Self/other

Knockbacks of various sorts have a nasty spreading effect, as doubts creep in and confidence wanes. Something small that you have committed yourself to, which doesn’t work out, can colour the rest of the day. The feeling of hopelessness can spread if you have too little to do, and therefore the time to brood, which I do at the moment as I am jobless and without enough to keep myself busy.

I often struggle emotionally when I’m underoccupied. I suspect that it’s also why some very elderly people appear to lose interest in living towards the end, as physical frailty becomes a consuming reality, and prevents them from getting on with whatever they consider their work to be.  Working on something, doing a good job, having a project, or solving even a trivial problem, can be a consolation: “Whatever else is happening, I achieved this today.”

This feeling is not always associated with work as such: it can come from performing some small act of thoughtfulness for another and enjoying the approbation that follows. If, like me, you are someone who is used to being busy, to working for and with others, the feeling of self-respect that comes from playing your part can be very hard to replace through one’s own activities. On some level, we yearn for social approval, and to feel ourselves to be ‘good’, dependable people who can be trusted to discharge our responsibilities towards others. And we torment ourselves when circumstance takes this feeling away from us. Hence the way that my very elderly grandmother used to sometimes complain of ‘feeling useless’: not in pain, not depressed, not fed up, but of no use.

I tend to think this has to do with the socialisation we go through as we grow from infancy through childhood into adulthood. The ability of very small children to be utterly absorbed in their own thoughts is very striking. They do not go about troubled by the difference between what they are and what they feel they might or should be; instead, they just are. The urge to define ourselves socially, in relation to our responsibilities to others, comes later, helped along by the injunctions of our parents to ‘be good’, and by various experiences like school, which serve to position us in groups of all kinds.

Recognising our need for the approval of others has to be balanced against the fact that we are still what we are, with our own needs to think about too. Part of being a social animal is having to reconcile these two things. Perhaps you, like me, have had the experience of feeling taken for granted, when you are offering up more of yourself than is being recognised. It can happen in any relationship: with the teacher whose favourites are not ourselves; with the boss who doesn’t notice our hard work; with the lover who takes and never gives. This leads to a feeling of resentment and can lead us to tear up our ties to others, to walk away rather than holding on. The world is full of people who feel this resentment keenly, who fall out with friends, who leave jobs, who seem restless.

It seems to me that the ability to hold these two things in balance is a major component of sanity, though the point where the balance pivots is different in every person. For some of us, nurturing resentment comes easily, and we cut ties without much thought, in order to preserve our own sense of ourselves as people who don’t stand for any ill-treatment from others. Yet there are others – we all know them – whose commitment to a social role is so strong that we marvel at how they do it. For me, this prompts the reflection that people whom it would be easy to dismiss as ‘walkovers’ often display immense strength simply by continuing in their commitments to others.

Image: Timothy Takemoto via Flickr