It took me a long time to be able to look in the mirror of life and see my own patterns. And in that time, I forgot how to love myself. I forgot that I have worth. I forgot that I matter too. Let me tell you a story.
Growing up as the youngest in a family comes with certain responsibilities. I am a firm believer in the role that birth order plays in personality development and familial relationships. According to Alfred Adler’s work on birth order and personality, some traits often seen in youngest children are “confidence, ability to have fun and comfort at entertaining others” (Swanson Topness, 2014). Regarding youngest children, a 2006 CareerBuilders.com article says that “because they often identify with the underdog, they tend to champion egalitarian causes.” It goes on to list famous babies of the family, including Cameron Diaz, Jim Carrey, Drew Carey, Rosie O’Donnell, Eddie Murphy, and Billy Crystal.
Speaking as someone on the inside, I’ll let you in on a little secret: so many youngest children are comedians because we like to make people feel good. When we observe someone in pain or in a glum mood, our reaction is usually, “What can I do to make this person’s day a little brighter? What can I do to make them forget about their pain for just a little while?” As a child, I always saw my role as the family comedian, not because I like the attention so much as because I want happiness and joy for those who mean the most to me. This is a beautiful trait, but can be turned into something not so beautiful. In my case, I allowed that innocent behavior to morph into a people pleasing mentality that led me down the path of a chronic rescuer.
I had goosebumps when I came across this definition of a rescuer: “A person who prevents something from failing” (Rescuer, n.d.). If you believe that your purpose in life is to prevent love, joy, and happiness from failing for those around you, but forget that you yourself are a valuable factor in that equation, it can lead to depression, anxiety, and all sorts of dark places. For me it led to one unhealthy relationship after another – one broken marriage after another. I put others before me, sometimes to a fault. No, not sometimes to a fault. Always to a fault. I will compromise and cave to any demands if I believe it will make the other person happy. While this is often successful in the short term, it is far from sustainable. It cannot last.
Let me tell you why it cannot last. As much as I would love to believe that I can provide endless support and happiness, I can only give so much for so long without receiving anything in return. Ah, but what if I live in denial and simply don’t acknowledge that fact? What if I just fake it till I make it? If those around me are happy, that’s all that really matters…right? Right?!
Wrong. Take a long look at the image below. At first glance, this photograph might make you think, “Wow. What a true representation of a wonderfully symbiotic and supportive relationship.” Look again. Look how that hand is bent at the wrist. How long can it be expected to hold that position before fatigue causes it to slip in a way that will likely damage both itself and the tree. In life, I end up supporting the full weight of someone else’s hopes and dreams (not to mention their extensive physical possession wish list), with no hope of reciprocation. Without the give-and-take support of a truly loving and committed relationship, we will fail, which is exactly what happened with my last marriage. But that just opens a can of worms. If I am not enough for someone else, who am I really? Where is my purpose?
As I am left picking up the pieces after the divorce, one of my realizations is that I have no idea who I am and I certainly don’t love the glimpses of me that I do see peeking out from the shadows. I have always become whatever my significant other or friends or family need me to be. Instead of loving myself for who I am, which will in turn encourage others to love me for who I am, I try to be whoever they want or need me to be. I find my identity in creating a self that matters to a specific individual. Whoever they need me to be so that I can bring joy into their life and make it just a little bit better, well, that’s who I will be.
While reading through some past journal entries, I came across this entry: “I hit the physical checklist items for [ex’s name]’s dream girl, so at least I have that going for me. Now I have to face the hard journey of becoming his emotional/mental dream girl.” Umm…excuse me? Even I can see how unhealthy that is and I WROTE IT.
I also do my very best to cover up, hide, or extinguish the mental health issues I have battled my entire life. Who wants to be with a crazy person…a bonafide mental case?! I’ve always hated those parts of me, so I thought anyone else should hate them too. I have spent my adult life being told by my significant other in every serious relationship that 1) you worry too much and should just stop stressing, 2) you have issues, 3) you need help, and eventually 4) I can’t deal with this. There comes a point when, no matter how hard I try to keep it hidden, my anxiety and depression bleed into the life I have created with another person. In the end, their rejection is always what hurts the most. It leaves me wondering why my all just wasn’t good enough.
You might be asking yourself right about now why I would ever stay in or prolong such unhealthy relationships. The answer is simple: I’ve never felt worthy of anything better. I thought that if I could love others so completely, I would somehow develop worth over time. If I could just prove to the world that I make it a better place and that I contribute a little bit of joy, then I have a purpose. If someone needs me, I am valuable, if not valued. I became a victim of my own good intentions. The unfortunate side of this mentality is that it draws a certain manipulative and selfish person – one who uses and abuses a giver until that giver has nothing left to offer. Sometimes the abuse is intentional, sometimes it’s not. Either way it is present. Because I have never understood my great value as an intelligent and loving individual, I accepted the abuse and then stuck around for more.
And there it is. Therein lies the true symbiotic relationship between ourselves and others. We must love ourselves so we understand how much we are worth. In turn, this will bring our standards up so we don’t tolerate being treated as less than we are worth – “if we want to experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthyof love and belonging” (Brown, 2010, p. 23). What’s more, according to Brown, “we can only love others as much as we love ourselves” (p. 26). How do you like them apples?
As my failing marriage heaved its last dying breath, I wrote this in my journal: “I need to focus on me, not rescuing someone else who doesn’t actually need or want to be rescued. This time I get to rescue myself. And hopefully turn into a wiser, stronger human in the process. I need to let myself be me – not whoever someone else needs me to be or wishes I was. I need to fit into my own world…not someone else’s.”
I leave you with this quote from an unknown author, as well as a brief message to all the “takers” out there.
“There is a rare breed of people that go all in. They keep their word, they give it all, they go the extra mile for those they care for. These individuals hardly ever receive the same passion and effort in return, yet never change and always give their all, hoping that one day maybe, just maybe, they find someone as rare as them to love them as fiercely and with as much devotion” (unknown).
To all the takers out there: You are as worthy of love as the next person, but it should never be at the expense of someone else. You are not better than anyone else. You are not more deserving. No one owes you anything. The only thing we owe each other is such a high degree of respect and kindness that it is virtually impossible for us to take advantage of or abuse another soul. Step away from your selfish tendencies, realize the world does not revolve around you, and start to show some appreciation for the people in your life who give without expectations. We are all worthy of love, but that love must be a two-way street. A dear friend put it this way to me recently: “It’s okay for someone to use and abuse you only if you are able to use and abuse them right back.” That’s what being there for each other truly means in the end.
Brown, Brene. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.
CareerBuilders.com. (2006). Oldest, Middle Youngest: Who’s Most Successful. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.aol.com/amp/2009/01/26/oldest-middle-youngest-whos-most-successful/
Chronic. (n.d.). In Merriam Webster online dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/chronic
Rescuer (n.d.). In online English Oxford Living Dictionaries. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/rescuer
Swanson Topness, Ellen. (2014, Jan 31). Adler’s Birth Order Theory. Retrieved from https://www.livestrong.com/article/73327-adler-birth-order-theory/