I was first diagnosed with the condition of ‘giving too much of a shit’ at the age of 5 by my favourite primary school teacher.
I had been out playing with a group of friends when one of them rounded on the other, pushing them to the ground and stealing their favourite pog (it was a 1990s game!). As the victim of this heinous crime (!) ran away crying, I turned to the kid who’d pushed them down and asked them if they were okay… As the teacher came round the corner to smooth things over, he asked me why I was involved in the incident. So I told him I had just been there at the time and for some reason felt sorry for the other kid. The teacher just chuckled and told me that one day my caring for the ‘mean ones’ would either be my making or my downfall. As a five year old child, clearly this made no sense to me and I happily shrugged and skipped off back to my game of pogs… but several years later and I’m reminded of his words in my adult life.
Why is that we care for some people so deeply and not for others, particularly when to the outside world our care is wrongly directed? I imagine that if you were to ask this question to ten different people, you might well get ten very different answers. Are our feelings related to the things they do for us everyday, the words they utter to build our confidence, the support they provide in a crisis? Is it because they are perfect in every way and they only make us feel good? When we find ourselves drawn to people, what is it that keeps us there – even when, at times, it seems crazy to stay?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because on the whole, I think I’m a pretty good judge of character. I mostly surround myself with honest, caring and grounded people who I know I can depend on and trust. But I’ve also noted a pattern in being drawn to some quite complicated, complex and in some cases, destructive people too. When I care about someone it happens quickly and is pretty hard to shake, even when someone behaves in a way which is hurtful and to many, unforgivable. Does that make me stupid? Naïve? Ridiculous even? To keep giving my time to those who seemingly don’t deserve it…
The way I explain it to friends and family is that sometimes to get to the most beautiful parts of who a person is, you have to wade through the murky bits – with some people there’s just a whole lot of murkiness to contend with before you get to the good bit, but it has to be there. I guess I like the idea that much like the art dealer who finds a discarded masterpiece that others’ could not or would not take the time to see, that I’ll find the person / people who, with time, will be incredibly interesting and rewarding to be around. The diamonds in the rough 🙂 I know I’m not alone in this way of thinking, we can all surely think of a time when we’ve held onto someone even though we know they haven’t done a huge amount to deserve it and / or haven’t given us anything back in return…
So in thinking about this, there are the obvious explanations that spring to mind. Curiosity – perhaps the more someone behaves differently to ourselves, the more we want to understand and explain it. Self-punishment – perhaps we don’t believe we deserve any better so we’re willing to accept hurtful behaviour. Do-gooder syndrome – somehow we want to relieve the world of all it’s ills and pain, one individual at a time. The list goes on…
But I have my own theory – perhaps it’s the case that the things we seek in other people (be it friends, lovers, colleagues etc.) are sometimes the things we want others’ to find out about ourselves. By trying to understand someone who (for example) has treated you badly, perhaps you are somehow hoping they will try to understand you back. It’s a well known fact that we tend to seek out those who are similar to ourselves in life because it reinforces our view of the world and makes us feel our values and beliefs are the ‘right’ ones because they are shared (a several thousand word dissertation on the topic has emblazoned that particular fact in my mind! 🙂 But to dig into that deeper, perhaps alongside reinforcing our beliefs and values we are also seeking out ways to confirm that the not-so-great aspects of ourselves (our imperfections and cracks) are loveable and acceptable too. For example, by finding someone who is imperfect and broken, it makes it okay for me to be imperfect and broken too – an understanding between people who have experienced difficult times in life and have not just lived life safely in monotone, and they accept and care about each other because of it.
Everyone, regardless of the façade they put on, is looking to be heard, understood and accepted. To be truly understood is rare, and to be accepted for all your imperfections and cracks is even rarer. It has always been my view (rightly or wrongly) that a person with seemingly no imperfection and no issues is either a boring one or a fake one, so it follows that when I meet people who have things to work through I equate that with being real and having experienced life a little more. I’m not sure that’s something I want to change about myself but what I am realising is, at the point at which caring about someone comes at the cost of caring about myself, that is when a line has to be drawn somewhere.
So where does this leave things I wonder for a crack addict like me? Well I think my three step programme would sound something like this:
1. Remember that understanding people is good, trying to fix them is not. The one thing which is a sure fire way to be eternally dissatisfied is to believe you can fix people – people can be broken by others’ but they must always fix themselves. You can support people by providing the tools to help and the unwavering support but ultimately they are the only ones who can do what’s necessary.
2. Keep caring but don’t let it come at the cost of your own needs. This is one I will struggle with because I just never like to give up…but it’s an inescapable truth that you can give all of yourself to help someone and they’ll take it all, leaving with you nothing. Know when it’s ‘just too much’ and take a step back, you do no one any favours by sacrificing yourself.
3. Remember that cracks are as much of who you are as rest of you. Imperfections and ‘isms’ are what make us unique and interesting, allowing people to see that can be a good thing. I remember reading an article about the success of ‘the imperfect leader’ as a leadership style because people identified with it and felt that when a person is willing to be vulnerable, it shows their ability to be real and present.
Finally, a quote which has stayed with me ever since I first encountered it is below. Although it sort of feeds my addiction to ‘finding the cracks’, it also makes me feel good that as an ambitious woman trying to make my mark in the world, it’s okay to sometimes show your vulnerabilities and drop the mask for a while 🙂
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” Cohen