21 Aug When we want too much…or not enough: Prioritizing ourselves in relationships
“Somedays I still tell myself to take what is offered, because if it isn’t enough, it is I who wants too much.” The Crane Wife, by CJ Hauser; The Paris Review, 7/16/2019
How often have I settled for what was offered me, particularly in relationships–assessing myself as not worthy of prioritizing myself in a relationship? The wife in Hauser’s story is told that she wants too much—she is made to feel she’s too much—too demanding, too selfish, too negative in her protestations. Not rendering herself obedient enough to the needs of her husband. Or at least that’s how I project my own experience on the character. It is sad to think about the ways we fail to show up for ourselves, and the myriad ways we are made to feel bad if, and when, we do.
As I work on my memoir, looking at the not-always-successful experiences of my post-divorce years, I’m exploring this issue. And every time I ask the question, “Why did I settle for something far less than I deserved?” or, “Why did I stay so long?”, the answer, if available, is murky.
How can I attribute blame to the right party, or is it parties? Who is to blame? A culture that says women should be grateful for men in their lives, that girls should speak less, be meek and mild? What specifically shaped my self-limiting beliefs? The people in my life who made me feel inadequate? How could it be that in spite of seeing the facts, or knowing intuitively that this or that person wasn’t right for me, I stayed anyway?
It’s not about blaming someone else, but about exploring how I got to that place. What drove me to make the decisions I made? Or more accurately what led me to ignore my instincts? And to trick myself into thinking I should be grateful for what I had, regardless of how bad or ill-suited.
How do we learn to dissect maladaptive behaviors and get at the root causes? The day I acknowledged my unhappiness with my marriage, and all the ways I denied my needs was the beginning of my attempt to find my way out. Along with many women of my generation I learned to view my happiness and well-being as secondary to that of others. As a wife, my husband’s needs were of primary importance. I delayed seeking a divorce because I didn’t think I had a right to do so–seeing it as a selfish act. I was holding myself hostage to the perceived thoughts and judgments of others when what I needed to do was prioritize myself in relationships.
Anytime I would try to engage my husband in conversations about our marriage, he liked to say I was, “having another one of your little moods’”. In other words, I was having an aberrant moment in taking care of myself, in standing up for myself or daring to challenge the status quo. And if you’re a person who has been subjected to subtle gaslighting and criticism as a child then this is a difficult move to make—it could be labeled as defiant, or disruptive.
In an earlier era they simply put us in mental hospitals.
Only in writing my memoir did I realize my tendency to stay too long in unpleasant or even unhealthy situations. A learned behavior: making myself invisible to minimize discomfort. And I wonder, as I read about one of the common complaints of older women–invisibility– if feeling invisible is connected to the denial of our wants and desires? It seems to me that each time we deny ourselves, while conforming and shutting down, in an attempt to suit the person or situation of the moment we subconsciously take part in our own invisibility. I don’t think we can be fully, wildly present if our overriding impulse is to prioritize other people, an impulse that puts us at risk of sacrificing ourselves.
Is (one of) the answers as simple as asking ourselves each morning, “what is it I want today?” A simple shift that reminds us to prioritize our own needs. It’s a good start: pausing to see what our body needs, or what makes us happy in this moment. It is a proclamation, an act of self-love. It may even be an act of survival. It’s not easy to erase decades of conditioning that we, as women, have been subjected to. It’s not easy to face being labeled as selfish or heartless. Even harder sometimes is seeing ourselves as worthy of our best and most loving focus. Not if we feel, “…it is I who want too much.”
What I’m learning is that the more confident I feel about myself, and the more time I spend acknowledging my desires, the more visible I feel. It is a practice of giving myself permission to take up space. For me it’s a matter of letting go of old learned behaviors and knowing I’m good enough to prioritize my own care, my pleasure and my rights as a human being.
Isn’t this what we all want?