I used to be a Very Helpful Person.
Maybe you can relate?
Raised to be codependent and a “good girl”, I developed the understanding at a very early age that the way to be a Real Woman and have friends was to be always available and heroically selfless. I grew up to mold myself into whoever people needed me to be, which never seemed to be enough. I was not the friend who got to celebrate the good news or share in people’s fun or jokes. I was the therapist/errand-runner/chauffeur/babysitter on emotional retainer.
I developed a belief that there was nothing lovable about me other than my ability to be helpful and supportive for others in their dreams and relationships, and I surrounded myself with people who validated that belief. In Kate Manne’s book, Down Girl, she refers to women in sexist culture as human givers rather than human beings. She goes on to say, “in this economy of moral goods, women are obligated to give...not to ask, and expected to feel indebted and grateful, rather than entitled. This is especially the case with respect to characteristically moral goods: attention, care, sympathy, respect, admiration, and nurturing. [...] He may love and value her intrinsically...but far too conditionally, that is, not on her identity as a person (whatever that amounts to) but her second-personal attitude of good will toward him.”
Good women, I came to realize-- desirable women, women who are loved, real women, naturally possess all of the above mentioned “moral goods”. For me, such traits caused me overwhelming heartache. I was far more used than loved, making it near impossible to detect or accept anything remotely close to real love. These “moral goods” became a source of anger, not joy. I resigned myself to the disappointment that I was probably broken, and found myself feeling jealousy instead of shared admiration when friends would talk about any other woman who was so nice and so selfless. I began reaching a point where my exhaustion, bitterness and resentments capped my ability to be genuinely kind. One too many times I dumped my life force into helping others, only to have them ignore me and harm themselves anyway, or toss me out as soon as someone more worthy came around. Resigning myself to the status of Failed Woman, I began to give myself permission to be less available and less likable.
At the same time, though I’ve turned into a bit of an ice queen, I am still a bleeding heart. Definitely a weeping weenie (...dunno if I like that, but I’ll keep it here). I am passionately dedicated to creating social change and doing what it takes to live in a world where people don’t have to live in fear or scarcity. These days I’ve turned my energy to broader causes rather than acting as a source of grace for individuals. I figure that if larger change is successful, then individuals will naturally become less scary and more awesome.
In times of crisis such as our current one, this brings up a lot of fear for me. I fear that my inability to be Mother Teresa makes me a narcissist, and that I’m just taking up space in the world rather than contributing anything beautiful or healing. Because the majority of my life was focused on supporting other people, I never really took much time to hone any other skills. However, if being The Emotional Support Person is not a role I’m able to play right now, this presents me with a valuable opportunity to explore my motives for helping, and find other people who are helping in different ways.
Don’t have the time, patience or skill to listen to other people’s problems? Maybe you’re like me, and you don’t have good boundaries that prevent you from being depleted while providing emotional labor. That’s okay! Leave that work to the social workers, certified coaches, licensed therapists, and friends with good boundaries who have a genuine desire to hold that space. We need a variety of social roles to keep the world up and running, so consider trying on any of the following:
Teacher: sharing important information to further collective knowledge of a situation; assistance in homeschooling and tutoring for online university students; workout instruction; teaching DIY skills such as sewing masks, home repairs, cooking, art tutorials. Take complex, advanced concepts and make them accessible and digestible for the general public.
Organizer: reach out to folks with dates, times and instructions to join together in action and idea generating; form support groups; post and share resource lists; get friends and family to all decide on a time to chat together via phone or video; offer tips and instruction for how to organize one’s home or how to contact social services and local politicians.
Personal Shopper: gather food and miscellaneous supplies and deliver them to folks in need.
Clown: laughter is incredible medicine! Share your humor and your goofiness.
Entertainers/Artists: share your work; brighten people's day with color; create inspiration and escape to new worlds; provide new languages for the things we can’t put words to.
Researcher: compile information and resources worth sharing; make lists of best movies, shows and albums to check out.
Writers/Poets: express the ideas that other people might be too afraid to talk about for themselves, or think they’re all alone in having.
Spiritual Support: in times of fear and unknowing, many people turn to their beliefs of something greater than themselves to guide them through. Offer meditation, words of peace and encouragement, divination, prayer, etc. No charlatans or cult leaders, please (yeah, I see y’all).
Fart Monster: thanks, boyfriend. See also: clown.
Self-Care Person: sleep; eat well; say nice things to yourself; avoid inflammatory posts on social media; turn off your phone when you start feeling burnout from your notifications going off constantly. Simply showing up as your best, most rested self does wonders for the wellbeing of everyone around you.
Financial Support: donate, donate, donate. Income unaffected by the quarantine? There are a LOT of vulnerable folks out there, health-wise, economically, or both. Problems at the border haven't disappeared. There are many trained professionals already working on the frontlines. What everyone needs right now is money.
Feel free to add to this list. Obviously I left off specialized roles because I’m not about to suggest that y’all just go out there and become doctors. As much as we all talk a big game about transcending the pressure to feel productive, the reality is that most of us are still wondering what our “purpose” is at times like these. Let’s each do our part to be as available or unavailable as we actually are. If you are really here for folks, say so. If you can’t help or show up, don’t offer. Offer your condolences, a word of affection, a motivational “I believe in you”, and free that person up to seek the correct help.
If you are a person for whom emotional support is either not your strength or is unhealthy for you, that is okay. This does not make you a Bad Person (yes, even if you are a woman). At the same time, not being The Person to go to isn’t the same as not extending your heart to select friends and family. I still check in with folks, and I still let them know I’m available if needed. Providing emotional support is beautiful and so important, but it is not the only way to have value in the world. If you’re sitting in your house wondering “wtf do I do now”, utilize the extra time to consider your own wholeness, and that there are so many ways you can bring goodness into the world right now. If nothing else, start by finding some sense of gratitude for the safety and security you have. Anything else will grow from there.