For a bigger chunk of my life, I looked for validating my self-worth through being helpful to others.
You can attribute this to many factors. Being raised to be a “good woman” in a patriarchal society. Being born into a family where everyone seeks to please everyone else. Maybe genes that predispose me for finding my value in how others perceive me? Who knows.
The bottom line is, the reason behind my condition isn’t that important. Focusing on why I am the way I am has many times pointed me in an unhelpful direction. Instead of asking “How can I help myself?” I’d point fingers at others. I’d dig into my family and friendship history to dismiss personal responsibility for my life.
It was okay to operate this way for a while. Most people take some time to understand that going into the past can only help them so much. Yes, making sense of our history may provide a deeper understanding of what happens in our lives today. But ultimately, the question that begs to be answered is:
What is the best way to move forward from where I stand today?
That’s the question I’m trying to answer today. I realize that my eagerness to help others as a means to feel better about myself runs deep. But “helping others” isn’t just about doing tangible things, like cooking lunch for my family or showing a friend how to start a blog.
The place where I feel my desire to help the strongest is at the level of understanding other people’s feelings and holding space for them. That’s right, I see myself as a space holder and listener. This can be an important role to play in the world for sure.
The problem arises when I try to understand others without first understanding myself sufficiently well.
When I’m on my own, it seems fairly easy to show up for myself. Sure, my self-awareness is still limited. I can’t see all my thought and limiting beliefs. I often cry for reasons I can’t quite grasp. But I already have my ways of coming to terms with that and framing it in a way that makes things manageable.
That is — I have those ways when I’m alone.
But when emotional tension arises in response to another person — or simply in their presence — I often have a hard time constructing my narrative around what’s happening. I get confused — especially if I interact with someone who expresses themselves more confidently than I do. It’s then very easy to embrace their narrative about what I’m experiencing. As a consequence, I lose myself in their story, now knowing how to tell my own.
That feels like betraying myself and makes me struggle even more.
I think this is what people refer to as “gaslighting.” Although I understand the concept and it describes well what happens to me sometimes, I don’t like to use that word to explain my experience. By saying I was “gaslighted” by someone, I’d feel like I’m giving my agency away to that other person. In this version of the story, it’s them who did something to me — and I can’t help but see myself as a victim.
And if I know one thing for sure, it’s this: Self-victimizing hasn’t helped me grow from challenging situations so far.
Instead, when someone questions my narrative so heavily that I start doubting it, I prefer to focus on getting clearer about what I’m actually experiencing. That’s where I source my strength in relationships: From knowing what moves me in that interaction.
I intend to know what my internal responses are, with as much equanimity as I can muster. Only then, the next step is putting those responses in the context of a relationship.
Circling back to my deep desire to hold space for others, I think this may indeed be my life calling. But to manifest that calling in a way that feels genuine, I first needed to develop reliable clarity of my own experience.
In other words, I can’t try to “understand” and “empathize” with others as a means of making myself feel better. Instead, I want to connect to the root cause of why I need to feel better in the first place. What’s missing? Why do I want what I want? How is validating the other person’s experience going to help me validate my own?
The answer to the latter question usually is: It won’t. Therefore, each time I try to understand others, I need to keep in mind that the prerequisite to do so is to honour my own experience first.