok to say No all the time. Why would they think otherwise? There's no need for me to sit and swallow a lot of Nos until I have a tantrum. I can say "Oh dear, that's a problem. I'm very disappointed."

I had an ex who was completely draining. I realised - belatedly, after she had taken me for everything I had, including my job, my friends, my self-esteem and my books - that giving all you have to someone only works in a reciprocal arrangement when they can give you back what you need. You can't simply act on the assumption that someone can and will reciprocate. Many people can't or won't. So now I check first.

It sounds like you're facing some of the same issues I am. You aren't alone.
posted by kika at 4:49 AM on May 15, 2007 [7 favorites]

People project their image of who think you are onto you... usually based on your previous interactions with them. I don't know how you change this other than to change your personality... which is not exactly an option.

Be honest with people about the way they make you feel. Don't be annoying; just say 'when you talk like that about it me, it makes me feel x'

Don't hold things in.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:35 AM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

People project their image of who they think you are onto you...
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:36 AM on May 15, 2007

To me, it sounds as if people are walking all over you. And I'm really sorry to hear that. But, it only happens to the best of us.

Also, sincerely ask for help if you really need it. If people don't help you, I suspect they aren't worth associating with.
posted by Colloquial Collision at 5:59 AM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

So many people have offered up a lot of good advice. I think some of what prettypretty wrote really summed up some of what we see operating here:

There are usually two things that come out in therapy (I'm sure there are others): (1) no one can do it as well as they can and (2) it's their job to do and if they can't do it, it's an admission of failure. Part of the reason I can write this (and possibly the reason that you've got some of the answers you have) is that it's fairly common .

If you have friends who you're always there for, but who are never there for you -- take a step back. Does that typify your entire relationship with them (that you're always the one calling, setting up stuff, yada yadda) ? Even when you have explicitly told them, "hey, can you just let me vent here for a minute?" If so, that's a big red flag that they're not really your friends. You've taken up an almost parenting role with them - and that's not something you need. Distance yourself from people like that.

Even though you may not be the eldest daughter, you're clearly the take-charge daughter, and really need to take a hard look at your relationships and life and see where, perhaps, you're stepping in to fix/help/save things before whoever it is, ieven attempts the work themselves - even if they don't do a perfect job, or make the choices you do.

As someone who has some of these "white knight" tendencies, I recognize how easy it can be to swoop in and inadvertently set yourself up as the one calling the shots -- when instead, you should be the one giving advice to the one calling the shots.

As far as relationships, I, like others, am wondering how communicative you are about your desires and needs. This is not to be accusatory, to just noting that sometimes people who pride themselves on being "the together one" often don't realize how much they haven't been saying, how much they were hoping someone else would pick up. If you don't ask, you don't get. It's interesting how essexjan characterized it - a fear of appearing needing, of expressing what she wants, lest she seem demanding. Think about that for a minute. Might it at all apply? I know that it has to me, and I've learned that I do nobody any good by sublimating my own needs.

Pet your puppy, but call some of your good friends, and tell them you need to vent a bit. Go get a cup of coffee, and ask them to just let you talk.
posted by canine epigram at 6:26 AM on May 15, 2007 [5 favorites]

Learn how to say no.* There are are several books out there about this.

*This is not easy.
posted by CiaoMela at 6:48 AM on May 15, 2007

Thanks so much for posting this question. I'm always the strong one and yet people scatter when I need help, it seems.

Funny thing-- as I was reading this thread my mother called asking me for yet another favor. I've told her repeatedly over the last few weeks that things are rough right now-- my husband and I are both unemployed, we just lost a friend to cancer, etc., etc., etc., to the point where we can't take anything more right now. She has emailed asking us to research tv's for her to buy-- hers is on the fritz. She asked us to come up and spend some time with her as now we have "free time." And just now she called to ask us to come up there again to be a support to her at the funeral of a distant relative. I had just read half of this thread and was really resonating with it, and was strong enough to call her on her crap, say no, and let her know that I didn't appreciate the fact that she isn't hearing me.

Which echoes chuckdarwin. People project their image of who they think we are onto us.

Sorry-- this isn't an answer for you. Just a sincere thanks to you and to the power of the metafilter community.
posted by orangemiles at 6:48 AM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Lynnster, thank you so much for this question, and to all the commenters, thank you, too. I relate, tend to be "the strong reliable one" that everyone depends on, etc, etc. Sometimes I feel lonely or unappreciated. But I'm learning to ask for the support that I need, and to seek it from appropriate people who really can and want to help. The important thing is to ask, I think. People see me as so independent and self-sufficient, they don't even realize that I want someone to lean on unless I say so.

When I was visiting my elderly mother in the hospital several weeks ago she was so grateful, and she said something to the effect that she hadn't heard from my brothers and sisters, maybe they were too busy with their lives, etc. I told her (in the words of a country song) "That's my job. That's what I do."

Then I went back to her apartment and wrote a long detailed email to my brothers and sisters coast-to-coast, explaining how frail she was, how she looked on the various machines she was hooked up to, and all the issues that we had to think about whether or not she'll be able to return to living in her apartment. I expressed how fatigued I was, and how worried, too. Shortly after, my sister-in-law, who I have known very slightly in the last 20 years, called and we had a wonderful talk. She was so supportive, and she told me that she hoped her own son would grow up to be like me.

After a series of phone calls and emails, my brother and sister-in-law flew down to Texas last week and have started taking a more active role in mom's care. Yet, until I started communicating and really being explicit about what my mother needed -- and what I needed -- I never knew that they would be available to me as a resource and support.

Best of luck to you, and hugs. I'll be watching this thread.
posted by Robert Angelo at 6:51 AM on May 15, 2007

Some people are jerks and this is true whether or not you are a giver or a taker or a family member or a friend or a stranger.

However (and I say this as someone who sees myself in a lot of what you write) there is a certain sort of person who finds other peoples' jerkiness a challenge and a puzzle that they might be able to solve. This is where you are going to make yourself nuts.

This is quite common in children who come from families of addicts, alchoholics or other people who must be taken care of at all costs, no matter how high. You learn to set all of your own hopes and dreams aside because you CAN and help others with their lives because you feel that you MUST. Simply put, you don't have to do this even though it can feel terrible if you don't. So, for a few anecdotes.

- I have a few depressed friends. One of them would use me as her sounding board when she got really low and I was her "talk her off the ledge" friend (not quite literally), which felt good in some ways, I was helping my friend. But I'd also do this when it was terribly inconvenient for me which felt like a stretch. And then I had a rough patch and my friend wasn't really there for me. She sort of was, but not really, and she definitely didn't move heaven and earth to help me out. So I made a choice, for me, that if I was going to continue to be the ledge-talker I was going to do it for my own reasons, not for any sort of reciprocity. This means that sometimes I do say "you're going to have to find someone else to talk to right now" which feels terrible, but it also feels like it's a better decision for me taking care of ME, not just me taking care of others. Over time I've grown more comfortable wiht that and over time our relationship has balanced out.

- the wake up call for me was my last long relationship where my partner went to law school. It played out like the predictable stereotype [I was the emotional support through school, then we split and he dates someone ten years younger than me] and while I didn't feel that I had put my own life on hold, I did feel that I had put my own hopes of a reciprocal relationship on hold because he was so busy and I was so understanding of that. That was a bad idea. It's easy to point at him and be like "well that was lame" but it was both of us, me feeling like I could hold us all together, overtax myself, etc and him being like "well this is nice" and following his own dream first. It can be hard for helper types to figure out what their own dream might be. I'm still figuring that out.

- I see these things as coming in waves. I feel like I go through maybe 6 month periods of feeling hypercompetent (help everyone move, matchmaker, plan all the parties, whatever) and then 2-3 months down where if the phone doesn't ring I just sit at home and stare and think "wtf friends?!" but really it's an ebb and flow and if I can not take the down times as personal affronts -- the best thing you can do in these circumstances is not make it all about you -- then things cycle back. I also try to force myself to ask for things I want -- companionship, a ride to the airport, help moving boxes -- and am usually pleasantly surprised that people often want to help. That it's my own perspective of myself as the rock getting in the way of letting other people in and allowing them to help too.

Your sister? She's just being a pain. You need to have the internal compass that tells you that and some way to let it roll off your back. When other people misbehave in many ways there really isn't anything you can do about it. Control freaks like myself and possibly you think you can fix these situations but often you can't, you can just control your responses (that's the AA/AlAnon talking, but there is good advice there).

Responses? Well you can start by being a bit more honest with others. I definitely get people telling me from time to time "wow you have it all together" etc. I like to say "yes I do!" but it's not quite accurate. I usually tell those people that while I like my life, there are things missing that I wish I had (steady partner, career ambitions) and things I have that I worked my ass off at (relationships with family, network of friends) and things that I don't have/want that other people have or want (kids, big income, 26 inch waist) and it's all part of who I am. Other people have other awesome things about them and part of being a good person is letting them be awesome in your presence as well as using your own powers of awesomeness for good. Put another way: If you're so awesome why aren't you happier? See, we all still have work to do. I put this question to myself a different way: If you've got it together, why can't you lose ten pounds and get in shape? And I went after that particular self-improvement program with all the aggressive zeal that I put into everything else. Worked out okay too.

It's all part of the curly hair/straight hair phenomenon; no matter what you have, in most cases there is something you want that you don't have. The trick is to understanding that you want it, in part specifically because you can't/don't have it. The other trick is to understanding the value of what you do have and finding your own balance between desire and satisfaction. You're a neat lady. Part of your troubles stem from thinking that you're not.
posted by jessamyn at 6:57 AM on May 15, 2007 [12 favorites]

miss lynnster, I admire you very much for posting this, and for posting it under your regular tag and not anonymously.

I can relate to much of what you and others here have said, and my situation is also largely rooted in a childhood where I pretty much had to fend for and tend to myself for emotional support. One of my parents encouraged me to be independent and I probably went far beyond their expectations. The ability has both served me well and cost me a lot.

Although there are billions of people in this world, none of them are likely to know the real, inner "you". They only project back to you what they think they see, and you can't necessarily assume responsibility for the choices other people make in regards to how they identify and treat you. For example, the person I thought at the time was going to be "the one" told me in an almost unparalleled display of manipulation that I didn't need anyone. He could not have been more wrong but that stance seemed to have served him in some way. I quickly realized I didn't in fact need anybody with so little understanding of me and so little regard for my dignity as a fellow human being. Looks like you've faced similar moments and have had to make similar choices. But, you do what you gotta do.

Not sure I can offer any significant advice since I'm still struggling with this myself, but I think there is some good advice in this thread. The fact that you're willing to address the issue and possibly make changes when others in your life either want to keep you in the box of their expectations or demand that you be the way they think you should be is a good thing. Hang tough, you'll find your way.
posted by fuse theorem at 7:27 AM on May 15, 2007

It would seem that you're a nuturer by nature, and you surround yourself not with other nuturers, but with people needing some nurturing. Most people have the capacity to give much more nurturing than they do right now so when you need them let them know, and let them know that it hurts your feelings and disappoints you when they can not or will not support and help you.
posted by caddis at 7:37 AM on May 15, 2007

Just something to think about in terms of mentally switching gears, so to speak: one problem you may have is liking the image of yourself as "strong", so that even if you are unhappy with some of the outcomes, you may not like the idea of "admitting you're weak" or something. But you should not think of it like that. It is not strength to do whatever you're told, and it's not weakness to be more selective about the ways you expend your energy for those you love.

Endurance is an aspect of strength, but it is the passive aspect. You have to develop the active side of strength. Making choices, saying no sometimes, asking other people to assist you when you need it, and generally developing a sense of your own character and boundaries, is important to really become a strong person. Being able to undergo a lot sets you up to undergo a lot. But you should aim to do things, not just undergo things.
posted by mdn at 7:42 AM on May 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow. Lots of good answers. Thank you guys. :)

And fuse theorem, yeah I thought about posting this anonymously but decided that would be kind of the opposite of admitting my weaknesses, now wouldn't it? I honestly do try to be pretty open about my problems so why stop here?

One comment that stuck with me is about how people like me either get in relationships with weak people or strong people who are relieved to not be needed. I definitely have a pattern of dating strong, somewhat arrogant men who hold me to a different standard. I think there's a part of me that likes that & feels it's a compliment initially, but for the long term it's never good & ends up being an issue for me. To be honest, I can count on one hand with fingers to spare the amount of times someone has ever held me when I've cried. Which leads me to be someone who cries alone & not in front of others. Which, isn't as comforting, I'm thinking.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:11 AM on May 15, 2007

I definitely relate, and just started working on this issue for myself, so here are a few little notes on things I've recently discovered:

Like you, I have this X-ray vision when it comes to seeing what people need. I also want to be a good person, according to my own definition of that. Which many times means, if someone wants something, and I have that something, how can I not give it to them? What I'm trying to do lately is to notice when I'm having this feeling and consciously hold back a bit, without compromising my sense of doing what's right.

For example: if my lonely recently-dumped friend needs companionship and distraction, I still want to give it to him... but only in reasonable amounts. If I'm there for him every night, or even twice a week, that's too much, and I know I'll never get that effort back. He's just going to disappear as soon as he gets his next girlfriend (not all men, but this friend specifically). So my modified approach is to give him companionship in appropriate good-person amounts, and be sure to advise him, "I think you would benefit from seeking lots of companionship from all of your friends," and then I can feel like I did the right thing. I gave him some companionship, but I didn't give him ALL the companionship he needs.

Another note is to investigate what kinds of friends you're seeking and what kinds you're evading. I've noticed for myself that when I meet another giver, they scare me a little! Because of my personal standards of giving, when I meet someone who gives, who invites me places, or who stays in touch frequently, I get a little alarmed and start thinking about how much I have to give back. That kind of person starts to seem like too much work -- they're giving so much, so surely they must require a lot of giving back. I'll have to be similarly aware of their birthdate and who treated last, and how long it's been since I've been in touch. Yet, since they don't seem to need me, I don't worry about letting them go. In this way, I've noticed that I've not kept up with friendships with giving people and instead kept the takers! I wonder if you've done this too, and if you can reinstate the balance.
posted by xo at 8:21 AM on May 15, 2007

Response by poster: By the way, after I wrote this post I couldn't really sleep so I skyped my friend in Austria -- we've been friends since we were penpals at 14 -- and told her I'd had a horrible, horrible day. She ended up being THE BEST friend ever and really sat and listened to me and really took it in. I went ahead and told her about all of my worst problems & fears & she made me feel really heard and cared about & supported & not judged. She used to be a bit frustratingly self-absorbed at times in the past, but I realized that just recently she's shifted into appreciating me and giving back 100% for the support I've given her over the years. So I thanked her sincerely because it really meant a lot.

Now if I could just find people on my own continent to do that for me, I'd be all set. :)
posted by miss lynnster at 8:22 AM on May 15, 2007

Well, you're here, aren't you? :)

Seriously, I think the biggest thing is admitting, not just to yourself, but to others, clearly and unequivocally, when you need someone to listen.

I think the key to finding a good partner is finding someone who can handle himself (ie not automatically needing you to always play the nurturing role), but who admits their own vulnerabilities as well (maybe not so arrogant).
posted by canine epigram at 8:39 AM on May 15, 2007

I'm not entirely sure what I want to say, but, basically, I'll speak up for the "takers". I'm a totally lousy friend. But I'm hardly a misanthrope and I think it will serve you well to remember that very, very few people are selfish jerks out of malice.

Sometimes it's ignorance. I have a hard time reading people emotionally, and this leads to accusations of coldheartedness. A friend called me once when her boyfriend left her and I said, "Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry, are you ok?" and she said, "Yeah, I guess I'm pretty ok," and I said "Oh, well then," and that was basically the whole conversation. Of course she was miserable and ended up bitter with me for not supporting her through the pain of the break-up. People Are Dumb! Don't Be Coy!

Sometimes it's weakness. A lot of people just aren't as strong as you are, or even as strong as you pretend to be. Some people just can't handle their own pain and someone else's at the same time. This is especially true of people who are depressed or otherwise mentally ill. It's not fair to expect rationality from people in these situations. Depression and grief also warp space and time so that, in retrospect, it can be so hard to even remember or process how much help other people gave.

Most of the time it's apathy. As heatherann mentioned, people have different standards for what is morally required of them. This does not make them evil people, although it is kind of unfortunate. 99% of the things in the world fall under a Someone Else's Problem field. And this works, because if you ignore a situation long enough, hey hey presto, someone else takes care of it! It's like magic!

I don't know what my advice is, except that, don't give up on people! They might need a little extra pushing, a big whop on the head, whatever, to make them aware of you and your needs.
posted by miagaille at 8:53 AM on May 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

There are givers and there are takers.

Not to put too fine a point on it but the whole giver/taker dichotomy is bullshit pop psychology. It's also a pretty naive way to look at life considering, as miagaille points out, the majority of the population would be considered "takers."

I thought it was clear that I'm trying to figure out how to lower people's expectations of me and nix their shock at viewing my weak moments.

I'd suggest that lowering people's expectations of you isn't exactly a noble life goal. Sure you may be able to score some cheap pity points but it's doubtful that this is going to lead to any kind of stronger friendships. Getting people to think less of you isn't exactly the formula for developing the critical mutual respect and love that lies at the center of real friendships.

Returning to "givers," I'd have to say the word, if it means anything at all, is a social euphemism for people who don't know what they want and so can be persuaded to endure most any sacrifice. And it's not any kind of "natural folly" that women are so often encouraged to be givers and men the exact opposite.

Anyways, if all you want is somebody to whine to then pay a shrink to listen to you for an hour each week. If you want friends who'll be there for you then, as noted above again and again, the key is to make it clear to your friends that you admire and respect them. Most people won't give until they are asked. If you make a habit of asking people for advice, favors, opinions, and time then you'll likely be surprised that most people are all too willing to give. Doing this will demonstrate to your friends that you do in fact need them and their existence in your life isn't the result of some vestigial, involuntary habit of yours. And in general if you know what you want and are unafraid to ask for it then you simply need not waste hours on end worrying about what people think of you. This'll be all too clear by their actions.
posted by nixerman at 10:15 AM on May 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

You might want to check out The Drama of the Gifted Child. The title has the unfortunate effect of making its reader seem pretentious, but it's more about children who were emotionally gifted -- being able to quickly read and respond to parents' emotional states -- and how that can affect (and sabotage) adult relationships.
posted by occhiblu at 10:19 AM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

prettypretty wrote: A big part of the problem is that I never said no in the first place. I set up a situation where everyone understands (consciously or unconsciously) that I will not say no. lullabyofbirdland talked about it being pavlovian and I can't help but wonder if that's what's happening.

I do think that is exactly what's happening, that's what I was thinking about too, and this is the part I can actually relate to, rather than the caregiver/nurturer part.

You could look up 'assertiveness training'. I'm usually not too keen on the self help stuff but I found this is actually one branch that can have a lot of useful insight and advice. Stuff that may even sound obvious once you've been told, but doesn't come so easily in practice when you're not used to doing it.

As for asking for support yourself, I think once you start setting those boundaries you'll find out who are the people you can rely on (including, but hopefully not limited to, yourself).
posted by pleeker at 10:20 AM on May 15, 2007

Wow. I'm the Good Friend/Bad Friend Combo Pack!

I'm the friend that never calls, forgets to answer your email, and may not be there for you when you need me, just because I haven't stayed in touch enough, and am never the type whom you can count on for regular (daily, or even weekly) heart-to-hearts.

But, if you call me and we get together, I will listen for hours (really, really listen), I'll give you my most heartfelt advice after very, very seriously considering exactly your situation and everything I know about you. Or I'll just shut up and let you talk. I'll make you laugh - a lot, I'll cook you supper, make you tea, feed you cocktails, take you out and show you a great time; you'll be able to forget your problems, if only temporarily, and you will definitely feel much better when we part.

That's because I really do care about you, and want to see this problem, whatever it is, resolved. Some problems can't be resolved, and I want to be an oasis where you can escape them for a while.

BUT, I can't do this all the time, because if I do, I begin to lose myself. So I don't have lots and lots of friends I do this with, and the ones that I do have aren't ones who need it all the time. To be a good friend of mine, you must give me my space, forgive my bad phoning/emailing habits, have a good heart, an open mind, be fun and interesting to talk to... and someone whose life isn't a chain of hysterical crises punctuated by brief periods of unrealistic expectation. Also, you should loan me books. And even if you're all that, don't crowd me. Because I will absolutely disappear.

And I know exactly why I'm this way. Early on, when I was much younger, I had a string of friends who I think of now as emotional succubi. I was left so drained, so exhausted and shaky, that I believe I came quite near having a breakdown. They weren't trying to get things like money or material goods from me - it was much more insidious... as though they wanted to consume my very life force, and they bitterly resented any time I didn't spend with them. I was the strong one, the wise one, the fun one, the fulcrum of of their social and emotional existence. When I realized how this pattern was unfolding, I determined to put a stop to it, and became a very different person. I became much more selfish with my time and my emotional expenditure, and grew very selective about my friends. When a friend who had been fun and seemingly emotionally secure would start becoming constantly needy and always wanting more from me, more and more time, more nurturing, more attention, I would firmly back right off, usually dropping that person unless they dramatically changed that line of pursuit.

Cold? Yes, probably. I feel that way sometimes. I can be cold, but I'm also very, very warm and loving. For my own emotional wellbeing, I've learned that I need to sometimes turn both those taps on and off to protect myself. I don't hold this up as the model of emotional stability, but I will say that I can recommend the wisdom of judicious selfishness when you find that you are weaving yourself into a repetitive pattern of love and friendship that seems to suck out your soul without offering either the respite of no demands or expectations, or the simple shelter of a simple, calm, quiet, warm place in friendship where you can recover sometimes.
posted by taz at 10:52 AM on May 15, 2007 [3 favorites]

Eerie. This is on my plate right now, too, life-issues-wise. I haven't got many answers, but some thoughts. Some really rambling and unfocused thoughts.

What causes it? I'm an eldest daughter. Seems that early on in life I was taking on planning and worrying responsibilities; I'm not sure why. Some family dysfunction, but generally a childhood that met my needs, though I never felt secure. I think I decided I had to provide all my own security.

Expectations were high - it was as though everything should be easy for me, so little help was offered or needed. Therefore, when things didn't feel easy, I didn't feel like I could admit it. I also felt that my path to acceptance from others was competence. I would only be welcomed/appreciated/loved/befriended if I was good at stuff, or needed for something. I always bristled at the suggestion that I might need help for something.

So as an adult woman I'm a handyperson, a manager, change my own oil, relentlessly take leadership roles, demand adherence to a perfectly structured schedule and berate myself when I fail at it, exhaust myself, forget to relax and take care of myself, solve others' problems, obsessively plan...and then wonder why the hell it's so hard for me to have healthy close friendships and romantic relationships.

My therapist last year suggested that I let people help me even when I didn't feel I needed or wanted to help. That they might feel good by helping me and I should allow them to have that feeling.

What would happen if I decided it was okay not to be perfect? What would happen if I stopped trying so hard? How can you reconcile imperfection with self-acceptance? What if you just stopped giving? How do you re-teach people in your life about you? How do you feel all right feeling and looking weak enough to say 'I just need help?'

I don't know yet. But keep working on it. As with all problems, becoming aware that there is a problem is a first step toward overcoming it. You're definitely not alone.

It's interesting to see in this thread how common a feeling this apparently is. I recognized a long time ago that I was prone to over-caretaking, and, though it seems somewhat dated and self-helpish, I was greatly helped by the book Beyond Codependency. The usefulness of that book, for me, was its emphasis that your first job is to take care of yourself. It's very easy to become absorbed in the problems of others, to get some sense of self-esteem out of being so useful and valuable to others, but in the end it's kind of a crutch. THose of us who do that use the drama and problems of others to avoid having to live with ourselves. You may find some of the exercises and analyses in that book helpful.

Therapy, of course. This stuff is a therapists' bread and butter. I'm in therapy. It does help. I think it's worth the effort. I sure as hell don't want to be crippled like this for the rest of my life - it's definitely preventing me from living a more peaceful, fuller life, and it makes me hellaciously judgemental of others, too, which is just another barrier to positive relationships. So think about going in that direction.
posted by Miko at 10:54 AM on May 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

A few notes from my experience:

I've had a girlfriend who was always taking care of other people. Including sometimes me. And some of that I felt was nice; imo a relationship consists a certain amount of taking care of the other and accepting a little being taken care of. But the reverse was never possible; she always shrugged it off, "it wasn't so bad, and btw I don't need her anyway" etc.

I was shure she was underneath devastated about some issues. But she had built a constellation of behaviour and emotions to keep herself together and to keep being on top of things.

And this served her well; but left her lonely with the more vulnerable sides that were 'hidden'.

Another result was that I did not really know her. Most of what i saw of her was that role, not who she was apart from that role.

To be that strong and energetic takes a mutually reinforcing constellation of social patterns, social axiomas, and emotional paybacks.

In her case I got the impression that although she was quick to help people that she looked down on people who needed help quite a bit. Maybe she resented her own weaknesses too, not being able to stand them.
A strong judgement can be handy as a prop to keep oneself going.
Maybe the infantile reasoning "I'm worth something if I do things for others" played a role instead of the unspoken assumption "I'm worth something as I am".
A certain measure of feeling superior can be involved too; In that case if you stop for a moment being the strong one you'll immediately feel the fear of becoming "like them", becoming common and weak instead of being so 'wonderful'.

Whatever the exact mechanisms are with you, obviously that's impossible to tell through the internet, I guess my point is; when you start accepting support quite possibly you'll lose some of the 'advantages' that kept you behaving like the strong one. If you don't realise that, you run the risk of unwittingly not wanting to give up these advantages and not getting the support either.

I feel that old fashioned Transactional Analysis still is a helpful tool to get some insight into your own stereotypical interactions with others
posted by jouke at 11:10 AM on May 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Just... thanks.
posted by miss lynnster at 2:27 PM on May 15, 2007

Like taz, I'm the good friend/bad friend combo pack, and I've had some experience with someone very much like you which I hope will be helpful.

I had a good friend who sounds very much like you and like Miko, with extremely high standards for herself as well as others, whose siblings were way less responsible than her, and who had the dual attributes of being very caring and nurturing, and of feeling that she could and should "fix" other people's problems. She was attracted to people who needed fixing, and I was one. She was there for me during some very rough patches of depression, but I wasn't there for her when she was going through a rough patch, because I didn't know she needed me. She had two life-shattering experiences and I offered to help her, told her if there was anything I could do, I was there... but I didn't know what she needed. She talked a bit, but to me it seemed she was coping exceptionally well; strong, confident, competent and on top of things. We live a few hours' plane trip from one another, so it wasn't possible for me to actually see her up close very much or spend physical time, which I think had a lot to do with my cluelessness.

When we were going through our messy and protracted breakup she accused me of being self-centred and heartless because I hadn't supported her through it all. Like taz, I'm not the person for weekly or fortnightly heart-to-hearts. If she had picked up the phone and said "This thing happened and it was really painful and heartbreaking and horrible and I just need to talk about it and be comforted", I would have been there in a second, and I would have spent as long as she needed, but she didn't, so I didn't know. Which isn't to say that I was not at fault as well, because I was. There was a lot going on in my life as well at the time and while none of it was anything like as bad as what she was going through, it blinkered me to seeing the more subtle signs that she was in need of support. I needed to be told, point-blank, "I really need support, right now". By the time we did begin talking about it, the resentment had built up so much that the friendship was consuming itself.

The other thing I learned from the whole experience was that having her take care of me and try to "fix" me was actually bad for my own growth as a person. It's as if we had a mother-daughter dynamic going on, and I couldn't "grow up". I'm now far stronger, more independent, more confident and more able to be a giver than I was before, but I needed to be left to mature in that way by myself.

It sounds as if people have always known you as the strong one, the fixer. So I'd say yes, get into therapy as Miko suggests; look after yourself and your own needs; don't be afraid to be selfish now and then, and tell other people that you're going through some stuff yourself and you can't help them out right now. They'll find help or they'll help themselves, and it's good for them, if they've got used to leaning on you, to stand on their own two feet.

And tell people explicitly and emphatically when you need help. Tell them what you need, and tell them at an early stage. Most people are caught up in their own little lives and don't always notice what's going on with you, because their lives aren't about you, nor should your life be about them. Don't leave it until you feel resentful of their lack of attention.
posted by andraste at 4:37 PM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Not to put too fine a point on it but the whole giver/taker dichotomy is bullshit pop psychology. It's also a pretty naive way to look at life considering, as miagaille points out, the majority of the population would be considered "takers."

I don't see this at all. Some people are generous with their time, their energy, their financial and emotional other resources, and other people, for whatever reason, are parsimonious with them.

In normal, healthy relationships, people recognize their reciprocal obligations -- even if they tend to lean more towards the taker side of the equation. And those people who, for whatever reason, repeatedly choose not to do so, get cut out of *my* life, and go find some other sucker to leech off.

There are some people in my life that I have quite low expectations of, when it comes to reciprocating, but that's generally because they fulfil my needs in another area -- they might be particularly entertaining, or good company, or whatever, but I do attempt to limit my own investments regarding emotions, time, or whatever with regard to such people, because I've learned that failure to do so invariably leads to resentment and the inevitable death of that relationship.

In some cases though, that's just not a bad thing.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:07 PM on May 15, 2007

You scratch my back, I eat all your ice cream.

Between any two people the transactions can be "valued". If these two people value their contributions to the transactions differently, there is a problem. If these two people both acknowledge that one side of the contributions has a higher value, there is a problem.

Adult relationships should be balanced. Someone "takes advantage of you" when they don't reciprocate.

Beware: When givers stop giving, takers often go off in pursuit of a new giver.
posted by ewkpates at 2:59 AM on May 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

Dear Lynn, wow. It took balls to write this post in AskMe with your username. Major respect.

Though your question articulated exact thoughts and feelings of my own, I would have been terrified of being called whiny or at the receiving end of a barrage of misogynistic snarks. It's impressive the excellent and varied responses in this thread.

The reality is that when I expressed feeling vulnerable or hurt in MetaFilter I received a lot of loving kindness and caring here, then worried if people were nice, giving or polite with me it was of pity. Damned ambivalence. I like MetaFilter for its rough irreverence, blunt honesty and its permission that bs -or any opinion- be hauled up for examination. Dissent and differences of opinion are okay here and not necessarily expressions of disloyalty or lack of friendship.

I don't like mush and sloppy sentimentality when it comes to thinking about stuff but that doesn't stop me from enjoying caturdays, heaps of awws, playful childishness, gentle sillibiz, warm camaraderie and savoring the frivolous fun stuff of life and culture. I want it all, loving kindness, educated scepticism and analysis, real science, fun, warm friendship and blunt truth. It's surprised me that when I acted on wanting something, it is for the most part achievable with work and patience.

Now I'm anxious that in responding to your post I'll be on the receiving end of "That's psychobabble." or " That's pop psych bs". Or just too many words...It may be. I hope I learn from others' opinions and even the snarks, *gets ready to duck tomato flinging*.

Over the last 20 years I've given this topic you brought up lots of thought, years of therapy and emotional homework, since I once was a compulsive caretaker with lots of resentments and loneliness... and am still working on it in my own life to a much lesser, but still ongoing, extent. Many of the answers I came up with have already been stated here in this thread, including books that helped or transactional analysis. Another resource I like is for people dealing with after effects of a controlling parent. Dare to Live Your Dream by Barbara Sher. The Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships by Harriet Lerner. Object constancy.

Additional thoughts are that:

Women are socialized to feel their worth as a person from caring and caretaking. It can feel deeply satisfying being a competent and skillful caretaker. The danger is doing that to the abandonment of one's own needs and life. Also women tend to feel their worth in feeling cared about and others' willingness to be caring, as contrasted with the more historically male domain of being admired for achievements, events, possessions.

Women's relationship with caring is both historic and hard-wired (just kidding) (seriously, even if it's Borat's brother who wrote this).

Healthy vs unhealthy caring. Healthy (for a child or disabled adult who is unable to care for themself or in dire need) vs unhealthy caretaking.

Unhealthy caring means unconsciously choosing and being drawn towards emotionally unavailable people, men and women, as part of a repetition compulsion pattern from how one was parented. It's replicating patterns from the way one was treated by one's caretakers in childhood.

Unhealthy caretaking is a way of abandoning oneself in favor of putting attention onto another person. If one has not been loved sufficiently well by either parent (even if they actually did their best under the circumstances) or been traumatized as a child, a person, most often female, may become unconsciously self-abandoning to one degree or another in adulthood. The unconscious signals are to others that "I'm here for you." and "Don't come too close, I'm okay, but you seem in need."

At core I think the unconscious pattern or signal to others, when one is an unconscious caretaker, is a fear of intimacy, distrust, that others really aren't that trustworthy. Or that one isn't loveable enough. And with one's pattern of being attracted to the emotionally unavailable, not being cared for adequately and appropriately becomes a self perpetuating truth. So because of that, a mindset gets entrenched, at least I can be depended on and be valued for that.

And then on that "I'm so dependable" island it feels damn lonely and then I end up feeling used. The "You're so strong." ends up feeling like others need me to be strong - for them and that I'm not allowed to be anything other than strong for them. No fun.

People pleasing, not speaking one's truth and being repeatedly involved with people who are not appropriately considerate, is a type of dishonesty to others. Out of fear of confrontation, fear of hurting others with one's thoughts, feelings or needs, it deprives others of experiencing the truth of how one really is, thinks and feels. So others are seeing a false reality in one's people pleasing. Being honest with others is a gift of reality to them. Truth doesn't have to be a hunting license or a cudgel. Truth can be spoken with kindness and patience. Being truthful about one's feelings may be the brave act of being simply -or complexly- oneself, as one really is.

Having needs is often shamed by others, especially people who are not considerate or are empathy-impaired, what I call limbically handicapped. Added to having a need for help or understanding, may be shame of expressing that need or the unspoken anger that one's needs haven't been met adequately in the past. So when the need is expressed, there may be a lot of fear and anxiety in the expression, which may not be especially inviting to others. There is some art to expressing one's needs. It takes practice.

Possible antidotes and solutions:

*Incrementally learning to ask for one's needs to be met in small but repeated amounts and braving the fear or the reality that comes with that change of pattern in oneself.

*Learning to express vulnerability or having a need appropriately with well chosen others before it has crescendoed into a gigantic feeling of being Neglected.

*Editing one's address book of people who are vampires and drainers.

*Putting up a Wall of Pleasant -non-confrontational disconnecting- with people who one doesn't want to officially disconnect from but who are basically unable to reciprocate lovingly.

*Learning to enjoy being valued by others in different ways than being needed by them...and the more difficult task of

*Accepting that not being needed means one can still be valued and liked.

*Asking for help from people who are likely to give it.

*Cultivating friendships with people who are able to enjoy reciprocal giving.
posted by nickyskye at 3:48 PM on May 18, 2007 [9 favorites]

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