I watched neglected puppies whimper to the voice of Sarah McLaughlin, and I broke into tears. The tiny mutts were helpless and lonely and I felt it as if I was the one left to huddle in a cold crate. My boss commented dismissively that I needed to get to work on time, and my insides shook with fear and insecurity. He was angry and I felt it as if it he were about to squash me like a bug. My boyfriend went on and on about his hatred of Project Runway, and I felt guilt for having suggested it and vowed to choose Sports Center more often on the weekends. My kid threw a fit because I couldn’t afford the train set he wanted, and I felt strangely afraid and worthless. I gave him four scoops of ice cream so he would stop crying and contemplated selling some jewelry to make the extra cash. I cringed when my boyfriend invited his mom to stay with us for the weekend, and resigned myself to staying silent throughout her overbearing moments. Asking her to stop sorting my mail and muttering “filth” under her breath might hurt her feelings, so I quietly suffered.
I wore empathy like a championship belt. “I am highly sensitive, somewhat of an empath,” I informed my therapist with a smile. “I am compassion in a world of cold.”
I was miserable.
My genes made me this way. In a vacuum, I would think and think and observe and notice and feel. I’d catch facts, and absorb feelings, and wonder a lot… how to fix, how to love and be loved.
My environment made me this way. I was not raised in a vacuum.
I told my therapist my upbringing was ideal because it was- filled with affection and attention and vacations and sports and sisters and cousins and a huge house… But, I’d slowly learn how the unspoken rules of that huge house were of identity-destruction disguised as empathy.
The unspoken rule was: Think like me, feel like me, agree with me, rescue me, overlap with me- and I will see you, and you will be good enough, and, because I am your parent, I have the power to link your survival with this rule. If you follow it, I will feed you; I will clothe you; I will shelter you.
The rules were written in the walls of the rooms where mom locked herself during silent treatments. The rules were written in my parents’ fights, which were out in the open, and sprinkled with threats of rejectjon for dissenting. They were written in the way a sister was screamed into submission instead of investigating the source of her academic deterioration. They were written in the empty fridge or threats of leaving when our lapses from the rules caused depression and rage. They were written in our mirrors, their reflections revealing wardrobes and haircuts chosen by someone else and smiles demanded by someone else. They were written in our church, aquiecence being the true lord and bringer of paradise.
Following the rules required acute awareness of my environment. Early on I started noticing and feeling every sigh, every heavy step, every eye roll. “Sometimes I want you to hate your father and sometimes I want you to respect him. Sometimes I want you to grow up and sometimes I want you to stay little; Sometimes I want your success and sometimes I compete with you. Satisfying me means being me, and if you don’t learn to anticipate my ever-changing perspective, you will meet my rejection.”
In childhood, my life depended on my abilities to be detective, psychic, emotional paramedic, peace-keeper, and circus monkey. I stayed that way into adulthood, but I just called it “people pleasing” or “compassionate” or “empathic.”
Shackled to the rules of my “ideal” childhood, I started avoiding work, because I felt shards of glass in my boss’s occasional annoyances. I hated my boyfriend’s temper, but felt responsible for resolving it. I stopped driving because the disapproving glance of another driver would make me feel six years a old and purposely ignored. I didn’t tell my neighbor his weeds were destroying my fence because I long knew assertiveness compromised my actual survival.
So therapy happened and I followed the rules for the first two months. “I am great; You are great. Therapy is great. Everything is great.” My therapist ran late one day unapologetically, and squeezed a proclamation of annoyance right out of me. When I admitted I was pissed, I felt strangely brave and free.
Over the next year, I learned some things from my sometimes-annoying and occasionally-late therapist…
Now, I don’t wear enmeshing empathy as a badge of honor. I have learned about something called a “boundary,” or a “buffer,” as Doctor-It’s-Okay-to-Feel-What-You-Feel sometimes calls it. I remind myself that I am me and they are they. I am responsible for me; he is responsible for him. She has her needs and perspectives and I have a right to mine. Another’s choice or anger or dissapointment doesn’t define me or even make a dent in the real aspects of my life or identity. I had to practice all that, little by little, through deep breaths and visualizations, and processing in therapy, and noticing the palpitations, and noticing my interpretations…
Now, others trying to guilt me, possess me, punish me for my needs, control me, or tell me I cause their behaviors, are red flags. Feeling overly responsible for others and denying myself for the sake of “survival” are also red flags. Being assertive and direct will not have catestrophic consequence. Garnering disapproval does not seal a devestating fate. Empathy is pure, having less to do with my identity or survival or avoidance of conflict.
Yes, I still cry at those damn puppies, but no, I’m no longer miserable.
*Does this sound like you, and you’re wondering where to start? A DBT therapist can help guide you toward “riding-out-without-owning” the bumps and bruises of life and also teach awareness, boundaries and assertiveness. Here is my favorite workbook (for those patients I have that don’t hate workbooks) on the subject. Also, I always say chronic people-pleasers with blurred boundaries would probably benefit from attending FREE codependents anonymous groups.
That’s all for now, and I hope this helped some of you chronic people-pleasers, says the therapist who recently discovered the art of capturing common dynamics in fictional blog posts…
Update: I just wrote a fictional version of the type of partner this person often finds herself with. And also, check out a very extreme version of this woman (very flimsy identity and strong emotional fluctuations; possessing borderline traits.) The type of partner the “borderlinish” person finds herself with is often somewhat narcissistic. The narcissist enjoys that his partner’s identity and behaviors revolve around him and how her neediness strokes his ego.
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