I always tell people that I “go all in” on relationships.
One time I added an extra two hours to a road trip just to pick up a friend who was stuck at the airport. Well, she wasn’t stuck. She just missed her shuttle and didn’t want to wait for the next one.
So there I was, like it was nothing. She bought me dinner as thanks but I tried to turn it down — after all, that’s just what friends are for, right?
I don’t know how many hours I’ve invested in other people’s interests. If someone says they like this movie or that book, I’ll check it out just to show them I care. I’ve dumped so much time into learning the rules of sports I don’t care for or going to events I dislike just for someone else.
For many people I’ve become their go-to person. They need to rant? I’m here. They’re upset, hurt, scared? Call me. They need someone to leap to their rescue? I’ll grab my cape.
I’m not tooting my own horn here.
Because all of that?
It’s toxic. And it’s ruining my relationships.
See, I always felt like a giver. It felt good to invest time and energy into these things. Being a good listener, being engaged in what those around me enjoy — I loved it. Truly, I did. I thought it was a total positive.
Here’s the problem: The effort was completely one-sided.
I’d pour hours and hours and hours into supporting others, but when push came to shove, none of them were there to support me. I only existed to them when I was useful. When I no longer had the energy to give all of myself to them all of the time, they were gone.
I felt frustrated. Hurt. Confused. Why does no one care? Why do I have to do all the work?
It’d be easy to blame everyone else for that, to say that it’s on them to try harder and it’s their fault I feel this way. But I believe that if you see a pattern in the people you surround yourself with, odds are you’re doing something to attract those sorts of people.
As much as I wanted to externalize it, the problem was with me. I was facilitating and enabling this sort of behavior. The relationships here weren’t with specifically bad people — they were people I’d trained to treat me a certain way.
Training them was so easy, I had no idea I was even doing it.
When they shared something they loved, maybe sent me a link, I’d respond enthusiastically with what about it I enjoyed.
Did I ever send something I loved back? No.
When they were struggling and needed someone to confide in, I was all ears.
Did I ever confide in them back? No.
When they needed help, I was the first one on the scene.
Did I ever ask for help back? No.
The rules I’d established were clear: Jordan will always be there for you, and she’ll never ask for anything back.
Of course people jumped ship the minute I stopped giving it my all. When I stepped back — or worse, asked for something from them — I was changing the rules of the game. That’s not what they signed up for. That’s not the relationship I’d taught them to expect. So even if they were good people capable of totally healthy relationships, they were caught in a dysfunctional relationship that I’d unknowingly set us both up for — and it’s a tough dynamic to change once it’s been established.
When I discussed this with my therapist, we agreed that I gave so much for nothing in return because I believe that people will only like me if I’m useful (Ouch. That hurts to type). So naturally I wasn’t asking for anything in return — because no one would like me if I had needs, too.
While on the surface my giving nature seemed like a great thing, it was rooted in a lot of insecurity and toxic beliefs that were poisoning my relationships from the ground up.
So here’s what I’m working on:
- Asking for what I need and reaching out for help
- Not putting in more effort than the other person (without being aware of potential consequences)
Number one is incredibly tough and it’s going to take me a long time to figure it out. Even when I just imagine approaching someone for something I need, I always include a “I hope I don’t seem needy!” or “I’m so sorry for bothering you with this.” It’s so hard to break the idea that me having needs is wrong. I think this will take a lot more self-exploration and practice to make progress on.
The second one, though, is already so liberating. I certainly don’t keep score or approach this in a petty way, but in general, I only devote as much energy into relationships as I feel I’m getting back. If someone only texts me once in a blue moon and never asks how I’m doing, I won’t go out of my way to start or continue a conversation (whereas in the past, I still would’ve reached out frequently and asked a ton of questions about their life no matter what I got back). If someone is really engaged, shows an interest in what I’m doing, or checks in on me with genuine care, then I return the favor.
After working on it for a while, I’ve developed a better sense of when I’m doing something because I genuinely want to and when I’m doing it because I feel obligated to be useful. Yes, I do still text people first or offer them my support — even people who don’t put much energy into me. But when I do it, I can honestly say “I’m reaching out because I care, not because I’m scared they won’t like me if I don’t.”
It feels good to give that effort freely and not anxiously. I’m less tense now. I’m not constantly stressed about whether or not I’m showing the right amount of care, or if I’m being clingy, or if I didn’t seem properly concerned and now they’ll hate me.
I’m starting to realize that I don’t have to prove my usefulness to get people to like me. I can be completely and utterly useless as a human and still deserve love (not just deserve it, but receive it!).
Most importantly, I’m learning how to balance my needs with the needs of others. Because what I need matters — even if I’m too afraid to ask for it.