People often tell me that they feel “used” because someone gets something out of being with them. Well, there’s nothing wrong with self-interest; every relationship, whether business or personal, should be mutually beneficial. However, the actual act of using somebody isn’t self-interest.
When someone claims to be a friend but actually wants money, status or services, that’s pretense. And pretense is deceit – and deceit is NOT self-interest. If you’re feeling imposed upon, ask yourself if the benefits are mutual. If both parties get something out of the relationship, then you’re not being used. 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’s a different story.
A friend is someone who benefits you because of whom he or she is. Each party gains, and even if the gain isn’t tangible, that doesn’t make it any less profitable. Intangible benefits include character, personality and compatibility. If either party is not gaining from the “transaction” of friendship, then it’s unhealthy and dishonest.
This also applies to romantic relationships. Misunderstandings and pain can develop when people don’t bother to figure out what they want from a relationship. It’s dishonest and naïve to say that friendship is “selfless”; if you are not gaining anything from your personal associations, then you’re responsible for figuring out what to do.
If you feel you’re being imposed upon, ask yourself what you might be doing to allow it. Nobody can use you without your consent, because “using” requires a manipulation of your mind through pretense, double-talk or some other means.
It takes courage to put this knowledge into practice, and guilt can sometimes 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, it’s still a problem. 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.
So 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 is posing for approval or simply wrong. A mother of five tells me, “When friends call me for something, it can be difficult to say no. But it’s time to put my foot down without being rude.… I tell them I’m now using my time and energy for me and my own family. If I can’t take care of myself first, I can’t take care of anyone else.”
We create the atmosphere around us. People won’t use you if you don’t make it comfortable for them to do so. Those who allow themselves to be taken advantage of end up bitter, angry or depressed. They assume that it’s others who should change, but that’s not how it works.
You’re sovereign over your life. Your time and energy are not a means to another’s ends. You’ll be happier, your true friends will benefit, and everyone else will get the message.
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