When you take care of everyone but yourself

Being “terminally unique” is a place that many of us stay stuck – believing that no one is quite as broken/screwed up/crazy/bad as we are. This is the product of warped self perceptions, shame, and the fear that we cannot/will not get better.

We take this several steps further in that the ways in which we relate to ourselves are unique: We judge, speak to, believe, criticize, apply standards and expectations to ourselves that we would never, ever apply to another human being.

A particularly lovely friend of mine is terminally unique. She surprised me by sharing recently, “I am my own worst enemy.”

I relate. While I am a friend to me today, I spent a lot of years relating to myself almost exactly with the words and actions of those who abused me, neglected me, and taught me that I do not matter.

I do matter (a lot, actually).

I kinda always knew that, but knowing is not enough. Believing and feeling and living like you fucking mean it – that’s enough.

What follows is not for the feint of heart. It’s a conversation between us that’s a mix of love, hugs, and a steel toed boot approach to the truth.

(My friend offered a summary of a painful childhood. that I’ll not share. The take away from that part of the conversation is that it taught her to take care of others and avoid knowing and caring for herself).

She: “I still feel broken.  Structurally unsound, unfit to live in.”

Me: You just described nearly all of the very best people I know and love. She: “It makes me feel guilty.  I have a wonderful husband, two kids that I’d do anything for, a little money in the bank, a roof over our heads, what do I have to feel bad about?”

Me: You have a right to all of your feelings and no matter how good your life today may be, the pain of yesterday doesn’t go away on it’s own.

“Time does not heal all wounds; it buries them in very shallow graves.” – Robert Haney

She: I have no right to ask for help

Me: Imagine saying that to any other person! It’s always easier in the short term to deny self than to allow self. Give yourself the guidance and encouragement you’d give to a friend in your shoes – it’s the easiest way to find the truth.

She: Other people need MY help..I don’t get to ask for it.  Suck it up and move on, right? The past is the past, right?

Me: Again, you don’t talk that way to others – because it isn’t even your voice. Somebody lied to you and told you that. I don’t know how to “get over it” I only know how to go through it. The past isn’t over if it still limits us today.

She: My mother would pat my face and say, “Well, at least you’re pretty”.  I never realized how that affected me.  Now that I’m older I see gray hair, a few age spots on my face, wrinkles that aren’t cute laugh lines anymore.  So what’s left of the “me” that the mirror clearly shows is going away?  The surface me was the only one I could count on, and now I’m losing her, too.

Me: If a man objectified you that way I’d go up one side of him and down the other. It’s not any more okay for you to do it. This is what you were taught was your worth but it’s only one dimension. The person you are to others is beautiful. You deserve to be her to you.

Me: My therapist taught me that I was free to treat myself as those I love most. I told her that was crazy because, “those people are awesome.” She fired back, “Right, and you don’t matter.” I cried for the rest of that session because she spoke what I believed.

Me: My therapist asked me to describe my son who was 9 at the time. I went on and on about how wonderful and loveable and perfect he was/is. When I couldn’t think of one more word to say she smiled and asked me, “And isn’t that exactly how you’ve always wanted someone to feel about you?”

I cried the rest of that session too.

Gradually, I learned that I can indeed be to me as I am to them – not fully – there’s no conflict in loving them…Loving them is easy. Loving me takes effort…but I’m worth it.

She: I have one kid in the throes of teenaged misery.  During a particularly rotten spell, she told me that I was fat and old and needed to get a life. I knew she didn’t mean it.  She was angry and hurt and lashing out at the person she felt safest unloading on.  BUT, it didn’t stop the little voice in my head that said, “She’s right, what good are you?  Faker.”

Me: Fuck that. Stop asking rhetorical questions – you’re using them to beat up on you. What good are you? You’re a great mom and you’re someone who is safe for her teenager to go off on. You are seeing yourself through your mothers eyes. Try seeing you through your daughter’s eyes, your husband’s eyes, your friend’s eyes.

She: I live in constant anxiety, which I know is a direct by-product of growing up in an abusive, addicted home. (I’ve read hundreds of self-help books over the years)  I live every day playing the “What if” game.  What if..those sirens down the road are an ambulance going to my daughter’s school?

Me: You’re not crazy, lady. You just described garden variety anxiety. Answer the damned questions. “What if?” is a manifestation of anxiety and every one that you don’t answer breeds more questions. Again, every time you’re stuck or struggling – imagine the response you’d give to a friend saying/feeling/doing what you’re doing.

She: I feel haunted by a ghost who can’t hurt me anymore physically, but has done a number on me just the same. I feel sad that I feel like my sweet husband has someone who’s crazy-glued together under the surface.  That my beautiful kids have a parent who never had one herself.

Me: One of my favorite FB memes, “How you speak to your children becomes their inner voice.” That’s awesome for your kids and lousy for people like you and me. Think of it as an exorcism – your mother’s voice needs to go and be replaced by your voice and by the truth of healthy people who love you. You’re not crazy, lady. You’re conflicted and you have no idea how good you are.

She: I’m angry that I care enough about what other people think of me to not want to get some kind of counseling.  I couldn’t sit in a room with a complete stranger and tell them that I’m broken and what happened to make me that way..the idea mortifies me, even though I know it could help.    I don’t want to see pity on anyone’s face, or have someone tell me that they know how I feel.  They don’t.  They can’t.  So I exist.  I smile big, help others, hide the broken bits and move on.

Me: I don’t pity anyone who has choices. You are uncomfortable having others identify, relate, and have empathy for you and so you frame it as pity. That’s unfair. You deserve the love you give. My experience is this – I was always worried about what other people thought because I didn’t know…me. When I got to know me and choose my own truth – life got a million times better.

Y.E.T. – You’re eligible too for a way better life). Let’s talk more.

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.