Sunday, February 26, 2006

Why Women Need to Figure Out How to Fight Off Emotional Predators

I have spent most of the weekend chilling out. I have one friend recovering from surgery, who I am tending to, and another working through the pain of a break up. I like feeling useful and supportive to people. But, I can't shake the feeling that sometimes my desire to be helpful is bordering on pathological.

I have this heightened capacity to sense when people are suffering and I get a great deal of satisfaction from helping them through their difficult periods. I think this is a good quality and one that I would never want to change. What I do worry about, however, is letting manipulative or selfish people play on my desire to help. I have done a good job surrounding myself with friends who make it clear to me when I am being asked to do something totally ridiculous. Many of my friends have made me promise that I check in with them before committing to serve on another committtee at work, or carry out a favor for someone that would take lots of time away from my own research. This is a valuable service.

The people that are closest to me do not drain me, nor ask for more than I should give; they care as much about my own needs and boundaries as I should. Friends like this are rare and a real treasure. Both of my friends that I am hanging out with this weekend are decidedly in this category. In fact, I have to be forceful with them to let me help.

Though I am a philosopher, I tend to be primarily an intuitive person. My understanding of the world and others come from that sense, and only later do I try to spell out analytically or logically what my insight is. The labor of turning intuitions into rational arguments is intense. But, if you can do it, it's satisfying. But, I am starting to realize that many of our experiences defy our ability to accurately communicate them to others. More importantly, we often intuit when people are crossing our boundaries and yet employ our rational faculties to deny this intuition. More often that not in my life, I have committed the latter sin. My body was communicating as loudly as possible with me that I didn't like the situation I was in, or how another person made me feel, but I dismissed this as my own shortcoming.

The signs are usually predictable: I find myself feeling angry after agreeing to do something that I don't really have time to do, nor any real expertise to do. Or, I notice that my stomach hurts when I am around someone wanting my intimacy. The anger or anxiety are important indications that I am being taken for granted or taken advantage of. Many people who demand too much from bleeding heart types like me, are also happy to use guilt or play the victim to elict my support despite my anger. If guilt doesn't work, another useful strategy is to suggest that I am being selfish if I don't help them or that I am somehow not keeping my word if I don't follow through.

So, why I am blabbing on and on about the body and its specific language for warning us from emotional predators? Because, the fact is that very few people are ever going to guard my time and my energy but me. And, it is really hard for me to deny my attention and energy to someone who I think needs help. The latter trait seems intractably bound up with being raised female in this country. I know plenty of men who suffer from the need to help others too. But, mostly I see women in these unhealthy patterns with others. Who, after all, make up the majority of the caring professionals? Who are the overworked and underpaid nurses, social workers, primary school teachers, elder care providers, day care providers, etc?

Now, I am not interested in getting into a rather fruitless debate over whether or not women "choose" these professions precisely because they are naturally suited to tend to the needs of others. Sure, there might be biological evidence that suggests women are more compassionate, caring, etc. on average. But our personality is never fully a product of our genetic predispositions. We are taught, over and over again, how to sacrifice our own needs and serve others.

This latter quality, if exercised moderately is a virtue that I think all people should strive for, despite what gender/sex they identify with. When it is expected, however, that you should always sacrifice your own needs, or be punished for being a selfish bitch, then we have a problem. We have a problem primarily because women (or men) who spend their whole lives trying to help others with little regard for their own needs, sanity and wellbeing, are bound to become angry people.

I often wonder if the vitriol issuing from the self-righteous anti-feminist women ("conservative women") towards feminists is fueled by their diminshed sense of any life outside of the socially enforced institution of self-sacrificing motherhood. I just don't think that any human being, whether you are conservative or liberal, girly or feminist, handles well the vampiric emotional draining that others will all too happily do unless we are willing to draw boundaries and get called bitches.