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Why doing things for people undermines everything

All my life I’ve been accused of trying to be the center of attention. And told it was wrong to do so. By people who I suspect very much resented not having the guts to shine in their own way.

Not that it makes it OK for me to seek the spotlight. It doesn’t. But by the same token, criticizing someone for being successful at getting attention because you’re jealous of them has its own share of issues as well.

For one thing, it doesn’t avoid the problem of seeking the spotlight as a substitute for doing your thing without thinking about rewards or consequences. And for another, it makes you uncontrollably addicted to doing too many things for others in a fruitless quest for validation.

It’s twisted and wrung ass backwards.

The point of having been given a few decades to spend on spaceship earth in an infuriatingly aging corporal carcass isn’t to rack up awards and brownie points. It’s to devote those years to becoming the very best person we were always meant to be no matter what Aunt Gail or the Better Business Bureau think of it.


But what about doing what’s expected of you? Doing the right thing? Fulfilling your role as others — parents, mentors, society — see it? Isn’t that what Good People do?

Don’t know about Good People. I tried to be one, and it didn’t take. Probably because I was doing it all wrong. Probably because I was trying to be good-in-the-eyes-of-others instead of, you know, just plain good. I hit my pretty nose on the wall of pointless despair more times than I can count because no matter how hard I worked at meeting other people’s expectations they never seemed all that happy with me. They always wanted more.

I spent over a decade as a full-time mom. My kids didn’t spend a single minute in daycare, and very little time in the care of anyone except me or their dad. There were a few months seven years ago when we had a part-time nanny because the work schedule demanded it. And I felt terribly guilty the whole time. I homeschooled my kids from birth until this spring, not because I’m a religious nut job or survivalist, but because I firmly believe that young children do better with their mother (or father, or close relative) than they do in institutional settings, and also because I intended to give my kids enough free time and space to play without structures or expectations so they could find out who they were and what interested them.

When they went to school they were 11, nine and “almost eight”, which was a decent enough age to get integrated into the formal education system. I’m happy to say they did fit right in; like everyone else my kids aren’t perfect but other than experiencing minor struggles while learning to line up for things and asking permission to use the washroom, they adjusted very well. Their grades are more than satisfactory and they’re benefiting from a larger social group of diverse kids than what I could expose them to at home.

I am glad I gave them all this time, education and attention in their formative years. But it wasn’t without serious costs, including to my relationship with them.

When you give a lot to others, especially children who don’t have enough experience of going without much of anything to know what proper gratitude ought to feel like, what you see as significant self-sacrifice on your part is easily perceived by the recipients as business as usual. Something to be expected. Of course the laundry will find its way back to our drawers. Isn’t that what happens to laundry? Isn’t the floor always clean where you are? Why would I be thankful for the thought and effort that went into preparing healthy, from-scratch meals? I get those every day…

All those things we do, all those services we render, they become normal. The baseline. Why would anyone be grateful for what is clearly expected?

In that way, working for others leads them to take your efforts for granted. And I don’t know of a more potent poison to relationships than that.


Why do we do it, then? There are probably several answers to that question, but mine is that for too long I believed I needed to prove my love in order to have it be reciprocated. I never got as much back as I gave, or so it feels today, looking back on it. I was never satisfied, and needed constant reassurances. Which brings us right back to that problem I’ve had for so long with seeking the spotlight. Why, if you’re always right up there in people’s faces, they have to notice you and appreciate you, right?

Yeah. Right.

This pathological and self-defeating need to prove my love and devotion came from a lifelong struggle with impostor syndrome and the associated belief that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be good enough. So I had to try even harder than that. Because I wouldn’t be worth loving unless I went so far above and beyond what should normally be acceptable in a relationship that I’d wind up in a different solar system.

It didn’t work. And now I’m done with that. I’ve stopped thinking I wasn’t worth it and believing I had to prove my love even beyond unreasonable doubt.


And guess what I found. Relationships are a lot easier and healthier when you love yourself first. You’re a lot less stressed. And because you don’t fear losing other people’s affection, you can afford to be generous with yours. Without counting, without worrying about how much of it you’ll get back or whether it will be enough to keep those you love around for any length of time.

There is one thing you can and should do for others. It’s to love them in such a way that they will believe they are good enough and worthy of love. The rest is not only superfluous, it’s positively poisonous to your relationships.