“Daddy, can I talk to you?”
Whenever you say that I know something is up. Especially since you were supposed to be in a MegaSleepover with your cousins, and it was already way past your normal bedtime. I’m beyond glad, however, that you seek me out when you have something that’s bothering you.
We went to a room and closed the door, and you leaned in for a long hug. “Daddy, I’ve been a bad girl.”
“Why? What did you do?”
“Everyone was playing and then they were fighting, and I couldn’t make everyone happy.”
On this side of the family you happen to be the oldest of the cousins. Partly due to your nature and partly due to some expectation that we’ve expressed or implied, you feel responsible for the other kids when we all get together. That day it was an especially full house, full of other kids.
“And I just wanted to be by myself.” At that point you burst into tears.
My heart broke as you cried, since I keenly felt your dilemma. For the countless time I saw that you and I are cut from the same cloth, in both warp and weft. We’re not only both introverts, we also both largely see our virtue reflected in our value to others. In the love languages book it’s expressed as “acts of service”, and that feeling of utility drives us, sometimes to places where we weren’t expecting.
The problem is that for those of us that are built more sensitively, it’s all too easy to take on more than our share of responsibility and to indiscriminately give more of ourselves than we otherwise would. We cut into our own muscle, just a little too close to the bone. The line between “Oh I’m fine” and “Oh my god, I’m ovewhelmed” is nebulous and inconsistent, differing from situation to situation and from moment to moment. This is especially true when that feeling triggers that introverted need for solitude and recharging time.
I remember once where I went to a weekend get together with some friends. I walked through the door, ready for a fun weekend, and immediately someone yelled, “Hey he’s here! He can cook for us!”
It was – in hindsight- an innocent comment, one that was probably meant to be both a compliment on my cooking and a gentle ribbing. Most of the time, it wouldn’t have even registered. But for some reason it hit me in such a way that simultaneously stimulated my obligation (“Oh man, I must cook for these guys, because that’s what they expect and thats how I add value”) and my resentment (“Why can’t I just enjoy myself like everyone else?”) I felt torn between the two impulses. And what typically happens is that I physically do what I feel obligated or pressured to do, but to do so while indulging my inner resentment about the whole thing.
I wish I had known I had permission – in the moment – to say, “Hell no, you make your own dinner.” (Or better yet, “Lets take turns.”) But I also didn’t want people to think less of me, because I also enjoy feeling valued for my contributions. I felt stuck between being a “good boy” and taking care of myself.
So I know exactly where you were coming from that night. You know how proud we are that you are caring and take care of other people, it’s a trait that we say we value as a family and know that lives inside you. But I also know that the need to take care of yourself becomes more insistent the longer you ignore it, until it cannot be denied. That tension – no matter whether you are extrovert or not, no matter how driven you are by being useful – can be exquisitely painful.
The problem really isn’t the volume of the demands that the world will expect from you. It’s developing the ability to relieve that tension yourself by learning to make choices that honor yourself as well as your obligations to others.
So I just told you that night that it wasn’t your responsibility to make sure everyone is happy, and that it’s more than okay to quietly slip away to be on your own. And that me and mama are always here in case it does get overwhelming. For now, that’s a burden we can take off your shoulders when your desire to help metastasizes into a resentful obligation.
I wish I could tell you that the struggle gets easier, but in fact it becomes more complicated as you get older. The layer upon layer of commitments- to your employer, to your partner, to your family, to your friends – become more and more nuanced. It’s usually not a choice between trying to take care of your responsibilities and trying to take care of yourself; It becomes an exercise in satisfying competing responsibilities, one where its less about satisfying them all and more about who you disappoint the least. Sometimes that means that person is actually you, but hopefully that’s seldom enough.