Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"You're important to me"

Have you had the experience of someone telling you that you're important to them but somehow they never manage to find time to be with you? Or the only times they ever invite you to see them are events to which they have invited several people and they hardly get any time to see you during the dinner or whatever it is? I've gotten a lot of it and it's only in the last few years that I've stopped going along with it.

I think we, or at least I, tend to go along with such things for two reasons. The first is that nobody wants to be a loser and seeing people you've come to think of as family or friends drift away makes us feel like losers. Life moves on and it feels like it's moving on without us when people who once were a huge presence in our life no longer have time for us. The whiny, needy little child inside us clings to whatever tiny morsels of attachment and recognition are offered us. The second reason is that the professions these people make to care for us are sincere. The people who say these things to us really mean them when they say them. They fully believe that they intend to get together with us and reconnect when they say they do. 

As I often say,  when our friends tell us lies they aren't necessarily lying to us. They could be lying to themselves. Indeed, the person who lied this way most often to me was my mother. I doubt she'd have been able to admit to herself how little I meant to her—I'm certain she felt a strong emotion that she was convinced was love for me but the plain fact is that she never had time for me. The only times my mother ever arranged for the two of us to be alone together was when she wanted to influence me to do something or stop doing something. But, and this is the important part, she was utterly unaware of this. Her feelings told her that she cared a whole lot about me, about my siblings and about my father. Her actions, however, rarely lived up to those feelings.

Of course, I've also done this to other people. More often, however, I've been on the other side of the equation. Robert Glover has argued that we tend to seek out relationships like those we had in childhood or, worse, that we tend to transform what should be successful relationships into the unsatisfactory ones we are familiar with. Looking back, I can see that I did that.

But how do we get out of that trap? I don't want to sound more authoritative than I am here as I am still figuring a lot of this out. The first thing is to train ourselves to get to the point where we can be honest about how our relationships actually work without getting angry about it. Psychologists often say, "Name don't blame." I don't think that's quite right because I think it's necessary that we blame. I think one of the reasons that some of us shortchange ourselves is that we're afraid to blame. When people tell us that we're important to them but are never available to us except when they have some ulterior motive we need to be honest enough to blame them, see my above remarks about how a fear of being a loser leading us to accept treatment from others that we should not accept. The issue is not whom we we blame but how we express that blame. The key is to express that blame in a meaningful and useful emotion and not as impotent rage. Then, and only then, will we be able to act in a more positive manner.

The opposite of impotent rage in this case would be cold-heartedness. We might, for example, experiment with withdrawing ourselves in the hope that the other person will reach out to close the gap. I don't know what would be worse, that such a strategy would fail or that it would succeed. Either way, we'd be training ourselves to be monsters. 

On the other hand, there is no point in investing a lot in such a relationship. We should be polite and civil because that is how we should behave to everyone who is not actually attacking or threatening us. We can nod politely and warmly agree that it would be great to get together sometime. We should even suggest an opportunity to do so. It's important to make it clear what we want. If I want to get together with an old friend and talk, just the two of us, I should make an overture. If the overture is never taken up and no counter offers are made, we need to have the courage to accept that we are not actually important to this person and adjust our attitudes appropriately.

I think the real test of that is when that later, inadequate invitation comes in. I had to deal with this recently with a  friend of mine from university days. When we ran across one another, he would great me enthusiastically and we talk about how we ought to get together. I suggested something and he agreed but then stood me up. He apologized and promised to set up another opportunity. A month later I was included in a group email inviting me to a book launch party for a mutual acquaintance of ours. I didn't go. The temptation to go just one more time and maybe we could arrange an actual encounter was still there. It always will be. But I just let it go.

I think what motivates people to tell us that we're important to them when they actually care very little for us is narcissism. It's not the monstrous sort of narcissism we read people ranting about on the Internet. Google "narcissism" and you'll get a whole bunch of hits where someone will rave that their mother or former boyfriend or girlfriend was a narcissist and how they've lived miserable lives as a consequence. But the truth is that very few people suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder or anything vaguely like it. Most people who tell someone they are important to them and then neglect them are simply projecting. They feel a strong emotion towards you because they need to feel special and they want you to see them as important. You are important to them because you validate their feeling of being special. To borrow from Robert Glover again, what my mother gave came from a place of emptiness inside her and always had strings attached. That's unfortunate but it's ultimately sad and pitiable rather than monstrous. To pretend that it was monstrous would be to be a whiny little victim (see those Internet hits I mention above) rather than to accept that the only person who needs to do anything about this is me.

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