Are You Being Used? When Your Social Life is Like Social Work

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The world is divided into “givers and takers” or so we are told. Conventional wisdom advises that being a “giver” is the preferred choice, the moral high ground. Most of us don’t want to be thought of as selfish and non-reciprocal — self-involved. A giver is labeled “good,” an adjective we enjoy applying to ourselves.

Can you be too good? Can you be too giving — to the point of self-harm, to the point of allowing others to “use” you routinely? Is too much emotional generosity the equivalent of effacing your needs? Might it be like standing in a lunch line, affording deference and preference for latecomers to go first, and reaching the front too late for a meal?

If the answer is yes, how might you know whether you are giving too much?

Here are some signs your social life amounts to social work without salary, caring for others to the point of encouraging their misuse of you:

  1. Are you the “one” who listens to problems, the first person your acquaintances contact when upset? By itself, this might simply indicate you are kind and empathic. But disappointment follows when others don’t offer time or compassion for your worries.
  2. Do friends and acquaintances impose on you unreasonably? Do they regularly ask you to drop what you are doing to help them? Do they call late at night over small upsets without regard for your need to get up early the next morning?
  3. Beyond words of thanks, do your friends express gratitude in concrete ways, like sending you a greeting card, flowers, candy, or picking up the check at dinner?
  4. Do you recognize that reciprocity depends on respect? Those who become another’s servant do not command honor. Were fulfilling a master’s requests a guarantee of good treatment, slaves would be the best cared for class in the world.
  5. Do you find yourself disappointed too often when “friends” contact you only in need, not with social invitations once they bounce back from their troubles?
  6. Do you believe your singular value is what you can do for others? Do you doubt your worth beyond the ability to aid or console?
  7. Do too many relationships begin with the other’s effusive gratitude for your kindness, but move to a point where your generosity is taken for granted almost as an entitlement?
  8. Are you exhausted by the demands and requests of those closest to you?
  9. Can you say no when a favor is asked, be it your time, money, or a ready ear?
  10. Do you fear being dumped should you become less available when needed?
  11. Do you find yourself worrying about hurting people when you imagine what might happen if you say no?
  12. Do you hesitate to express strong opinions to your buddies? Are you afraid of rejection or criticism if you disagree?
  13. Are too many of your friends “troubled souls?” Do you associate with an unstable crowd, making it easy to take on the counselor, helper, or social work role?
  14. Do you believe saying no is selfish? Were you told you were selfish growing up?
  15. When feeling unappreciated, do you think perhaps you didn’t do enough to please your friend?
  16. Do you make excuses for the other when you are dismissed or taken for granted? Do you live in the hope he will change?

If you answer yes to a number of these questions, you might lack self-confidence and self-assertion. Another term often used in these types of relationships is dependency. Sometimes “co-dependent” is used instead.

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Too many of the earth’s inhabitants see fellow humans as objects, like a wrench or hammer: helpful when needed, but requiring no gratitude or careful treatment when the job is done. The error is allowing yourself to be used as if you were picked from a tool chest, submitting to the role of instrumental object, imagining you must do whatever friends require, twisted or tossed aside as they wish. You have discounted your worth and given them control along with the discretion to grade you by how much you satisfy their wants. Worse yet, you accept the grade assigned. The thought of standing up and setting limits collapses for fear of abandonment.

Nor are you advised to think of yourself as an altruist or akin to a religious martyr in your pursuit of the good. Religious martyrs are put to death against their will by their enemies — on one occasion only, of course. Those who offer themselves up as a less drastic sacrifice for their faux “friends” do so voluntarily and far too often. Sainthood should not be expected to follow.

This habit of relating to people doesn’t vanish by itself. You make a mistake hoping those you love will change instead of realizing you are the one who must do so. If you see yourself here, consider going into psychotherapy. Life is more fulfilling when relationships work both ways. The sooner you address this problem, the more likely your satisfaction will increase. Moreover, you will discover a truth of great import: those who leave (and some do exit when you change) aren’t worthy of your goodness. The cliché is true: you are better off without them.

The top image is called Twilight by Karin Bar. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The bottom image is a t-shirt available at http://www.philosophersguild.com/

The R.S.V.P Puzzle

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In the ancient world (or perhaps I should say, in the 1960s) everyone knew what R.S.V.P. meant. Today, not so much. Oh, people do think they know. But, you can be dead sure and dead wrong.

Consider today’s essay a short lesson in good taste and good manners. It might make people like you more.

An example will illustrate the point. I had the occasion to invite several people to a dinner for an organization with which I am involved. It is a not-for-profit corporation. These particular invitees had been helpful to the enterprise, but we didn’t know all of them well. The invitations requested them to R.S.V.P. It was clear that the dinner would be free to each one, a material way to thank them for their good-will and assistance.

Fourteen of these invitations were sent, but only three responses were received as the date approached. About two weeks before the event emails were sent with a second request to R.S.V.P. This brought additional answers to the question of whether we should expect their attendance or not.

Out of the blue came two emails from people who had not been invited, telling us that they would be coming. Whoa! How did this happen?

It turned out that these were associates of two of the real invitees. The newcomers were individuals whom we had never met and had not been involved with our not-for-profit corporation. They’d been given the invitations and encouraged to attend our event. Indeed, they were temporary employees in those organizations that had been helpful to us.

This put us in the awkward position of having to tell these people that they had not been invited (as they already knew); and, since we are a charity, to inform them that we had a limited capacity to provide complimentary dinners that would diminish the funds available for our philanthropic efforts.

The attempt to pass along our invitation reminded me of a practice that has occurred in wartime. During the Civil War, for example, you could get out of serving as a soldier if you could find someone willing to substitute for you. Still, this was hardly the Civil War, but a simple dinner invitation done in gratitude for the help provided to us. No bullets would be flying.

So what happened? Why did we receive responses from less than 2/3 of those to whom we wished to show some kindness and gratitude? And why did two of those people think it would be appropriate to pass along our invitation to others we did not know without asking us if this was permissible?

First, I don’t think anyone intentionally wanted to be rude. These are all good and decent folks. They do good work at their places of employment. They had no motive to be disrespectful and I’m sure had no intention of being thoughtless.

What other explanation might then account for the failure to respond? I suspect that R.S.V.P has somehow lost a bit of its meaning, the compulsory quality it used to carry. So what exactly does it mean to R.S.V.P. and what did it mean once upon a time?

Let’s start with the literal meaning. It is an abbreviation of a common French phrase whose translation is, “Please respond.”

According to Wikipedia:

The high society of England adopted French etiquette in the late 18th century, and the writings of Emily Post (the authority on etiquette) aim to offer a standard no more stringent than that tradition. Late 20th century editions (of her book), building on her 1920s beginning work, say… that “Anyone receiving an invitation with an RSVP on it is obliged to reply….” and some recent editions describe breaching this standard as “inexcusably rude.”

Emily Post advises (that) anyone receiving an invitation with an R.S.V.P. on it must reply promptly, and should reply within a day or two of receiving the invitation.

OK, so when you receive a written invitation to an event, it is expected that you will quickly inform your host whether or not you plan to attend. That puts some pressure on you: if you are coming you need to so inform the sender; equally, if you are not coming, your anticipated non-attendance must also be reported.

Why?

  1. First, because someone has thought of you favorably. He or she wishes the pleasure of your company. It may be your brilliance, your beauty, your fame, your charm, or something else, but the invitation says that you matter. By responding you acknowledge the kindness and compliment being extended to you and take a small step in reciprocating. In effect, you are saying, “Thank you for the invitation. You matter to me, too.”
  2. Invitations generally do not go to everyone. Space is often limited. If the host or hostess is to be able to plan to fill those spaces, he or she needs to know who will be there and who won’t.
  3. Social gatherings generally involve food and refreshments. The party planner must have a reasonable idea of how much to buy, how much to prepare, how much to budget. And, they must have enough advanced notice to do this.
  4. You were invited. Not your understudy, not your next-door-neighbor, not your business associate. Don’t assume that anyone else can substitute for you. That diminishes the importance of the thoughtfulness of the host or hostess in choosing you.

I suspect that many of us don’t think about these things too much; don’t think about the reasons our potential benefactor needs to hear from us, sooner rather than later or not at all. Some assume that they need to respond only with regrets at not being able to come. And, indeed, many invitations come with the message “Regrets only.”

I imagine that when some of us delay responding or don’t respond at all, we are thinking, “Oh, one person more or less isn’t going to matter that much;” or “I’ll get to it later.” No harm is intended by this attitude, yet there can be inconvenience or expense to the person extending the invitation. Remember, that person has to answer the question “Should I buy enough chicken for a dinner of 15 or 115?”

I also have witnessed, as have all of us over 40, that the civilized world has become a more casual place, one with fewer dress codes, social restrictions, and compulsory expectations. A world that is a bit friendlier and more at ease. But, sometimes that ease is purchased at the price of slackness, inconsideration, and unreliability. I can’t tell you what the perfect balance is, but I can tell you that if you are planning an event, you hope that people take your invitations seriously and make your life a little easier by informing you of their plans with respect to it.

Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, offered us a way to think about situations like this. He wrote about the idea of a “categorical imperative” when it comes to rules for moral behavior. He suggested that each of us should ask ourselves some version of the following question: Would I be content if the rules I use to govern my behavior (like viewing an R.S.V.P as optional) also apply to everyone else in the world? And, would the world be better or worse for it?

Really, it is pretty simple. The Golden Rule is almost always a great way to evaluate our conduct. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Even in response to dinner invitations.

“Hurt-People” Hurt People*

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People who are in pain, can cause others to have pain.

They don’t wish to; it is not intentional.

Rather, it’s sometimes hard for them to do otherwise.

This will sound insensitive, I know, but beware of starting a new serious relationship with someone who is hurting.

Bear with me here, and perhaps you will think better of me and this advice once you read on.

Let us start with the image of a drowning man. If you swim out to save him, you are likely to find that, in his flailing, panicked, and desperate attempt to stay above water, he grabs on to you and pulls you under.

Life guards know this. Since it is their job to save the drowning, they approach them with caution. They have been well-trained to constrain the movements of the struggling swimmer so that he can be saved and his threat to the rescuer is minimized.

Moving back to dry land in our discussion, how might someone who is hurting do harm to a new best friend or lover?

For one thing, the neediness of the suffering individual can establish an unhealthy basis for the relationship from the start. In effect, the unwritten “contract” between the two parties will require that one does the helping and the other receives the comfort, with little reciprocal responsibility. This inequity risks eventual “burn out” in the caretaker and possible frustration that the damaged friend is not improving fast enough.

Some who are in the role of a “friend/helper” find that their own needs are perpetually postponed and that their efforts to provide solace will be seen as an entitlement and therefore unappreciated. Indeed, even if the altruistic partner receives gratitude early in the relationship, such appreciation often fades.

Sometimes, in fact, the connection between the two people morphs into a “hostile dependency,” where the person receiving the assistance resents the fact that he cannot function without his comrade.

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Once the injured person recovers, the helper might also discover that he is no longer needed. Healed from his injury, the formerly damaged partner now might be less interested in spending time together. Just as a bird with an injured wing will fly away when he becomes healthy, so too might your friend take off to do other things with other people. Rebound romances are notorious for this sort of thing.

Unfortunately, the caretaker group of this world is overpopulated with people who believe that they have substantial personal inadequacies: that they aren’t bright enough, handsome enough, interesting enough, confident enough, pretty enough, or successful enough to win the interest of another person who is emotionally stable and successful.

Insecure people tend to believe that no psychologically healthy human would want to go near them. They seek those damaged and hurting souls who might, they reason, find someone with limitations tolerable simply because of the quasi-therapeutic assistance he provides.

To the dismay of the self-doubting persons I’ve just described, I’m here to report that this “solution” to reducing the chance of rejection is potentially disastrous.

Choosing a partner who is damaged because you believe that he will display perpetual gratitude is a recipe for being used and disappointed. Indeed, the accumulation of rejections from those to whom one shows devotion only reduces one’s sense of self and cements the tendency to choose others who are damaged, in the belief that one cannot successfully appeal to anybody else.

Better to “get better” and become more confident, than to select a lover or a group of friends in various stages of dysfunction because you think no one else will have you. Just because someone you know is unhappy or needy, however genuine his need is, doesn’t necessarily make him a good person or someone who is right for you.

In considering whether what I’ve written has any application to your own life, you might ask yourself whether you know very many relatively well-adjusted folks and whether your relationships commonly involve large amounts of hand-holding and quasi-therapeutic devotion. If most of your close social contacts take a good deal more than they give, you just might be choosing the wrong close friends and lovers.

Are you able to predict who will be a reciprocal friend, returning to you close to as much as you give to him? Don’t assume that everyone in the world is badly damaged in psychological terms. It may simply be that everyone you know is functioning with difficulty and that you are forever putting yourself out for the wrong people, effacing your own needs.

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Yes, there will be many times in a relationship when generosity and a helping hand are healthy, considerate, and essential. Indeed, that kind of concern and responsiveness to our fellow-man is part of what is best in the human species and is valued by almost every professional therapist at a personal level.

Charity is a good thing, but surrounding yourself with friends who regularly require your charity is a different thing.

Most relationships should not demand perpetual self-sacrifice, especially at the beginning. Remember that therapists are paid for their services even if this is not the only or most important reason that they choose a helping profession.

Even counselors recognize that they cannot assist everyone and that they have emotional limitations to their capacity to provide help to others.

At night, after the work day is done, the therapist goes home (we hope) to family and friends who do not consistently suck the life out of him. Nor does he allow his patients to do this because, if he does, he will not be able to do good work or do it for very long.

Bottom line: leave therapy to the professionals.

If your social life is social work, you have a problem.

Hurt-people, hurt people.

One of the latter could be you.*

*For those who find this essay too harsh, please read the first comment below and my response to it.

The top image above is Oakie Family by Dorothea Lange.

The second image is described as Mediterranean Sea (Sept. 14, 2010): “Lt. j.g. Daniel Cooper and search and rescue (SAR) swimmer Seaman Apprentice Ryan Owens take turns rescuing an injured swimmer during SAR training aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS Ponce (LPD 15)… (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathanael Miller/Released).” The picture was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The final image, Migrant Mother, (also by Dorothea Lange) is of Florence Thompson with some of her children. The Library of Congress caption reads: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California”

The Wikimedia website states that “in the 1930s, the FSA employed several photographers to document the effects of the Great Depression on the population of America. Many of the photographs can also be seen as propaganda images to support the U.S. government’s policy of distributing support to the worst affected, poorer areas of the country…”