This is something I’ve been taught over years of gaining and sometimes losing people in (and out of) my life.
I’ve ruined friendships. I’ve cruelly smashed hearts. I’ve slowly eked away peoples’ trust in me, one selfish moment at a time. But I’ve also stayed too long in the wrong relationships, looked the other way when people I cared about put me in harm’s way, and allowed those I’d showed up for to not show up for me when I needed them, time and time again.
I’m either the servant or the served. Demanding or demanded of. Selfish or selfless. I can’t enjoy the ‘selfish’ times because I’m very aware of how stressful that can be for others, but when I’m in ‘selfless’ mode I’m both enjoying the act of serving someone I care about and frustrated that I’m DOING ALL THE DAMNED WORK. I feel like I’m hogtied to a metronome constantly clicking from ‘me’ to ‘you’ and back again ad nauseam, and that metronome has been slowly speeding up my entire adult life. Sure, I’ll take prestissimo (really, really fast, for the non-musical) over largo (slow as molasses) any day, but when can I get off the ride? Where can I find the balance between the two, a place where one can SIT STILL FOR A DAMNED MINUTE and not feel guilty about being neither a giver or a taker?! I end up so off balance that I’m never much help to ANYONE. These issues even wind their pernicious little fingers into my personality and the way I present myself to the world. You see, I love being my loud, opinionated self, and I don’t like keeping my mouth shut or my ‘weird’ at bay for too long, BUT I also had ‘how to be a “lady”‘ instilled in me from such a young age that the desire to be accepted and to be good to others more than myself keeps that tendency in pretty constant rotation. When I was younger, I TRIED to be sweet, quiet, unselfish, yielding, someone who doesn’t rock the boat, and I failed miserably at it. So I said I was giving it up for good, and in a way, I have. I start out every day saying ‘IMMA BE ME’, but along the way someone gives me a *look* and I’m instantly tossed into ‘ohshitI’mbeingabitchagainshutuptara’ and I pull back. After a little time in the ‘good girl’ zone, though, I want to bust out and BE again, and I do it, and someone says I sound shrill and bossy so I pull back… see the cycle here?
So this is the problem I’m seeing. My generation of women (some men too, damn you toxic masculinity) are torn between archetypes from the past and the future of our sex, none of which fit right now, especially when we’re trying to be EVERYTHING ALL AT ONCE. We’re louder than our mothers, demanding more for ourselves and tweeting our opinions in ALL CAPS. We live big and we love bigger, giving of ourselves and our hearts, partially because it feels so good and partially out of some guilt that we didn’t follow in the previous generations’ calmer, giving, and more patient footsteps. With that openness of heart we strive for, though, comes the regular possibility that we can OVER love, give much too much of ourselves and find ourselves at empty in our relationships, as we saw our mothers and grandmothers do so often. There is beauty in loving, of course, and love isn’t selfish or self serving, but in that same token, but there is so much pain in swallowing our needs and disappearing into a relationship and what it demands from us. For so many of us, finding the balance is our struggle.
Part of the weight on that balance for me is gauging the color of my mood ring, so to speak, as well as everyone else’s, staying attuned to the constantly undulating sea changes in all those around me, as my mother did, to try to keep the balance in our family. Along with monitoring everyone’s moods, I am also empathizing with everyone and trying to do anything I can to help. I do this because my ‘shitty’ just feels SO shitty (yeah depression!!!) that I want to help others avoid it as much as I can, because having my mom there for me helped so much, and more than anything to avoid being the cause of anyone else’s ‘shitty’, as I know I have been in the past. My mom kept me sane, listened to my problems, still endlessly gives of herself and her time to keep me afloat, and I feel as if I should and I WANT to do that for everyone else. She is superwoman, and I want to be superwoman too! As you can imagine, though, this endless analyzing and helping and giving can get tiring AF (just ask my mom). The tendency to help, to give, to ‘mother’, can get out of hand fast. I’m pretty sure you know what I’m talking about – the wounded birds we’ve scooped up along the way, the fixer-upper partners we wasted too much time propping up, the acquaintances that became friends that we don’t necessarily connect on a deep level with became those we feel we *have* to make time for, send holiday cards to, and invite to every function.
After spending a childhood watching the women in my life give endlessly of themselves with little returns aside from the pride they got from being such amazing people, I said FUCK that, and in escaping those roles, ended up hurting people with impunity in my teens and early twenties. I got what I wanted, took advantage of what was given to me and didn’t return the favor, didn’t listen to others, and generally acted like an ass. Then somewhere in my mid twenties, I grew up enough to be honest with myself about what a dick I’d been, started mending those fences, and going the other way with my friendships. I felt so guilty for the person I’d been that I started not speaking up for myself at all when I needed something and acting the role of ‘big tough Tara’ while actually being the opposite, caving to almost everyone around me and ignoring my own needs. I took on as many friends as possible and tried to please everyone, failed miserably at being good for anyone, and in the end, spiraled into a depression that almost swallowed me whole. That damned metronome just kept speeding up – 10 years of taking everything I could get, then 5 years of giving too much, then back to taking for a bit and almost directly back into giving, I now feel like I waver between the two hundreds of times daily. My head spins at the speed of it all, and I feel like I’m not really much further than when I started. It still hurts to type the first sentence of this paragraph, because why is just giving enough for those amazing women and not for me? Shit, I don’t even have or want kids, and I STILL want more than they had? Who am I to demand more? More than WHAT? Why am I a selfish, self centered asshole?!
At some point, we’ve got to say ENOUGH.
There has got to be a middle ground here.
Here’s a few steps that I *think* can start to get us there.
- The constant mood analyzing we do for others can and should be turned inward to become the perfect tool to make sure that you’re getting back what you give. Checking in with your relationships periodically, even the healthy and happy ones, and making sure that it’s a general 50/50 balance, is so SO so important. Keep in mind that the seesaw tips one way or the other now and again, of course, but really LOOK at your relationships every once in a while. Otherwise, you may glance up one day and find all of your seesaws tipped every which way from a history of small issues becoming imperceptibly bigger and therefore so much harder to overcome over time. Turn that empathic energy in toward yourself and check in with YOU every once in a while. You deserve that.
- Making sure that you are clearly voicing your needs, large and small, in a constructive way ensures that the person you’re engaging with has every opportunity to be there for you in exactly the ways you need them to be, and allows them to do the same. Tell the people you love what you need. They’ll show up for you – and if they don’t, then you know you need to move on.
- Fight the tendency to compete with or compare yourself to the people you love (or anyone, really, but that’s a topic for another day), especially other women. Lift everyone around you up. Measuring your life by someone else’s is a sure way to miss out on the beauty around you. There’s so much I’ve missed out on by focusing on what others had that I thought I didn’t – imagine what’s out there that I don’t even KNOW that I missed! Yeesh. Don’t let jealousy creep in, and don’t let someone else’s choices make yours feel less than, in any way. Including your saint of a mother/grandmother/aunt/female role model.
- It’s easy to put them off, but having that hard conversation with someone you know you need to have that you’ve been putting off for a week, a year, or a decade will NEVER be something you regret in the long run, as long as it’s done with kindness and honesty. Step out of your comfort zone and into the mess, because allowing problems to fester is the fastest way to pain and ruin. It’s probably the #1 way I’ve hurt people in my relationships. Don’t be me (not in that way, at least).
- Monitoring the guilt of modern life is huge in finding balance. You will never do it all. You will never be able to constantly keep in touch with ALL of your long distance friends. It’s not possible to be the perfect friend, child, sibling, partner, parent, coworker, etc, simultaneously, and it’s downright ridiculous to expect that from ourselves. You cannot be the perfect lady AND the boss bitch in every moment of every day, and some people won’t like what your balance between the two looks like. Bad days happen, FOMO will sometimes creep up, you will snap at someone you love for no real reason or bail on plans because you need some mental space, you will disappoint someone and STILL, YOU ARE and WILL ALWAYS BE A GOOD, KIND, WORTHWHILE PERSON.
In the end, it seems to me that the balance in any relationship is always best when you’re doing what you can in any given moment to be kind to others AND to yourself. As long as you’re doing that, you’re exactly where you should be, and those that you find fall away from your life then aren’t meant to be there anymore. However, those that love your weird and your loud and your uncomfortable and that you love right back, will return the favor and do their best to match what you give them in their own way. Look for these people in your life, and keep them. This process will pretty majorly shave down your guest list for parties. You will have pangs of guilt for letting go of some people, stabs of anger toward other people, and miss parts of every relationship that disappears. Look, inviting someone in to your real self is a vulnerable place to be, and finding people who love you enough to strap in next to you on the metronome isn’t easy. IT’S OKAY THAT YOU’RE NOT PERFECT. We post-Boomer women are stuck between Betty Crockerdom and real, *actual* equality, and we’re doing the best we can to navigate the imbalance. So take when you need to take, give when you can give, and try not to beat yourself up, okay?