I am a longtime reader of your column, and I appreciate your unique and thoughtful perspective. I have a problem that requires both a practical solution as well as, perhaps, a more metaphysical one. Here goes.
I am a happily married mother to grown children who has worked hard to cultivate and maintain meaningful relationships in my life. I am proud and grateful to have a close circle of devoted friends and an active social life. I am also pretty close with my siblings, but these relationships have been a bit more tumultuous. My sisters are all very much alike, work in the same field, and are of similar temperaments -- thus, I have often, over the years, felt excluded and hurt by them. Yet in recent years, partly because of changes that took place in their own lives as well as, I believe, longtime efforts to be closer and more open with each other, we have grown closer. It is not in my nature to be bitter and since I always wanted a close relationship with them, this has been a very welcome development. I think that I have been very loyal and caring to my sisters and so, in fact, has my husband, who has helped them a lot over the years.
So recently all of my siblings and I, and our spouses, decided to take a vacation together, along with one of my best friends and her spouse. This friend of mine has always gotten along very well with my family, but she is definitely my friend and only knows my siblings and socializes with them through me. The importance of that fact never occurred to me until this trip. But what happened is that I spent the vacation feeling once again the old, familiar feelings of exclusion and rejection -- this time by my dear and loyal friend as well. Prior to the trip, I had not anticipated this in the slightest, and was nothing but excited. But I found myself feeling edged out of alliances for reasons that I could not (and cannot) fathom.
For instance, one morning, I went into the kitchen to find all of the women cooking together in the small kitchen of our rented cabin. I discovered that there was no room for me to help, so I sat in the next room and tried to talk to them from there. The next day, I started breakfast myself, expecting that soon some of the others would join me. No one did. Instead, they all sat in the living room and talked and joked around together. After breakfast, I started to clean up. Once again, no one (except for my dear husband) was there to help; instead they all convened in the living room to talk and plan the events of the day together.
Another thing is that throughout the week, I noticed my friend making plans to do things with my sister without ever asking me or anyone else to join them -- and not things that related to interests that only the two of them shared, but things like massages that I would have happily partaken in. Also, my sisters and my friend would often wind up in taxis together without me, etc. In other words, a series of small but deeply painful slights made me feel like an awkward adolescent again and not a strong grown woman who feels loved by her family and friends.
We have returned, and now I am reeling from the effects of this trip. I am so hurt and confused that I feel like a wounded animal. I keep wondering what might be wrong with me that I am rejected by people to whom I am supposed to be close, and what could have happened to bring this on. Is there something wrong with me? Could I have done something without realizing it? I know that I am not perfect, but I can't imagine doing what they did and behaving as they behaved not realizing that it would be hurtful. How do I understand what has happened and overcome this hurt to feel strong again? And what do I say to my siblings and my friend, if anything? It is humiliating having to explain to someone that they have made you feel jealous and hurt, isn't it? Do I do it anyway?
Help me, please, Cary. I am devastated and I need to gain my footing again.
Dear Wounded Animal,
Now this is of course very painful, and I feel for you because I know what it feels like, but I have recently come to a startling and somewhat embarrassing personal revelation, and so I am going to speak from that place, not to impute that you might necessarily be anywhere near as bad as I am, but just so I can speak from the heart rather than hypothesize about something I probably know next to nothing about. I only know about me and not really so much about that.
OK, so here is this thing about me that I have resisted, that I actually feel quite ashamed of, so ashamed, in fact, that I am going to pretend we are talking about some other, hypothetical person in some very neurotic universe who is, like, a complete martyr, a frigging prima donna martyr just like his mom. So, if I were to just talk in the voice of this hypothetical neurotic martyr-type individual, he would say:
OK, I admit it. I am secretly hungry for payback and attention. There are strings attached to every generous gesture. I'm always trying to draw you in somehow. I have a complex agenda that is mostly hidden, and most likely at this very moment, though I appear to be sitting calmly with my hands in my lap, somewhere in my brain I am manipulating you into some position that will prove profitable to me eventually, and even I do not know most of the time that I am doing this. I am full of need and full of want and inscrutable to myself. It pains me to be excluded, but I will never take the steps to insist you include me. I don't know how to do that. I would rather sulk.
That's the martyr guy. He's a sneaky bastard.
He says, in his confessional moment (and even this confession is probably some kind of manipulative trap the workings of which we simply can't see yet because we are not as devious as he is), I am setting traps for you made of hidden expectation, and when you don't crawl into my trap, I am pissed off at you, but you will never hear directly how pissed off I am. You will never have any idea!
That is the secret martyr at work, the victim playing its victim trade on unsuspecting adults.
Even the most righteous and true of us, with the best of intentions, sometimes have subterranean back channels of intrigue and expectation that bring us pain, and with our siblings especially they seem to come out, and they are very hard to control.
So with you and your sisters, if I were a good therapist, which of course I'm not any kind of therapist at all, I would try to take you there and ask what character in you is setting you up for this. What hidden hungers or expectations are you carrying into this situation? Not why are they dissing you -- you can't do much about them (except ask them straight out to include you, or help you, which maybe isn't such a bad idea...). But mainly you can acknowledge the hungers and expectations you bring to your family get-togethers.
If you are human, then odds are there is something you have always wanted from your family and will always want and which you're never going to get. What is it? The respect and admiration you deserve? The kind of understanding -- from your perspective! -- that they've never shown? An admission that you really have done an awfully good job of taking care of them and being the reasonable one, the rock, the resource, while they have been screwing around messing up their lives?
Identify this thing, say it out loud, admit you are never going to get it. They are never going to give you what you want. No matter how good a person you are, they are never going to give you what you want. Accept it. Let it go.
What else can you do? Well, there are tons of books, of course, about codependence and all that. I've never gotten too far with those kinds of books. A book is no match for me. I can beat a book. I can ignore a book. It's people who force me to face what I'm actually doing. If you were in a recovery group of some sort, you might work one-on-one with a sponsor. Or you could hire somebody who's deeply intuitive enough to take you through this, to help you see what unacknowledged hungers for recognition, for the love and gratitude, or whatever, are driving you and creating all this pain. For it is pain! It is the pain of the unmet needs. They are unmet because they are unexpressed. If they continue to be silent then they will continue to be unmet.
I think, personally, that's the way to go, to find somebody to work with to take you through this one-on-one. And, hey, it's not easy. I mean, for me to admit that I even know about, or can channel, this martyr, this sort of creepy, withholding, invisible tyrant, that's not easy. But it's about as close to the truth as I can come right now, and since that seems to be my job, to come as close to the truth as I can before it burns me, well, there you have it, that's my take, and we're in the same boat, and good luck.
I have in my corner the lovely Denis Leary, who on "Letterman" said recently something to the effect that after years of marriage and several marriage counselors he finally realized that he was just wrong, and that seemed to settle everything.
Now that makes sense to me!
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