Sometimes I write a post, and the words flow with little effort on my part. It is as if an idea is born into the ether with its own agency. Sometimes, however, I feel anxiety because I know I’m going to say something that might be misunderstood or easily misinterpreted. I’m anxious right now. I might be writing something that could be misunderstood. So, please, bear with me. My intention as always is for the higher good.
Have you ever had a friendship just sort of dissolve? It was there one day robust with life and energy and then wilting the next? Suddenly, it’s as if your relationship is experiencing death throes, and you’re not even sure what happened? This happened to me recently, and I’ve not been wont to write about it because I’ve been quiet about most things lately. I haven’t been writing much at all.
Mostly, I needed to think about the sudden loss and really come to a truthful conclusion about my part in it. I didn’t feel like I had done anything wrong, and yet I felt so exploited and taken advantage of at the same time. Why? No relationship comes to a halt and just ends because of one person. Surely, I had a part to play in it, and, honestly, I did not like that idea. So, I’m going to step into the light and engage in some real talk in the form of self-examination. Also, not something I love. Real talk. Alas, sometimes real talk is necessary.
If you come from a codependent family with any kind of trauma in your background, then you might be familiar with the idea of the archetype. Perhaps you have always been the Good Child, the Incorrigible Child, the Bad Kid, the Perfect Child, the Inherently Evil Child, the Helper, the Pleaser, the Too Much but Never Enough Child, the Always In The Way Kid, the Scapegoat, the Fixer, the Invisible Child, or the Too Broken to Fix Child. You get the idea. Sometimes we are a combination of a few of these. You might be something I left out. And, oftentimes, no matter how much truly meaningful work we do in our lives to put things right, we carry these labels with us into our adult vocations and relationships because, as I’ve learned, we might still have the drive to prove that we are not the labels we got stuck with so long ago. It isn’t as if we are 100% committed to the belief that we are the embodiment of these familial roles we were thrust into, but, at the same time, at least for me, it has felt like I’ve been trying to prove a point for a long time. To whom? Maybe myself? It isn’t clear anymore, but this is how it manifested.
In a lot of my relationships, it seems that I will make myself overly available. I will be the one to count on. I will listen, show up, and give away my emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and even physical resources without much expectation of reciprocity. I used to think that this was just how relationships were, but, in reality, this is not how healthy relationships function. Healthy relationships are not one-sided in which one person gives to the other with little in return–for years. There is nothing blessed about that. Even if the other person acknowledges the imbalance and still continues to take, does the acknowledgement make the relationship less imbalanced? Less exploitative, dare I ask? No, not really. If I don’t tighten the boundaries, lessen the emotional, psychological, intellectual, and physical outflow, then who is ultimately responsible for resultant feelings of exploitation? Me.
So, what’s the real talk here? I was in a friendship wherein I gave away far too much for too long but received far less in return in terms of support and reciprocity. There wasn’t a consistently mutual exchange, and I knew that. It felt oddly normal to me. In retrospect, I observe that I engaged in a form of magical thinking in which I continued to believe that if I invested time and effort–capital if you will– for long enough, when the time came to draw on that capital, there would be a return–not a declaration of bankruptcy on the other end. And, that’s what happened. My friend metaphorically declared bankruptcy in the form of saying that she had no capacity for friendship when I finally asked for support during a very real and legitimate time of need. She essentially spent all the capital I had invested over the years. It was like a relational Ponzi scheme. A defrauding. And I felt deeply hurt and exploited. That’s not to say that she was definitively exploitative or possessed bad character. She wasn’t and didn’t. For the sake of my own learning, however, I can see now that there was a trend; and I discounted it. And this is worth exploring.
So, who set me up for that exploitation? Me or her?
This is a dangerous question to ask particularly if one has been victimized because there is an unspoken rule when it comes to victims and exploitation: it isn’t our fault. No one asks to be exploited. Hear me out. This is really important.
I had a hidden expectation, and that expectation was that my friend was going to come through for me during a time of need. So, I willingly gave away my precious resources to her banking on a future reality that may or may not arrive. I was counting on what I believed about her character. My trust was misplaced. A case could easily be made that we all trust people and are proven wrong from time to time. That isn’t our fault. Blaming ourselves to avoid feeling grief and disappointment is not the proper way to handle the emotional processing of pain. Agreed. That’s not what I’m saying.
I’m trying to elucidate something deeper. Why did I give away everything for free in the first place? Why didn’t I set up a model for a reciprocal exchange? Why was I always there even when it was so far outside what was good for me? What was at play? People will likely take what you offer them. If it’s free, then they will likely take it. If we value what we are giving to others, then wouldn’t we want something in return? Wouldn’t we ask for reciprocity? Wouldn’t we expect it? Why? Because, as it turns out, nothing in life is really free at all. Someone is usually always paying for the unreciprocated exchanges be it through the absorbing of inequities, emotional hits, somatic symptoms, and the intellectual energy required to process ideas and thoughts after every interaction. Plus, our time is immensely valuable. Doctors, coaches, psychologists, lawyers, healthcare providers, and the like charge for their time and expertise. The exchange of money adds reciprocity to the entire exchange between a client and expert. It says, “What you are giving me is valuable, and I am acknowledging that as well as participating in the exchange.” Eventually, you will be functioning at a deficit if you give yourself and your personal resources away for little or nothing particularly if you do so while magically expecting that someone will one day reimburse you. It just doesn’t work that way. You’ll just be continually exploited because there will always be needs in the world that far exceed your resources to meet them.
In a way, it was like I let the water faucet run continuously and anyone could come drink freely. Why did I expect anyone to stop taking water? Why did I expect anyone to fill my well when it ran dry? I left the tap on and received a huge water bill! So, why expect a different outcome when I never asked for payment in exchange for the water? I never expressed that expectation before. I simply gave it all away and did so happily. More than that, I expected that when I had a bucket that needed filling–at some point in the future–someone who had been taking water from me for free would have water to give me; or, money to give me to pay that huge water bill. It sounds absurd when I put it like this.
Why would anyone ever do such a thing? Well, because that’s what Good Children do. They are never selfish. They are always generous, kind, selfless, and happy to share everything. You can always count on the Good Child. They are perfect in every way. They can fix anything. They can solve every problem. They are boundless. They become whatever the situation calls for. Their well never runs dry. They never tire of doing right. And, they never say ‘no’.
That was my role. That was who I was from early childhood until recently–apparently. For me, this was a very important life lesson. I saw so clearly how I unwittingly participated in my own exploitation largely because I had internalized the negative beliefs about what a “good person” does in the context of relationships and interpersonal exchanges. Moreover, I can’t overlook the societal programming of gender roles here particularly of Southern United States gender roles. Good Southern girls are always a wellspring of helpfulness, good manners, hospitality, grace, and beneficence.
The positive takeaways here are that 1) I can choose what attributes from my Southern upbringing I will keep, 2) I do not have to keep any of those negative core beliefs that define what being “good” actually means, and 3) I can learn what authentically positive relationships characterized by reciprocity look like and cultivate them. The other positive takeaway from this situation? I stepped away from this circumstance and tried to see what part I played in the relationship’s demise rather than stay in that very old but familiar “victim” state. The emotional experience of exploitation can be very familiar and, henceforth, triggering to many people who were formerly victimized. Getting above it, assessing our roles in how relationships are playing out, what might be motivating us and the choices we’re making, and sitting with discomfort are all very key parts of developing distress tolerance which ultimately contributes to our personal development and healing.
It makes us better.
As always, keep going!