Giving Less

Art by Trey Speegle

This time, I’m giving less. Of myself, of my world, my love, my feelings, my opinions. And I mean it this time. Because I’m tired. I’ve tried—and failed—to internalize this concept for years. I found pride and strength in my idea of perseverance, thinking I was doing some higher bidding, living some better way, by tearing myself up into little pieces for other people. I believed protecting one’s self from the world was a folly of the fearful.

That ends now.

I’ve long believed the idea of protection was a lie. Freak accidents happen. Other people are an unknowable factor. The world is too chaotic for unequivocal safety so you should just live, big and loud. But even in my middle class, privileged Connecticut upbringing, I encountered abuse that was physical, mental, sexual, and emotional. I survived on the fumes of being gaslit, came of age on the agony of people leaving without a peep, and the devastation that comes from familial rejection. I’ve raised myself on the promise of honesty, the crumbs of affection, and the subsequent lies that prove far easier in the end. And I did it all with a smile.

Protection isn’t something a girl like me readily seeks, the mystique of it shattered long ago. If I close my eyes long enough, I’m eight years old and back in that purple and kitten-covered bedroom again, telling myself what happened to me was just a lesson I needed to learn so that I could finally be strong. I’d always been categorized as the weak one: too emotional, too dramatic, too much for everyone, my willing vulnerability a lethal catnip for the emotionally manipulative. How I responded to this experience, though? This would change all of that: in this response, I could finally learn to be strong. Stronger than the forces of my past, of all the things that propelled me into my future. This secret would prove I didn’t need protection—I would come out on the other side like, so what? And?

Because bouncing back is what I do. I never needed to be saved from outside situations, never mistaken for a princess-y damsel. I was everyone’s happy girl: strong and smart and loving, maybe a little delusional. I gave and gave and focused on others. I believed it to be pure strength. Because when we see people putting others’ feelings and needs before their own, it’s largely shown as a selfless, noble cause. The work that makes us all see and, in turn, work towards being better. The reminder that we can evolve past where we are now and be the knight in shining armor of our own story.

It happens little by little, with every passing comment that tells us we’re selfish for simply feeling. So I gave. I gave my heart when it wasn’t wanted, I gave my soul and had it exploited, I gave my mind and had it co-opted, gave my body and had it humiliated, and still I kept coming back for more. My time, my money, my feelings — all of it was for someone or something else. It had to be: I’d latched onto the idea of selflessness as my only source of sustenance. I thought, surely, if I did all that, I would find myself with a sated belly for life’s journey. I’d find my balance and my footing on the path towards some sort of righteous way of living and that would be enough. If I only gave a little bit more, the world would be unencumbered by the proverbial metal plate inhibiting our ability to open the next door.

I’m strong, I thought to myself: I can decorate my scars, pretend my wounds are wearable art and tell others the story. I’d convinced myself that by being nothing but a conduit for others, that maybe I could finally be something, feel something, have something. I could finally be worthy. Of love, of happiness, of a life that was my own. I was totally in denial.

And denial is, in its own way, an armor. But an inherently damaged one.

And damaged armor has holes, and damaged armor has rust: left and ignored, it only gets worse. By denying that my shoddy armor was an attempt at armor, I lost a part of myself. But putting yourself first was a cardinal sin of selfish weakness! So caring about myself had to be eradicated at all costs. So I threw myself into everything else.

How do you care, but not? How do you feel, but softly? How do you walk a road that’s actually more of a tightrope with an assurance you won’t fall off? How do you build armor that’s protective but not prohibitive to living a life? Good god, Admiral Ackbar, is this really all just a trap?

For the past year now, I’ve been peeling away the fake armor. And it hurts. Parts have fused with my skin—scars enveloping metal—while others reveal festering wounds strewn about my person. So I stripped it all down, cried and tried to heal my wounds, and burned the rest in effigy. I wrote screeds, cried in diatribe, and yelled into the ether. But the ether doesn’t yell back, and you can’t scream at all when you don’t have enough blood to pump your heart and put air into your lungs.

This is why you must self-protect.

So I’ve traded in my armor for padding this time, choosing protective elements as I go. I don’t need a blade, but I do have a megaphone. I’m retiring the cavalry, but I’m not giving up the ghost: I’ve just committed to the tightrope. Because I’ve realized in life we shouldn’t be knights, but acrobats. We need padding — not metal — and a moment to get our bearings. We need to breath slowly, engage deeply, and step cautiously. It’s a trickier walk, but the view is outstanding if you can manage to stay on top and aren’t afraid of the occasional tumble. You just have to get a feel for the rope, know the weight and capacity, develop a sense for what surrounds you, and learn as you go.

Because protecting one’s self isn’t about giving less, it’s about seeing more.