Thursday, June 11, 2009

Taking Care of Business, Taking Care of Me

I don't usually think of myself as the sort of person who puts other people's needs in front of my own. The problem with that, however, is that on occasion, I have been known to do so. Since I don't think of myself as this sort of person, it can take me a really long time to figure out that I can periodically and in certain situations do that to my own detriment.

This summer, thus far, has been all about me taking care of me in terms of where I'm investing my emotional and intellectual energy. This is important, because 1) I need to get myself back in a happy place after all of the upheaval of the past academic year, and 2) I need to realize that my happiness isn't something that should be an afterthought. I'm sure this sounds selfish. I don't mean for it to sound selfish. It's not like I don't care about other people - my friends, my family. I do. But there's caring and then there's caring. And I can't be my last priority and then expect that I'll be higher on other people's lists.

One thing that I think has been helping me to become centered in this way has been working on scholarly stuff. The job may be just a job (and I do think that it is) but scholarship is part of my identity. When I'm not thinking in that particular way, I think I lose myself a little bit. So as much as I've been struggling through this article I'm working on, it is making me feel like I'm getting back in touch with who I am in important ways. It's nice to have that kind of focus; it's nice to feel like I'm working toward something concrete. And, while I love teaching and I'm passionate about teaching, I never feel this kind of focus in relation to it. Maybe because it's too interactive? Too immediate? (Which of course are the reasons that I love teaching.) I'm not sure.

But one result of all of this is that I've pulled back lately from taking care of other people, or, probably I should admit, a particular person. It became clear to me a few months back that my desire to take care of this person, which came from a real and genuine emotional place - or, let's just call a spade a spade, love - was ultimately not good for me. Now, I didn't shut this person out entirely, and I really do wish it would be possible to maintain a friendship with this person. But apparently the pulling back that I've done for my own good has caused this person pain. While I feel badly about the result, I can't find it in myself to revise my approach. I can't find it in myself to be "nice" or to go back to the way things were, or to forget what I've figured out about this relationship. I can't find it in myself to care about myself less. And, since I'm laying it all out on the table, I also can't find it in myself to feel guilt over how things are going.

I worry, though, that this means I'm a hard person. I worry that this means that I'm not an open and loving person. I don't believe that these things are true, but they nevertheless cross my mind.

The thing is, it's not easy to set new boundaries. It's not easy to protect oneself from past mistakes. It's not easy to refuse a person for whom you really do care a great deal, especially when you know that your refusal hurts that person. But I can't in good conscience do anything else. I have to take care of myself right now. I know this. The other person doesn't seem to get that. The other person seems only to see his own position, his own problems, his own predicament. And I think this person kind of hates me for pulling back. I think this person sees this as me not giving a shit about him.

I've tried to explain myself to him, but I think that may be doing more harm than good. I think that I may be cruel to him, when I think that what I'm being is honest. I know that historically I've had a hard time realizing when what I think of as honesty is really cruelty.

This is what happens when I realize that it's time for me to take care of me, maybe. Maybe I become cruel.

In spite of all of that, though, I feel very centered right now, and even happy. Maybe not ecstatically happy, but basically, happy. My life is what I want for it to be right now, if I'm honest with myself about how I'm really feeling. I'd rather be taking care of myself than waiting for somebody else to do it when that person just isn't going to do it. And it's difficult for me to beat myself up for that (although I've given it the good college try in this post), just because somebody spewed some passive-aggressive bullshit at me via email. What I feel more than anything, about the passive-aggressive bullshit, is anger. Anger at myself for responding to it, even if I did protect myself in my response, and anger that this person doesn't seem to see why things are as they are, that this person is projecting onto what I do/say/write things that I don't mean. Clearly, I give a shit. But, no, I won't hurt myself in order for somebody else to feel better. I feel like the distinction here is a pretty easy one to get.

And so, I return to the article. It's going along well, I think. I think I've finally figured out the structure of the thing, and what I actually mean to say. And as silly as this article is, I suspect it will be more widely read than most of what I've written to this point - it might even be a thing that non-academic family and friends could plow their way through and be interested in - and that is satisfying. And I suppose I'll run the dishwasher, and have a glass of wine. Because at the end of the day, I'm in a good place. And I'm not going to let the haters get in the way of that.


Flavia said...

I'm fairly certain that you aren't hard and you aren't cruel. I've come to believe that when we feel that way about ourselves--especially if we're the self-reflective sort who actually worry about such things--it is instead a sign that the other person, or the dynamic of the relationship, just isn't right.

Illustrative anecdote: I spent years believing that I was maybe, on some level, just a mean--or at least difficult and demanding person--since I seemed to hurt or upset boyfriends in certain ways rather routinely. And I felt bad about this, but still impatient with them, and then bad about how awful a person I was for feeling that way.

But when I started dating someone who reacted differently (who didn't become threatened or defensive or wounded in the ways I was used to), it dawned on me that, okay: I probably am difficult. But maybe the real problem was dating people who were bad matches for my personality. It was an astonishing experience--like acquiring a whole new self.

So, I'm really sorry you're dealing with this. But I think you're right to get such a cycle of bad-feeling-ness out of your life.

Maude Lebowski said...

i agree with flavia. i did a lot of self-sacrificing to make others happy because i thought making others happy is what would make me happy, and maybe i'm going out on a wild limb here, but i think that anytime a woman tries to take care of herself, society deems her as selfish. i don't think you're hard or cruel either. and i think flavia is also right with the personality conflict issue, too. whether you're taking care of yourself or not, if it's not a good fit, it's not going to work anyway. don't beat yourself up so. i think once i started staking a claim for myself, what i wanted to do, what i was and wasn't willing to give up to make someone else happy, then i was able to be a little happier with myself and start taking care of myself, physically, mentally, and emotionally. and it sounds like you're on the right track.


ms. baby said...

i've been in the position of the person you're talking about here...not wanting a full and mutual relationship, but still wanting the fun and exciting friendship. and i reacted exactly the way your interlocutor did: when my friend cut off contact after i refused to get further involved, i was very angry and thought he was being immature about the whole thing. it was only after he pointed out to me that it put him through extreme pain to have to sublimate his feelings just so i could enjoy his company that i realized how unfair i was being. and that's the thing, he didn't owe me his pain. and i felt truly shameful for having asked that of him. i'm basically repeating your post, because you've clearly come to this realization already, but coming at this from the other perspective, i think you're entitled to be that blunt and cut off contact without feeling hard or closed off.

Bavardess said...

Taking care of yourself first is not selfish or cruel (there could almost be another 'lesson for girls' in that!). The fact you are clearly thinking about your actions and reactions so deeply is in itself proof that you are not a selfish, hard or uncaring person. I don't know the background with the other person, but from this post, it sounds to me more like he is the one trying to manipulate you.
Glad the article is going well - I know what you mean about the 'scholarly stuff' helping you feel centred.

life_of_a_fool said...

Yup, I agree with others that I don't think you're being hard or selfish or cruel. (though I have been accused of being cruel, when I think I was being honest, so. . .) I agree with Bavardess that he is being emotionally manipulative and unfair. He may be genuinely feeling pain about the situation, but that doesn't mean you're wrong or selfish or cruel in taking care of yourself.

PowerProf said...

I suspect that we're in much the same place. I know what it's like to care for someone, want to help them, want to do for them, and yet not realize that you're taking care of others at the expense of yourself. And to realize that you need to pull away - and feel awful/guilty for all the changes. It's hard but it's time of growth. You sound happy - happy takes many forms and often isn't what we imagined it would be

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I think that finding the right love relationship is much like an academic job search. There are many candidates that just aren't right -- and a few that make your heart jump... but, they just aren't a good fit.

If he doesn't understand that being in a relationship with him isn't good for you -- and he gets mad about it, he isn't a good fit.

Ann said...

So--you're supposed to be available to him at any point in time, to be his "friend" and offer affection and friendship, but he's not obligated to do for you what you want and need?

I agree with the other commenters, but I might go even further. That's parasitic behavior--he wants to take and take from you but not give back. My rule is that relationships should--on balance, if not every day, week, or month--do at least as much for you as they demand of you.