A female friend who was in an unhappy relationship introduced me to a popular saying going around that said: “we date at the level of our self-esteem.” The person she was with was troubled with a lot of untreated trauma and anger issues, and although he seemed to genuinely love her – or at least tried in his co-dependent ways – his negativity and adverse reaction to regular life annoyances (such as traffic or having to get up early), continuously brought her down. But she felt badly about ending the relationship with someone in whom she saw so much potential. Until a friend showed her that saying that is. It was like a wake-up call for her. She said she realized that she felt guilty about being perceived as intolerant or critical and even a snob, where in reality what kept misaligning for her was that the person didn’t correspond to the self-esteem she used to have. How did he “get” her then? She said he fit in perfectly with her more recent self-assessment, the one that told her she was getting too old to date, that her body wasn’t conventionally attractive, and that she had a lot of emotional baggage. She confessed to saying to herself that that man was the best she could do under those circumstances and that she should be grateful for his devotion. Fortunately for her, it was such an unnatural match that her “old” self-esteem kept getting in the way and she kept clashing with her beau. After yet another angry outburst of his, she finally had had enough and told me that she would rather stay single and adhere to what feels natural and within her own boundaries than trying to match an energy that operated on too-low frequencies to what she was genuinely attracted to.
Looking back at some of my past friendships, I realized I could relate to my female friend – I too tried to make the impossible happen when I would give time, energy, and benefit of the doubt to people who weren’t careful with my boundaries, who were negative, and who showed all kinds of potential – which often led me to believe it was my duty to push through my own discomfort. For example, I used to think it was my duty as a proper member of a 12-step group to accept relationships that didn’t respect my standards and tested my patience and generosity all the time. I thought I owed it to the program itself, having once been a newly detoxed alcoholic who nobody wanted to be friends with. Didn’t people reach out to me back then? Didn’t they show me kindness despite how much I kept screwing up my life? Didn’t they welcome me with open arms? All of the above! Which actually doesn’t mean that I have some kind of a universal debt towards humanity, which is how I once saw those things. I realized that I was spreading myself thin and now, with all those dubious friendships that didn’t quite work for me – and, on top of it, all I suddenly no longer had the bandwidth to attend to the relationships that I did benefit and grow from! I quickly learned that every time I give that time and energy to someone who might not respect that time and energy – that’s going to put me in a deficit. And then, in turn, that deficit is going to take away from the relationships and people I do genuinely owe my time to (like my family) – and who help me grow in return.
These days I have firm standards and boundaries and I no longer feel apologetic and guilty over how I spend my time and with whom. And this is immensely important for those of us who have been separated from families of origin and experienced betrayal and shame. Sure, I will always happily talk to someone in need and will try to direct them towards resources or communities they might need, but I will no longer feel responsible for their happiness, loneliness, or even recovery because I am unwilling and unable to be there for them in the capacity that they demand. I give what I can, and my friendships are fulfilling and authentic now, I never run out of fuel.