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Selflessness:The Deceitful Martyr

A few weeks ago, a friend and I were discussing a former lovership of mine. In this conversation I shared a metaphor, one I had constructed on a whim, that has remained with me from the moment the words retreated my lips.

We were in the process of conducting part 374 of the customary stage in most relationships - the autopsy. Finding new causes and rediscovering hidden symptoms. I, like many of my peers, have had the bittersweet fortune of collecting lovers through almost every stage of my adult life. Being a contributor to the demise of an omnibus of relationships, both romantic and platonic, has taught me that a post-mortem is a process of continuous realisation. It is void of a beginning and short of an end. One will always find themself in the middle.

Self Sacrifice: The Slow Demise

As my friend and I were identifying the limbs that were first to rot, I mentioned how I began to weaponize my availability against this former lover. This was a slow progression as I started to realise that their availability for me was always dependent on external factors that never seemed to include me. I said to my friend, “In the beginning I was so ready to jump at any request he had. If I was one of 2 people responsible for repainting the Sistine Chapel and he spontaneously said he was outside, I would abandon my paint brushes and rush out of the church, just to sit with him and stare into his eyes for hours.” I would quite literally shapeshift for this person’s amusement.

Towards the end of our lovership, my rebellious nature gradually awakened and I could no longer justify being boundlessly available for someone who had nudged me to cancel many arrangements with loved ones, only to not show up and tell me an overripe story the following day.

The metaphor that I constructed on a whim was about the Sistine Chapel. Yes, quite anti-climactic, I’m aware. However, it made me think about how much of myself I sacrifice for what I consider to be in service of others.

My years of experience in showing up for others has taught me how easy it is to abandon my own needs to appeal to the perceptions of family, friends and strangers. Jumping through narrow hoops of fire to save those who may not be aware of the extent to which they are burning. A highly celebrated act of service. This is the intersection where service is often made synonymous to selflessness.

What I find disguisedly obvious is how tragic the word ‘selflessness’ actually is. We celebrate the absence of self - the rupture of our essence - as an effective way to help others. In a world where we have all lost our essence of self in the name of helping others, who then are we actually helping? This is something I imagine 20th century psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, might call the collective unconscious. When we accept the ideas created by others as our own.

Not Only Are You Selfless, You’re also Codependent

The first known formal use of the term ‘codependency’ was in the 1940s. Psychologists and scholars at the time, “referred to someone living with or in a relationship with an addicted person,” as codependent. These were considered to be familial, platonic and romantic relationships where the loved one becomes deeply entangled in the other's life and subsequently, their addiction. During the 20th century the use of the word ‘addiction,’ in the context of codependency, was often limited to substances such as alcohol and narcotics.

As the field of psychology evolved over the decades and scientists became more intrigued by the nuances of human relations, newer ways of understanding codependency came to light. Today, there are a variety of ways that people define codependency. The formal definition I lean the most towards is that of marriage and family therapist, Vicki Botnick. According to her, “codependency refers to any enmeshed relationship in which one person loses their sense of independence and believes they need to tend to someone else.” I would take Botnick’s definition a step closer to my experience and say ‘ enmeshed relationship in which one person loses not only their independence but their sense of self in the pursuit of tending to someone else. Selflessness.

As I begin to accept the probability of my codependency in my most recent romantic engagement, I also realise how much my instinct to sacrifice myself was driven by fear and not by love.

Given my new self-diagnosis, the masochist in me thought it necessary to add salt to the exposed wound by going through some of the signs that I, or a loved one, may be moving through a pattern of codependent relationships. A 2018 research review published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction shares an extensive list of symptoms related to codependency. Here are a few that read as though they were written to taunt me;

  • A deep-seated need for the approval of others

  • Tendency to focus on others

  • Need for control

  • Difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions

  • Tendency to minimise or ignore one’s own desires

  • Pattern of avoiding conflict

The list of triggering signs goes on for what seems like pages.

What I find increasingly intriguing about my formative years and the environments where I play out my sense of self today, is that many of these signs were and still are celebrated by others. As a teenager I would notice how much love and worthiness I felt when my actions were approved by others. An award, an achievement or a stellar stage performance would leave people singing my praises and making me feel as though I had a reason to be alive.

Over the past few generations, the archetype of the ‘angry or unreasonable black woman’ has been vilified in popular culture. As a result many black women have been used as examples of what not to do when faced with a crossroads. This messaging subconsciously prompted me to neglect expressing my emotions, especially the uncomfortable ones that may inspire conflict or abandonment.

In no way do these instances divert the illness of codependency onto something or someone outside of myself. They simply aid in painting a picture - helping me understand how I may have arrived at this current condition. In the same way that diseases are passed down generations, it may not be my fault - but it is my responsibility.

Goodbye Self-Sabotage, Your Work Here is Done

The very first and most important agreement (according to Don Miguel Ruiz) in his book The Four Agreements, is to be impeccable with your word. Ruiz writes that though this may be the most important, it is also the most difficult of the 4 agreements.

In this chapter, Ruiz goes into detail about the need to honour the things you say to yourself and to others - as your word is a powerful force that shapes your reality. What I find particularly interesting about this agreement is how much more willing I am to be impeccable with my word to others than I am to myself. If I have agreed to commit to an arrangement, a project or even to support a friend, I will ensure that I do everything I possibly can to honour my word and show up.

In the company of the commitments I make to myself, I tend to take on a more relaxed and easy going approach. Why is it that I am more concerned with honouring the needs and desires of others than I am with honouring my own? Why is it so much easier to disappoint myself than it is to disappoint my loved ones, or even strangers?

Dear Mother Teresa, thanks but no thanks

As I compare the autopsies of almost all of my significant romantic relationships, the 1940s definition of ‘codependency’ appears to be more relevant than I imagined. Though none of my former lovers had a visible addiction to a particular substance, many of them were addicted to the pain and suffering they had become accustomed to through a series of tragic events. I, on the other hand, was addicted to the idea of potentially being the person who saves them from their suffering. The martyr who stuck by them in their darkest days, and who would be celebrated once they had overcome their struggle. That, my friends, is not love.

I acknowledge that there may be people who genuinely derive purpose from sacrificing themselves and their happiness for others. I am not impune to the reality that some may live and die having impacted and changed the hearts of millions at the expense of their own joy and contentment. For some reason, and I may be wrong, I do not think that is my life’s work.

Perhaps how we define service needs to expand to include a variety of other ways in which we can enhance the lives of others. Creating diverse scales on how service can be given and received.

In my experience being selfless is easier than honouring and expressing my own needs at the cost of disappointing others. However, in order to be in meaningful and intimate relationships with others, I must acknowledge that disappointing others is an inevitable part of living my truth.

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