How do I matter more to others?
May 30, 2008 6:32 PM   Subscribe

Is it really true that the more you do for others, the closer you will become?

I feel invisible when I help others. I don't feel like anyone really cares about me the way I care about them. The same people who want my support will whine or "forget" when I ask for something. So I don't. No one laughs with me or cries with me, and if I share my passions or thoughts, I am criticized or misunderstood (the sole exception would be professional therapists of course). So I have learned to keep things to myself or to not expect anything more from anyone. I make plans alone, get excited by myself and do for myself. I take care of my own needs, including emotional needs. I cry alone until I feel better, I generate my own excitement and cheer for myself. But I have been told that if I want a better connection with others, I need to focus less on myself and more on them. If that's true I'm willing to try, but I have reason to doubt it.

Just as one example, I am a big cheerleader for the people around me. I support them in their endeavors and focus on the positive more than the negative. People cry on my shoulder and many times have told me how much they appreciate my support and especially the fact that I just believe in them. Well I would like the same thing, I would like to be believed in and for people to be enthusiastic with me. I get that it is my personality to be enthusiastic and hopeful for others when I am engaged with them, but I need it as much as they do. My therapist (amongst many other sources) says that I need to focus more on what I can do for other people and how I am making them feel. But I don't get the link. I think that this will just make them rely on me more and value me for my support which they already do, but why would it make them value me as a person if the focus is all on them? Dale Carnegie said the same sort of thing and I've been using that as gospel for years, but its not enough!

So many people tell me how nice I am and how much they remember what I said or did for them. When do I get to share my values, my passions, my dreams, my disappointments, and actually have someone else care (more than paying lip service and then moving on to a more interesting topic: them)? How could focusing on them even more make the difference?

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posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Well, obvious first question: Do you actually ever approach other people with requests for their mental/emotional support? Lots of people don't pick up on that sort of thing very easily. It doesn't mean they don't care - it just means they don't know.

It's been my experience that the "big, strong, stable" friend or collegue is often assumed to have no troubles of their own -- otherwise how can they have their shit so together, and be so able to support us? It's not through ambivalence that they don't see you have the same kinds of needs as them; rather they probably are operating under the misapprehension that you live some sort of magical, problem-free existence.

You're lucky in that at least your efforts, by your own description, are very much appreciated. I don't think you need to do MORE of the same (I have to say -- I think that advice is shitty!!). Rather, you should inject some of your own experiences into your support for other people when you are called upon to be the shoulder, the hand-holder, the cheerleader, what have you. You can share the times that you have had a very similar experience that they are facing now, and tie that into how you are empathizing with them. You might even mention, when they are telling you how nice you are, or how much they benefitted from your help, that "Hey, everybody needs someone to be their sounding-board, even me! I know everybody thinks I have my stuff together all the time, but it's not easy for me either! I'm glad I could help you, I like to think it goes both ways for us."
posted by brain cloud at 7:28 PM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

What if you focused not just on helping and giving to other people, but noticing the differences among them? There are, for example, other people out there who have a similar experience to you -- I've read other posts like this on Ask.Metafilter, although not exactly like this -- what if there was someone else near you who was similarly giving, and felt similarly unreciprocated from his or her current circle?

Your post mentions people as though they are all the same. I'd be willing to bet that you've tried and tried with different people, getting the same result, and that your characterization isn't based on too little experience. But what if you observed people's behavior before getting involved? You could conceivably observe many more people while staying (as you already are) a little aloof, and then find the people with whom you wanted to get involved.

Also - I think that older people tend to be less self-centered; it may be that your therapist, for example, is older, has older and/or more sensitive friends, and so doesn't fully grasp what you're up against if you're (for example) 25 or 30. Additionally, I think that certain groups of people are more or less generous; having moved from a tech school where almost everyone was focused on getting a good-paying job to a, well, more nurturing environment, I'm incredibly grateful that I've had a chance to see that there's a whole other universe of people that I'd not met before, the majority of my family included.
posted by amtho at 7:30 PM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've known people like you, and they tend to attract people who will use them, because they can. I'm not saying all your friends are consciously manipulating you; it's likely that they don't even know they're doing it. But someone who is self-centered is necessarily going to be drawn to someone who will reflect their best self back to them - a "cheerleader," as you put it. You've always been there for them, so of course they call you when they need something.

I don't feel like anyone really cares about me the way I care about them.

Everyone I know has felt this way at some point in their lives. It's almost never actually true. What's probably going on is that you're not feeling cared for in the way you'd like to be, but you can't (or feel you shouldn't have to) express that to others. You need to be a little selfish. Butt in and tell them about YOUR day, about YOUR frustrations, about YOUR hopes and dreams. Ask them to help you move or support you emotionally through grad school (or whatever). I think that being direct and genuine is the route to having people care about you, not giving of yourself until you're resentful about it. I bet you will find that people will listen to you - and the ones that don't, or brush you off, get rid of them.
posted by desjardins at 8:19 PM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Practicing gratitude as opposed to entitlement enables us to extend inspiration to others. Being grateful helps remove the influence of our ego. Being grateful allows us to adopt humility, which is also persuasive in helping others.

When we encounter people who brag and talk about me, me, me, we tend to want to avoid them. Vanity, conceit, and boasting are all signs of entitlement. Gratitude and humility, on the other hand, send signals to others that we are connected.

As ironic as it may sound, we're far more inspiring to others when we're listening rather than giving advice. Conveying to others that we value what they have to say demonstrates that we care. People who find it difficult to listen to another person without bringing the conversation back to themselves become convinced by their ego of their own self-importance.

Being told we are a good listener is a great compliment. Everyone loves a good listener because it makes them feel cared for, loved, and worthy of being heard.

Being at peace with ourselves, comfortable in our skin if you will, helps us avoid conflict and confrontation. When we are tranquil, our energy impacts others positively. Conversely, belligerent people who live in turmoil and hostility send out negative energy. We tend to remove ourselves from that energy.

So practice gratitude, listening, tranquility and peace. Daily meditation helps with all of these. If you become an emissary of serenity, that is the energy you will radiate to others. Don't be surprised then, when you begin to get some of it back.
posted by netbros at 8:50 PM on May 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

I feel invisible when I help others. I don't feel like anyone really cares about me the way I care about them

So many people tell me how nice I am and how much they remember what I said or did for them

That reads like a bit of a disconnect, to me. That seems like you might be hearing the words come out of their mouths but then immediately discounting them so they don't really "stick". If that's what's going on, I'm betting your habitual response to compliments is more like "Oh, it was nothing, really" than "Thanks!". If it's not, then I'm on the wrong track and you should ignore the rest of this.

why would it make them value me as a person if the focus is all on them?

If I've picked the dynamic accurately, your friends already do value you as a person, but you're just not believing that, for whatever reason. It seems likely to me that what your therapist is trying to get you to do is pay a little more attention to the responses you're actually getting from other people, rather than doing some kind of comparison to an internally expected response and rejecting or ignoring anything that isn't an exact match.

In other words, this isn't about changing your present behaviour and shifting "the focus" in any objective sense. It's more about shifting your focus, so that instead of other people's appreciation of you remaining blurry and indistinct, you actually notice it enough to do you some good.
posted by flabdablet at 9:03 PM on May 30, 2008

That, or get better friends - if there's enough negativity there that you have to work hard to stay positive about these people, find less unpleasant people to hang around with.
posted by flabdablet at 9:05 PM on May 30, 2008

I think you need to work on being a little more selfish. If your needs are not being met in friendships, then what is the point? It is noble, but not your obligation to serve those around you without getting anything in return.
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:12 PM on May 30, 2008

It's a balance I struggle with too. [does a little Empathizer Power! fist]

On the one hand, Mother Teresa:
I have found the paradox that if I love until it hurts, then there is no hurt, but only more love.

On the other hand, Seneca:
We must be especially careful in choosing people, and deciding whether they are worth devoting a part of our lives to them, whether the sacrifice of our time makes a difference to them. For some people actually charge us for our services to them.

I agree with brain cloud and desjardins (actually I agree with everyone so far, but)--you may need to be more aggressive in asking for support. And that's hard. It helps to keep an open mind about who your good friends are--give people you wouldn't normally count on the opportunity, and more often than not they'll surprise you with how caring they can be.
posted by hippugeek at 9:19 PM on May 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Your question brought to mind a similar one from a while back, which I think will have some useful responses for you.
posted by essexjan at 4:06 AM on May 31, 2008

No. Doing too much for someone can actually alienate him or her. They wonder why you're doing it-- to ingratiate yourself? Make them feel obligated?

Help people when they need it. Being generous is great, but don't let it be the basis of your human interactions.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 10:01 AM on May 31, 2008

There's something in the way you phrased your question that makes me think that you approach relationships like they're a quid pro quo exchange: I "help" you, and therefore you are obligated to appreciate and then "help" me. You also seem like you might have a idea of "help" that corresponds not so much to what people actually need, but what you think they need and what a "good friend" ought to do. While this sense of objective moral obligation and duty is admirable (and indeed, sometimes called for in life) it's not really the stuff of true friendships and relationships. I don't feel close to my friends when they "help" me and I "help" them -- I feel close to them because I know them, and they know me, and we have fun together, and we are part of each other's lives. We aren't friends out of a sense of duty to each other.

In the end, I think that the helper/helped dynamic really isn't the best way to feel close to someone.
posted by footnote at 11:44 AM on May 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

I actually had a good friend finally tell me to stop being so helpful/nice to other people, it was making them feel bad. It was wonderful advice. A lot of times the uber helpful are insecure people trying to buy friends (I did that for a while). Other times, it's a quid pro quo situation that will never work out the way you planned and will cause a tremendous amount of bitterness.

The key is to stop thinking of friendship as a commodity and more as a chemical reaction. There are more factors to friendship than favors done and shoulders cried on - to boil it down to just a few elements destroys the entire concept. Be nice to people because you like them and don't care about being paid back, and you will find true friends.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:35 PM on May 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is a somewhat awkward thing to express, so bear with me here. I know a couple of people like you, that are genuinely good, helpful people who are cheerleaders for their friends, but who never seem to get that level of care returned to them. Now, I have no way of knowing if it happens to you for the same reason it happens to these people, but I am suggesting this in case it might be.

Basically, people might be friends with you only because you're such a nice person that they can't dislike you, yet there isn't enough clicking between you that they care about you.

It can make people feel awful about themselves when someone is great to them, just a wonderful person, and they still don't feel that "friendship spark" towards them. The few people that I know, for example, are wonderful, sweet people... but they're not very funny or interesting in my opinion, despite how good they are to me. We just don't click, and these people seem to have trouble clicking with many people. The problem is that no one has any good reason for declining the friendship of these people.

Now, whenever something unfortunate happens to me, these people are so sweet and so caring. I make a special effort to be there for those people when they need it... because I see that their other friends don't. To be completely honest, compared to the friends that I do click with, I don't have as strong an emotional reaction when my "nice" friends have something unfortunate happens to them. I wish there was not that discrepancy, but there it is. I consciously think to be there for those people when it's my natural reaction for other people. I know rationally that they deserve to have someone there for them, and I do care about them on one level, but it's just not the same as my closer friends.

I think people tend to grow closer to those that they've laughed with and have many shared interests, rather than those who are nicest to them. This is a sort of cruel truth, I think. They will be there for the people they think are interesting because they really want to be, but they will be there for the nice people out of a sense of obligation or justice -- if they bother at all, and some people cannot manage it. Sometimes people will care a great deal for an entertaining person, even if that person is a crappy friend to them.

So ask yourself if you might be that "nice person." Do you feel like you entertain your friends, or you're more an emotional support? Are people friends with you because you have so much in common and have a lot of fun together, or because you're a good, supportive person?

I want to stress that there's nothing at all wrong with being the "nice person," and it's just unfortunate that people sometimes care about people for reasons that don't make the most sense. I also don't mean to imply that you're objectively boring or something, just that you might be hanging out with people that aren't the best fit for you. After all, someone really nice can find company lots of places, it just means you're more likely than less supportive people to find yourself in company that you have little in common with.

If you think you might be the "nice person," my advice is to find friends that you really click with. The nice people that I know do have a handful of those people that they actually go have a blast with. For whatever reasons their personalities only mesh with a comparatively narrow range of people, but who cares, right? Find those people. When my "nice" friends have troubles, they can usually count on those few people.

Now, an alternative: there certainly are some people that are just crappy friends. Their friends will always be there for them, yet they are never there in return. Sometimes one will find herself in a situation where the majority of her friends, or even all her friends, are that kind of person. To some people, friendship means "I go places with this person and borrow things from them" and no more. At the very least, internally identify these people so you don't expect anything else from them, or give them more support than they give you. There's nothing inherently wrong with having fun with someone who doesn't necessarily care a whole lot about you. If you feel it's necessary, though, weed them out -- especially if they expect you to be there for them emotionally -- and don't be friends anymore.
posted by Nattie at 5:37 PM on June 2, 2008 [4 favorites]

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