Friday, February 6, 2015

Taking Care

It's been a ... complicated... week, involving lots of repairs and maintenance.  To things like cars, bathrooms, and, well, my own little eyeballs, actually.

So it's been a week in which I've occasionally had to remind myself to "breathe" and that "this too shall pass."  (I sure would prefer if it "passed" sooner rather than later, obviously.)

I've been doing some reading about what's known in psychology as a "Caretaker" personality.  In fact, I took a little test, and it was determined that I fall in the category of "Pathological Altruist."

Oh dear.

I can't say that comes as much of a surprise.  At best, I was hoping for the label of "Protesting Colluder" (because I really do protest--honest, I do), but when I read the description, I knew I would come up a "Pathological Altruist."
"...you find joy in giving to others.  You like making others feel happy.  You often surprise others with thoughtful gifts and doing favors.  However, you may find it uncomfortable and a little embarrassing when others do the same for you.  You don't know how to accept thanks, or you may brush off gratitude or blush when others are appreciative.  It may take you quite awhile before you notice that your needs, wants, and feelings are not paid much attention... Although you may notice some internal anger about this unfairness, it is probably very hard for you to share this feeling with anyone." (Fjelstad, 41)
Until I go bat-shit ballistic, that is.  Then I start "sharing my feelings" right and left, using all kinds of choice words and colorful phrases that many of my close friends have acknowledged (after the fact) that they found ... surprising.

A friend of mine who's both a linguist and a non-native speaker of English once said, "I must say, you've clearly mastered both ends of the linguistic spectrum when it comes to English.  I would never have believed that someone who can speak and write with such poise and elegance could also hit on such truly vulgar phrases to describe her gut-level reactions to people when she's angry."

I think that's a strong sign that I'm indulging in Caretaking to a "pathological" extent.  If you take care of everyone but yourself, eventually, you will feel exhausted and wounde and start to scream with sheer resentment.

Not that anyone is really inclined to listen to you, by that point.  You've trained people to steam-roll over your needs or your feelings and they are basically at a point where they can easily assume that you don't have any needs or feelings, really, because you've spent months (if not years) pretending that you don't.

Not good, obviously.

I've known for a while that this is an issue with me, and I've worked for years (seriously--this kind of behavior dies really hard) on setting better boundaries.  I've gotten a little better when it comes to professional relationships (emphasis on little there, because I know that I have miles to go), but it's something that is particularly hard for me when it comes to personal relationships.

As Fjelstad points out, the Caretaker personality is formed in family relationships, early on.  And once established, it's a hard pattern to break.  At times, it becomes so engrained in the person's sense of self, that they aren't even aware that it's a behavior, per se.  To the Caretaker, this just feels like being "who you are" or who you "want to be."  It becomes intricately tied to the person's sense of self and personal values.

I've found a lot of advice that has been very helpful.  One image worked particularly well for me: a person can "help" in the sense that a lighthouse helps. 

Obviously, lighthouses are there to safeguard all the ships at sea.  However, lighthouses don't wade out into the ocean and board a ship and try to steer it to safety.  They just stand there.  They're a light of optimism and caution--the shoreline is right here, but be careful, so are the rocks--and people can choose to be guided by the light.  If they don't, though, don't blame it on the lighthouse.

A friend of mine who is an attorney told me years ago that, in her profession, she had had to learn to distance herself from situations in which she was beating her head against a wall offering advice that was never going to be listened to.  She said, "It's very hard to accept, but sometimes, senseless though it is, the train just has to crash.  Don't be on board when it does."

She added that, in her experience, people are just as happy when someone shows up to help pick over the rubble and support someone in rebuilding a life, and that they're more likely to be able to do that without anger or judgment if they've taken care of themselves.  

Another friend of mine who has survived a train-wrecked life agreed.  She said that she remembers feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the people who showed up after it was all over and helped and encouraged her to find a different path.  She said, "I found that this was the best way they could show their concern and friendship for me."

She said, "At the time when my life was out of control, though, they left.  And at that time, I had all kinds of bitterness--I went on and on and on about 'loyalty' and 'betrayal' and 'true friendship.'  But in hindsight, when I think about it now, I say to myself, well, of course they left.  They had to.  No one could be dealing with me, the way I was.  It wasn't going to help.  I had to crash.   I'm glad they weren't on board for that."

In a sense, my friends were describing a category identified as "Self-Protectors":
"Self-protecting Caretakers have learned to step away from the drama... You set limits and refuse to interact with [people who are] manipulative and demanding.  By thinking ahead, you plan your interactions... You work consistently to be aware of your own thoughts, needs, and beliefs in order to maintain a separate sense of yourself." (Fjelstad, 43)
Achieving a sense of self-protection in a Caretaker is hard-won, of course: "You may feel like you are being mean, uncaring, and manipulative... Every decision and behavior on your part has to be well chosen to keep yourself out of the emotional drama" (43).

In the end, however, Self-Protecters "come to understand that expecting [others] to change is futile.  Being kind and considerate and at the same time setting boundaries and limits ... is a constant challenge, but this is the primary goal of the self-protecting Caretaker" (44).

It's a goal that involves taking care of oneself so that one can take care of others-- a choice that will, ultimately, embody the kind of altruism that is inherently appealing to the Caretaker personality.  It is consciously choosing to be care-full of oneself and careful with others.

So this is my New Year's Resolution for 2015: to become a Self-Protecting Altruist, instead of a Pathological one.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."