When you study psychology sometimes it has the effect of making you empathic to the point of needless self-sacrifice. I’ve stayed in relationships far longer than was healthy simply because my understanding of the human psyche kept me from being honest with myself. I’d have a friend who was constantly negative, self-absorbed and abrasive, whose company I didn’t particularly enjoy, but I’d keep calling and inviting because I’ve been depressed and I understand what psychological stress can do to a person. The lengths I’d go to to excuse bad behavior sometimes appeared limitless, but I justified them because I felt I had special knowledge and understanding. I’ll admit to you that I was a “mean girl” from about third grade through the beginning of undergrad (we can talk more about that shameful period of my life, and why people bully another time) and so I seemed to think that unlimited empathy was a sort of karmic reparation I was paying. I wanted people in my life, a lot of people, and I would take all kinds. It didn’t matter whether they were giving anything in the relationship. I could more than compensate for what they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) offer, because I have the skills to bridge the gap. What a bunch a self-serving shit that was, and it drew quite an assortment of toxic people into my world.
When I was going through my very public alcoholic meltdown, in the first weeks of my shaky recovery, a friend told me I needed to let go of people who weren’t adding anything positive to my life. “Fuck ‘em” was the exact term she used. My greatest fear as an extrovert was that if I did let go, or expect more, I might find myself utterly alone. And since I had no sense of self, I was terrified at the prospect of facing the whistling hole where my self esteem wasn’t. I couldn’t accept her words, or even process them within the context of my life. Just six months before this conversation, the group of friends my estranged husband and I had asked to stand up with us at our wedding had gone away to a lake cabin for a long weekend, without inviting us. At the time I convinced myself that the exclusion didn’t hurt because they had all been friends longer, and they had the right to not invite whoever they wanted. This group was the first to turn their backs on us when our relationship hit the rocks, and we never really heard from them again. Fuck ‘em. But at the time, I was full of excuses for them and justifications for why it was ok that they abandoned and excluded us. I had no right to expect other people to care about me when I was in crisis, because it was my issue, not theirs.
It was indeed my issue that I was so uncomfortable with myself that I was willing to accept such cold behavior from friends. I felt that asking for my needs meant I was one more difficult person in someone’s life, and that I needed to have better boundaries. Meanwhile, it was fine for people to ask for or demand anything from me, and I would do my best to accommodate. Does this sound familiar? It’s called codependency, people, and it will drain your life so low. I made a New Year’s resolution after that miserable year, which was no pandering, no pretending, no putting up and shutting up. It was time to explore having expectations in relationships, and boundaries, and needs. I had at last reached a point where continuing on in codependency was more painful than the vulnerability of assertion. It’s been a gradual process and completely worth the effort.
Just today a friend was telling me how in one of her relationships she’s often poked with assertions like, well just wait until your husband (fill in the blank with any abusive/neglectful behavior) that make her feel defensive and uncomfortable. This friend suffers from the same empathy abundance I do, and I found myself immediately saying, you can’t have people like that in your life. It felt like I had crossed over, into a new place where standards exist. It’s not that I don’t care about people anymore, or that I can’t understand the struggles friends face, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to expose myself to someone else’s bitterness in the guise of friendship. It’s not friendship if you’re the one doing all the listening, or all the advising, or all the inviting, or all the caring. And if you’re out there, looking for a friend with low expectations, don’t come over here. Save it, just keep it off my wave.