Our youngest son and his family recently visited us in our winter home in Arizona. I noticed over the course of the week that he and his wife never missed their daily workouts, while my fitness routine seemed to unravel. No one in the family required spoon feeding or diaper changing, yet I remained “on call” mentally to take care of their needs. One morning, when a friend called to see why I’d missed yoga class, I was shocked to hear myself say, “I don’t want to appear selfish!”
Growing up, “selfish” was a very undesirable label. The connotation was that a selfish person had an unrestrained self-focus, bordering on narcissism. I came from a long line of women, who practiced the other extreme – a distorted sense of putting others first. My grandmother didn’t even sit with the family for Sunday dinner. She served the food and ate her share in the kitchen after the dining table had been cleared. My mother wasn’t that radical, but she never took time for herself either. Mom only rested when she was ill. I often wondered if her frequent sinus headaches were a sanctioned excuse for peace and quiet in a dark room. Obviously, I can’t say that I’ve successfully shed my Caretaker label either.
I remember reading The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan in the 70’s. Her message was so revolutionary, I felt like I should be reading it under the covers at night with a flashlight. Intellectually, I was inspired. I owned the philosophy and it gave me the motivation I needed to launch a successful career. I thought that being a feminist meant that I could do it all, however, and failed to understand how to take care of myself while working and raising a family. I drove myself to excel on all fronts and wondered why I often felt exhausted or sad. I inhabited a professional world unfamiliar to my grandmother or mother, but I was still tending to others first and ignoring my own needs.
I first heard the term “counter-dependent” as a psych intern in grad school. It is used to describe someone – typically a woman – who goes to extremes to prove that she is independent. Her sense of self-worth comes from self-sacrifice, constant productivity and perfectionism. A counter-dependent woman denies her own needs and only feels good about herself when she is doing for others. Over the years this behavior inhibits her ability to even identify what she needs and makes her incapable of asking for or accepting help.
A counter-dependent woman sees any sign of vulnerability as personal failure. I watched a good friend carry multiple bags of groceries from the car to the house while using a knee scooter as she recovered from a broken ankle. Her husband stood nearby shrugging his shoulders as she angrily waved off our offer to help. Another friend, who was recovering from surgery, tore stitches while insisting that she could lift her toddler out of the tub. Counter-dependency is a cruel mind game that women play with themselves that ultimately isolates them from others.
One of the problems with defining your self-worth in terms of caring for others at the expense of your own needs, is that the people in your life don’t always need caretaking. Children grow up and become independent. Healthy spouses aren’t needy. Instead of celebrating the fact that friends and family are fine, counter-dependent women find their identities threatened and become depressed. When I worked as a family therapist, I often saw women whose nests had recently emptied. They complained about their spouses or jobs, reported insomnia or other physical ailments. I learned that two key questions often shifted the focus of therapy where it belonged:
The first question tapped the well of emotion behind the complaints, while the second question led us into productive territory.
Freud posed the question, “What do women want?” decades ago and left the dilemma unresolved. I don’t believe that the question is that hard to answer, but it does takes personal effort. All people need certain things – safety, nourishing food, plenty of water, sleep, affection – but a list of wants is purely subjective and takes time to identify. When a woman is out of touch with her wants, she can mistakenly rely on the fridge, pantry, liquor cabinet or online cart. Food, booze or spending can be sources of mindless addiction that numb, rather than fill, our souls. Two things are required when a woman begins to explore what she really wants: a shift in attitude and enhanced awareness.
To get in touch with what you really want, you must first believe that you deserve it. My grandmother didn’t need to earn a place at the table, nor did my mom need to be sick to rest. They both deserved those things. This required shift in attitude only comes with practice. Asking for what you need, saying no to what you don’t want to do and simply repeating the mantra “I deserve this. I am enough even when I am not focused on others, even when I am focused on me” to yourself often helps.
Iris Murdoch, the famous Irish author and philosopher said, “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.” Treats don’t need to be expensive, time-consuming, or fattening, but they require self-awareness and mindfulness. If you struggle with identifying what you want, make a list of categories such as Physical, Emotional, Spiritual, Intellectual and Social. Then brainstorm things within each category that would make you happy. For example, a nap, a hot bath or a long walk might fall under the category of Physical, while coffee with a friend, a movie date or attending a meeting of your quilting guild might be listed under the Social category. The trick, when tapping into your list, is to consciously say, “I choose to do this for me,” and then savor the experience so that a treat isn’t lost as just another activity in a busy day.
As we age, we naturally need others – to open a jar, to provide a hug, to stand on a ladder and change the batteries in the smoke detector. Women who age well understand the dance between independence and dependence. They know what they want and need and can provide those things for themselves or they can ask for things from others without feeling inferior. They are generous and kind to others because they are giving, not from a place of scarcity, but from personal fulfillment.
I’ve come a long way from my grandmother’s dining room and my mother’s sequestered bedroom. I do a good job of understanding and meeting my needs when I am alone. I know in my head that my friends and family can get along fine without my constant focus on their needs. I know, too, that I have value beyond the role of Caretaker, but I still have work to do to put my needs on par with that of others. Generations of guilt, apparently inherent in my DNA, takes more than lists and mantras. Hopefully, for my granddaughter’s sake, this family pattern ends with me.
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