Take Care of Yourself First

A reader sent an email telling me that she feels ‘used’ by her friends and family. She wasn’t clear on the details, but I have found that some people think they’re being used just because someone gets something out of knowing them or being with them. Well, there’s nothing wrong with self-interest, and every encounter, whether business or personal, should be mutually beneficial.

The problem with using somebody isn’t self-interest. It’s pretense. When someone claims to be a friend but actually wants something different  (money, status, services, for example), then you have a problem. Pretense is deceit. And deceit is NOT self-interest. I don’t have a problem if someone tells me up front what they want. It doesn’t mean I’ll agree to it, but honest self-interest is what counts.

If you’re feeling imposed upon, first ask yourself if the benefits are mutual. If both parties are getting something out of the relationship, then you’re not being used. And the give-and-take doesn’t always have to be tangible. If Tom borrows your car, and you really care about Tom, then he has already ‘paid’ you ‘ simply by being Tom. On the other hand, if Tom was a stranger who felt entitled to your car just because he wanted it, that would be different story.

A friend is someone who gives you benefit because of whom he or she is. It’s not a tangible benefit such as money or property, as in a business transaction. Friendship should be mutual. Each party gains, and the fact that the gain isn’t tangible doesn’t make it any less profitable. Intangible benefits are qualities of character, personality and compatibility. If either party is not gaining from the ‘transaction’ of friendship, then it’s unhealthy and maybe even dishonest. Each is responsible for knowing what he or she wants, and doesn’t want, from the friendship.

This also applies to romantic relationships. Misunderstandings and pain can develop when people don’t do the thinking required to figure out what they want their ‘benefits’ to be. Get over the idea that friendship is “selfless.” That’s dishonest and inaccurate. If you are not gaining something from your personal associations, then you’re the one responsible for figuring out what to do.

If you have established that you are being imposed on, ask yourself what you might be doing to allow it to continue. Nobody can use you without your consent, because ‘using’ requires a manipulation of your mind through pretense, double-talk or some other dishonest means.

It’s important to note that it takes courage to put this knowledge into practice, and guilt might get in the way. For example, ‘I’m sure Joannie doesn’t mean to use me.’ Well, that may be true. But if you’re feeling used, there’s still a problem. For one reason or another, the ‘exchange’ between you and Joannie is out of balance, and it’s your job to bring it back into balance. Joannie probably doesn’t mean any harm; she’s just trying to gain what she wants or needs. And well she should: But that’s no reason to not bring things into balance. If you resent what Joannie is asking of you, then it’s up to you to do something about it.

Much guilt is unreasonable and unnecessary. Your life is not another person’s means to an end. Your life is your own. Anyone who claims or implies otherwise through his or her actions is simply wrong. Margaret Austin, a full-time mother of five, put it very well online: ‘Are you always the one your friends call for something? It can be difficult to say no because you feel bad … It’s time to stop letting them use you for everything, and time to put your foot down without being rude ‘ Let your friends know that you are now using your time and energy towards your own family and yourself. Let them know that it is time for you to take a personal break from babysitting, running errands or whatever it is that you do for them. If you cannot take care of yourself first, you cannot take care of anyone else.’

We create the atmosphere around us. If you’re feeling used; if you’re the first one who’s called when people could be helping themselves or asking somebody else, it’s time to own up to the fact that you created the situation. People won’t do this if you don’t make it comfortable for them to do so. Those who allow themselves to be taken advantage of often end up bitter, angry or depressed. They assume that it’s others who should change, but that’s not how it works. All you have to do is decide that you’re sovereign over your own life and that your time and energy are not a means to the ends of others. You’ll be happier, your true friends will benefit, and everyone else will get the message.