When I was a little Brownie, my troop (shout out to Troop 308!) held an induction ceremony to become an official Girl Scout. I remember spinning around, and being told to walk over to a mirror on the floor as I recited these words: “Twist me and turn me and show me the elf, I looked in the pond and saw MYSELF!” With the little rhyme behind me, I was welcomed into the Girl Scout community.
That little ceremony popped into my head recently, when I was thinking about my identity. Many of us women have thought about our identity recently, and our worth.
I’ve spent most of my life trying to make other people happy. I was raised in a community that valued self-sacrifice, and I’ve always admired people that have placed others’ needs before their own. I’ve defined strength not in terms of how cold, dominating or controlling a person is, but rather by how much self-sacrifice one is willing to do for other people in their lives. I’ve taken pride in telling the world, “Go ahead! Beat me up! I can take it!” To be called selfish would be the worst insult I could imagine, because everyone and everything I value have taught me to be giving, loving, kind, and altruistic. The more I’ve taken on other people’s burdens and problems, the better I’ve felt about myself.
I’ve worn my self-sacrifice as a sort of badge of honor, a badge that only got bigger as I took on more caretaking roles. When I became a mother, I was catapulted into a new dimension of people-pleasing, caretaking and self-sacrifice. This isn’t an idea I invented – go down any card aisle in May and you’re bound to see dozens upon dozens of cards praising a good mother for “giving everything to your family” and “putting everyone else’s needs before your own” and “working tirelessly and without complaint.” A mother denying herself anything just for her children’s health or happiness is just par for the course. It’s expected. We allow moms an occasional “Moms Night Out” now and then, buy her flowers and tell her she deserves a day at the spa once a year – but there’s a limit to how much self-interest we’ll allow someone in that role. If a mom dares to try to fit something self-serving into her life, we as a society call her “selfish” or “greedy.” We’ll imply that she isn’t doing her job and judge her character and wonder what kind of message she’s sending her kids.
You know what? Moms are awesome. People that give of themselves to other people and don’t expect anything in return are awesome. Amazing. Incredible. There aren’t enough superlatives to truly emphasize how grateful I am for my own mother, and for all of the sacrifices she’s made for me throughout the year. I’ll never be able to repay her for what she’s done for me, and the fact that she doesn’t want repayment makes me even more grateful. My mom deserves a card on Mother’s Day. I’m simply saying that she also deserves to be a person in her own right, too, and so does every other mother. My mom, your mom, and every other person that’s put another’s well-being over their own welfare deserve gratitude and respect. But they do NOT deserve to be invisible. The over-abundance of cards and sentiments lauding mothers for being invisible are meant as compliments – but I think it’s time to rethink that.
It’s not a compliment to be invisible.
This badge of honor – the honor bestowed upon someone for putting everyone’s needs over ones’ own – is something that I wanted! I wanted to give my heart and soul to my children, my husband, my employers, my brothers and my friends. This particular standard of strength and self-sacrifice and altruism has always been very appealing to me. I admire people that give to others. I respect compassionate souls that put other people’s needs before their own. I abhor selfishness and judge it harshly in myself or others. I have always been 100% on board with making other people happy as a way to lead a fulfilling and worthwhile life. If you’d have asked me a year ago, I would have been hard pressed to find a single attribute I admired more than making other people happy.
What’s more, I’ve also taken on the role of “Negotiator” in my life. I don’t like conflict, and I’ll do whatever I can to get people around me to get along. I like it when everyone is happy and getting along with each other … but I outright love it when I can play a role in getting everyone to a place of such harmony. I can go for months on the fulfillment I get if I can help two feuding friends start to talk to each other again, or the satisfaction I feel when I’ve helped two coworkers understand each other, kiss and make up. When it comes to conflict between me and another individual person – well, that’s pretty rare to find, because at the first sign of conflict I’m more than willing to throw myself on a sword so that no one is mad at me, everyone likes me, and the waters remain calm.
My need to be liked is epic. I have always had a ridiculously low threshold for someone not liking me. I’ve always been very willing to change something about myself at the first sign that someone disliked something about my appearance, character or personality. It has always been more important for me to be liked and to make other people feel good than to stand up for myself, look out for my own self-interests, confront people, dominate anyone else, win an argument, get a promotion or take anything that someone else may have enjoyed. I just want people to like me! So what if I have to give up a little self-respect to make that happen?
But now, things have changed a little bit. In the last year, I’ve done some serious soul-searching in the name of self-acceptance, and along the way I’ve started to see that self-sacrifice and people-pleasing aren’t all that I cracked them up to be. All the people I’ve been trying to please, trying to make happy, and trying to get to like me aren’t even pleased! They aren’t always happy! And goodness knows they don’t all like me!
I’ve wanted the badge of honor that comes along with martyring myself to make other people happy, yet now I see how unproductive this desire has been in my life. I’ve been erasing myself. I’ve made myself exist only in relation to other people and my support of them.
I’ve been unwilling to live my life. I’ve wanted to give my life to others.
But other people have their own lives to live.
I’ve tried to be the sun, bringing light to people in my life –but I think I’ve actually been a black hole, sinking further and further into myself every time I’ve put my own needs behind the needs of everyone else. I’ve been sinking and retracting and apologizing my life away in the name of serving others.
I find myself in a unique situation now. I don’t idealize people-pleasing anymore. I see that it is, in fact, a fault. What’s more, I’m frustrated as hell with the time I’ve wasted in my life trying to gain other people’s approval and help them be happy and fulfilled rather than also trying to fit in my own happiness and true fulfillment.
I don’t want to sit in the audience of my life anymore. I want to be on the stage.
So what do I do now, now that I realize I don’t want to be an empty, self-sacrificing shell of a human being?
I can’t change society, but I can change me. I can start to take responsibility for my own happiness rather than play the role of savior to others. I can stop rushing to everyone’s aid and in doing so, see that no one has actually every asked me to save them. I can start to see that my self-inflated martyrdom is doing little to make the world a better place and is only serving to diminish me in my own life. I can start to live my own life. I can do those things.
I don’t want to be an empty, self-sacrificing shell of a human being. Maybe realizing that is the first step to making sure I’m not.
The world I know has been spinning and twisting and whirling me about. Just like when I was becoming a Girl Scout, after the spinning stopped, I looked in the mirror – but this time I didn’t only see myself.
This time, I saw the world.