If you’ve ever spent any amount of time with me, or even if you read my blog, you’ve probably noticed that I’m a very open person. I wear my heart on my sleeve (for better or for worse) and my empathy for those around me knows no bounds. For example, I routinely find myself listening to the struggles and life stories of complete strangers.
“It’s like they can sniff you out,” a friend joked, “I’m not sure how you do it.”
But really, how could I not? If there’s something happening on my face that’s telling people, “you can trust me with your secrets and I won’t judge you,” then who am I to refuse an ear?
While my empathy and sensitivity tend to help me connect with people, these traits also leave me quite vulnerable. My openness actually makes me the perfect target. And my penchant for forgiveness and seeing the best in people means that opportunists often take advantage of me. A vulture can quite easily cash in on chance after chance while I make excuses for their behavior.
I’ve been the victim of poor intentions more times than I can count. My best friend growing up consistently and cruelly bullied me to build herself up. In college, I was catfished and emotionally abused by an ex while I idiotically believed every lie that came out of his pathological mouth. It took me three years to leave him, and five more to stop responding to his communications. I’ve had numerous “friends” over the years who have used me, screwed me over, manipulated me, taken advantage of my kindness and completely sucked me dry.
My mother looked on, exasperated, as I gave myself away time and time again: As I insisted on seeing the good in a man who tortured me so badly that I ran out into the woods in the middle of winter and curled up in fetal position in the snow to suffer my panic attacks alone where no one could find me. As I gave out second, third and fourth chances to a friend who tried to get my mother fired after we’d taken her into our home. As I let a stranger who had no where to stay sleep on my couch and woke up to find him sexually assaulting me.
“You have got to look out for yourself, Chelsea,” she told me, time and time again. The problem was, I didn’t know how to.
When I look back on these difficult memories, or when I tell their stories, it’s always so obvious to me, in retrospect, that these people were out for themselves, and I was nothing but a target. Being a researcher by occupation and nature, I want to figure things out. And try as I might to look back and understand how others can be so cruel, I tend to find myself with more questions than answers. Yet, something I could not see until very recently is the common denominator: me.
It hurts to feel like I own a piece of being victimized by those who pushed me down. And yet, didn’t I let them? Didn’t I let them all in; let them take pieces of me, let them consume me? Didn’t I ignore my better judgment and the screaming voice inside me that said, “this isn’t right! This isn’t how love works!” Didn’t I let my desperate need to be accepted, seen and understood supersede my survival instinct? Why do I push down that crucial voice — the one that recognizes instantly when others are being taken advantage of but can’t seem to break through when my own feelings are involved? Why do I continue to let people hurt me? Why can’t I learn to put my guard up; to stick up for myself? Why do I default to trust?
I know it’s not all my fault per say. Vulnerability is part of what makes me, me and I’m not to blame for the wonton actions of others. But where does vulnerability end and stupidity begin?
That’s exactly what I am exploring now. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m trying to learn to find a balance between the openhearted person that I am and looking out for myself.
Lately, this has meant stepping back from friendships that drain me and never fill me up, and being very careful with my time and commitments. I cannot be everything to everyone, and I need to stop letting people take from me, just because. I have to be discerning with my time and energy, because unfortunately, I do not have an unlimited supply to give away. Those resources are finite, and I am learning to be smarter with how I expend them.
This is part of the beauty if growing older. We realize that we don’t really have to do all of those things we used to think were compulsory. We learn that self-care and setting boundaries means having more to give others (hopefully, to those who are deserving), not less. We learn to discern where our energies are best spent as well as what and who are not worth our time.
Still, the free-spirited lover in me hates to be discerning. She believes that beauty lies where the boundaries break down. She sees no point in missing out on the best parts of life and relationships in order to protect herself. And maybe partly, she’s right. But maybe, I can still have those things, and they should only be reserved for the people who have proved they’re deserving.
Maybe, after spending the majority of my life feeling sucked dry by those around me and being used as a stepping stone one too many times, I’m finally ready to try the other path: The path of self-preservation.