I think I grew up for the first part of my life believing that friends were forever and family was always supposed to be close. And sometimes, friends are forever and family does remain close. Other times however, a harsher reality must be accepted. As a highly sensitive person, I take on other people’s emotions as my own and have consistently been one to accommodate the energy of the people around me. Maybe in some circumstances, that quality can serve me and others well. But today, I want to talk to you about how it can be a slippery slope out of boundary town.
From the time I was 10, my older sister has struggled with a severe mental illness. To say that her actions and words turned my world upside down is putting it lightly. Many of her chosen words and behaviors have been too cruel to repeat here. When she slung accusations and putdowns, I internalized them. The message I translated: my sister was hurting, and somehow, I was to blame.
The Venn Diagram of Relationships
Relationships are what life is all about. How we interact with our closest confidantes, our extended family, a stranger in the grocery store, and anyone in between has great influence on our daily experiences. Likewise, how others interact with us also has great influence on our daily experiences.
When it comes to the people who exist in the Venn Diagram of my life, how I am relating matters a great deal to me. Immediate family, extended family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances…I care about all of them. I love my people. But, in some circumstances, I misunderstood what love looks like.
Learning About Unhealthy Friendship
Healthy friendships, although I didn’t realize it until recent years, were somewhat elusive to me after age 10. The silent turmoil I experienced within my family catapulted me into relationships with wildly charming, yet insecure individuals who exhibited some toxic behaviors.
Friendships with these people were conditional. If I functioned in a way that was pleasing to them, all was right in the world. If I didn’t, most of the time unknowingly, their behavior toward me would shift. They’d become colder to me, speak to me less, and wouldn’t come out with whatever was bothering them until I pried.
Looking back, I can see now that in those scenarios, I actually hadn’t done anything wrong. It was a pattern. It was always something I either said that was twisted or an unspoken expectation that was desired from me but not received, that set these types off. All the same, in the thick of those relationships, I was never hesitant to apologize profusely and take on the blame (read: grovel)…even when the fault wasn’t entirely mine. Let’s be clear: that represents a form of toxic behavior on my part.
A Cruel Form of Torture
For as long as I can remember, I have put pressure on myself to make sure everyone and everything is okay all.the.time. Not only is this goal exhausting, it is also impossible. Now, at 33, I am in therapy because humaning is hard. My therapist challenges me to think about WHY I feel the need to do this.
To my core, I have a great deal of compassion for others and genuinely care about people and their feelings and wellbeing. It’s important to me to do my best to make others feel loved, heard, validated, comfortable, welcome, respected, understood and cared for. And I think in many of my relationships, I succeed in doing this. But, in some others, it feels like I’m just not hitting the mark. Let me tell you, this has been like a cruel form of torture for me.
When someone important to me seems upset, and I don’t understand why, nor feel like I can bring them joy and contentment, I feel like absolute garbage. Then, I find myself racking my brain to come up with solutions to connect the dots for clarity and break through the barriers between me and the other person, or the other person and something else in their lives. Codependency, anyone? This rarely ever works the way I hope it will.
Instead, my efforts tend to backfire, fall on deaf ears, or just leave me frustrated and tired. By perpetually assuming it is my responsibility to check in, soothe, make it all better, apologize at all costs…I have made the mistake in some of my relationships to set us both up for failure. Consequently, I eventually burn out on missing the mark and confusing my ego for effort. I have fallen out of friendships this way, and, after 24 years, walked away from the defeating merry-go-round that was the relationship with my older sister.
Taking Accountability For My Actions and Choices
All of these said efforts are my choice, therefore I have to take full responsibility for them and the way I ultimately choose to feel about them. If I end up feeling resentful of another person because they are not receiving my “well-intentioned” actions in the way I’d hope they would…well that’s my problem.
Now, back to the WHY. If I’ve done my best, and I still feel like there’s a wall I can’t break through but I keep obsessing about how to make it better, then that stems from the fear of what the other person will think of me. And what will that person say about me? Whose perception of me will they change? So out of that fear, I choose someone else’s wellbeing over my own. For what? Reputation?
Well that’s dumb. And I’m not dumb. When I realize something I’m doing is dumb, it’s time to pivot.
The Energy Bank
So, I think it comes down to getting real familiar with your energy bank. Imagine there’s an account set up for every relationship you have in your life. Each account has energy values with checks and balances. Obviously, if you’re a parent, there is a minimum level of energy that perpetually must be available for your children, and the more you can add to each child’s account—the better for that child. Therefore, some other energy accounts may need to be decreased or maintained at a lesser value to make up for what your children need from you.
That being said, each account must be monitored by taking consistent inventory of what energy is being drained and what energy is being replenished. If an account goes into the red because the energy has been drained without any replenishment…well sorry Charlie, you’re not an energy factory, and your energy is not limitless. Therefore, you’ll have to draw the line. Believe it or not, setting boundaries to protect yourself and your energy makes healthy relationships possible.
Protecting Your Most Important Commodity
Here is the most important part: if someone who does nothing but drain their account of your energy gets mad when you decide they’ll have to stay in the red, that’s their problem, not yours. You are responsible for you, and if you don’t mitigate the energy you share, you’ll drain out completely. What that means is, the people who actually need and deserve your energy (yourself, first and foremost), won’t get it. That’s like letting someone steal the most important commodity you possess, and making yourself and other people you love pay for it. And that’s on you.
Relationships are the most important part of life. I really do believe that. I also know now that not all relationships you expect to be close are meant to be close and not all relationships are lasting. That can be a horribly hard pill to swallow, heartbreaking at times. But, people come into our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. And, everyone is a teacher; so learn whatever you can. Remember this: Your energy is currency. Spend it well, invest it wisely.
If you liked this post, check out Lindsay’s message on knowing your worth!