On Becoming an Individual When Your Identity Is Based on Helping

Lisa Martens

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For a while, I enjoyed the TV show "United States of Tara." There's one scene in particular that resonated with me.

A much younger Brie Larson is Kate Gregson, daughter of a woman with mental health issues...dissociative identity disorder (DID), specifically. She rebels against her mother's alters, and struggles to grow up and find her way without a stable home environment. Her father is always saving her mother. She gets into sketchy situations...sitting on balloons for money, having an inappropriate relationship with her manager before realizing he does this to all the new, underage girls...before finding a stable job and relationship.

But she's afraid to go all-in on the relationship. She's used to taking care of her mother, rebelling against her mother, avoiding her mother...and never truly having her own life. This line struck a chord in me, when she's talking to her potential boyfried:

"I want to make my own problems. That's my right as a human f****** being. And so I choose you. Be my problem." - Kate Gregson, United States of Tara, Season 3, Episode 11, Crunchy Ice.

I resonated with this, and deeply. In my childhood, I felt like I wasn't allowed to have problems. As a young woman, I felt like I wasn't allowed to have problems. Someone else's problems were always greater than mine, and caused me to put my dreams on hold. There was always a bigger crisis...money, mental health of someone else, health, etc. I felt selfish for considering having my own life.

This carried into relationships. I found broken men who would feed the feeling that I had to tend to them, and so I couldn't work on my own plans. My goals and happiness were always on the other side of a crisis. Now was never a good time.

It was never a good time for me to figure out how I wanted to make money...what my dream life was, what my dream situation was. I was always caught up in the problems of others, and felt like I was not allowed to have my own.

Unfortunately, this tendency caused me to make bad choices.

I ignored red flags, seeing them instead as challenges. I got involved with people who were emotionally unavailable, who would never give me what I wanted, and with men who were abusive, who were cheaters, and who had hosts of problems for me to try and fix.

Helping someone through a hard time can be a beautiful act of love. But I was not doing it out of love. I was doing it as a distraction...as a form of re-enactment.

Why was Kate seemingly drawn to poor romantic decisions? Was it just because she was a rebellious teen, or was something else going on?

Re-enacting is common for people with unresolved trauma issues. Sometimes, that magical chemistry one feels in a relationship is the pull from an open wound. I felt like I was not allowed to have problems, so I entered into relationships where the other person had too many, and was unable to carry them all. I became the helper, the fixer, the person who was more put-together than my partner.

But this had other consequences—I was scared of adopting my own life, my own problems. I was afraid of people who had figured things out. I couldn't be in a relationship with someone whole and sane...what would we do? What would I do, if I wasn't fixing someone else? And, what's worse, what if they pushed me to achieve more, to go for my own dreams? What if they wanted more, like marriage? I had been with men who I knew would not pressure any form of advancement, so there was a clear end in sight.

Setting emotional boundaries.

What Kate was struggling to do...and what I have been learning how to do...is to set an emotional boundary. This means not being caught up in other people's problems as though they were my own. It means drawing a line between myself and other people, instead of trying to merge with someone more broken so I can act as a band-aid or a healing leech (it's not healthy for the other person to be in that kind of situation, either, so I wasn't doing them any favors).

What did I need to do? What was I struggling with?

1. Acknowledging the traumas I experienced.

Trauma that is not acknowledged cannot heal. Part of my issue was my thinking I was "fine" or "didn't go through anything that bad." Because I told myself nothing was wrong, I could not heal, and so I relived the situations that traumatized me and always found myself in a state of "chaos."

2. Recognizing I did not have to live in fear.

I had been living in near-constant fear. In fact, I believed that the moment I stopped feeling fear, something bad would happen. Therefore, feeling fear was a defense mechanism.

Only dumb people didn't live in fear, I thought. They would be caught off-guard. But I wouldn't! I wouldn't be surprised if something bad happened.

But living in fear meant I also could not experience good things. It also meant I was doing damage to myself by living in constant fear and stress...so did the benefit of being "right" outweigh all the time spent unhappy?

The answer was no, it did not.

3. Recognizing I was a human being with the right to have my own problems.

Like Kate, I didn't have my own problems because I thought I wasn't allowed to. I couldn't have my own life if I was taking care of others.

Once I recognized my autonomy, I could begin to defend it. It was not rude of me to focus on my work, and spend time with friends after. It was not rude for me to decline a drink if I had an early yoga class the next day. I didn't have to do it all, and give myself scraps after. I could say no. I could say no, and that was not rude or selfish.

4. Being okay with being selfish.

Once I was okay with saying no, then I had to be okay with saying yes...with being selfish enough to demand to have my own life.

It's okay to want. It's okay to live one's life as one sees fit. It's okay.

I had believed, for so long, that it was wrong to say yes to what I wanted, and wrong to say no when someone asked me for a favor.

Once I started to say yes to what I wanted, I started to discover that there were people in my life who only wanted me in it because I didn't have that boundary. There were people who were angry if I didn't reply to them right away. There were people who demanded my time and energy. There were people who were upset that I was not giving away all of my time and effort.

And finally, I had the strength to say yes to myself, and not mind if those people were upset with me. They had no right to depend on me for so much.

It is okay for me to take care of my needs and then tend to others, instead of sacrificing.

Dare to have your own problems.

If you grew up in a caregiving role, or in a family with a lot of problems, you might think you need to flatten yourself, stunt yourself, and prevent yourself from hitting major milestones. You might be addicted to drama, to chaos, and even to toxic people. You may crave a roller coaster and never figure out your way around the park.

I had this issue, and I still do. Recognizing that it is a form of trauma, and that I have every right to have my own life, is a step toward healing.

It's my right as a human f****** being.

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