Everyone knows the feeling – you’ve extended an effort to do something nice for someone else, and that person takes what you’ve given without giving anything back. “I feel used” is an expression used from angsty teens to mature adults to describe this hollow, sunken sensation. And, it can often exist in the caverns of our darkest fears – what if this person doesn’t care about me, is lying to me, detests me? This, of course, can spiral onward to a self-indulgent loathing, “Oh maybe I shouldn’t have sent that text, or maybe I should just stop doing nice things for him/her, or maybe I was too needy before, maybe I should just text him/her to clarify, oh shit that’s even needier.” And on and on and on.
Now, I think it’s important to first recognize that the feeling of “usedness” comes from our ego-driven attachment to a concept. If I make dinner, I become attached to the “mine-ness” quality of the dinner. So, when my roommate shuffles up next to me to steal a couple bites, I lose the illusion of that dinner’s “mine-ness” and it hurts, it leaves a hole that my roommate doesn’t immediately replace. When I share a beautiful evening with a friend or lover, and then they don’t call me the next day, the illusion that that previous evening would represent all future evenings is similarly shattered. Was it all just a game to them? Does anything have any meaning?
This ignores a few key things, though. First, it ignores all of the times when my roommates have cooked me food, or all the times when I didn’t call someone back because I became pre-occupied in other life activities. Secondly, it assumes that all people reciprocate a loving action with an equally representative action. Maybe my roommate invites me the next day to watch a movie with him, and that’s his way of reciprocating the relationship. Or maybe a lover communicates their affection in a completely different, unexpected way.
Of course, these rational thoughts get blinked out of existence in the presence of the visceral and immediate usediness that we feel in the moment. But, instead of trying to assume people are not using us and taking advantage of our kindness (even though it is probably a life best-practice to assume people have good intentions), I’d like to do an experiment.
Let’s assume that everyone, even our closest friends, our lovers, strangers, everyone is trying to use us. Let’s also assume (and this is key, otherwise this whole exercise becomes a nightmare) that all of these people are not sociopaths – they have real needs they are using us to fulfill, even if they have no intention of fulfilling any of our needs. Then, let’s try to reach a mindset where all of that is totally and completely OK.
If someone breaks into your car and steals your sweater, it’s almost certain that they needed it more than you did. If somebody begs you for food (whether a homeless person or a lazy roommate) they probably need it as much or more than you do. In fact, most of those things to which we hold so tightly we probably don’t need, we just want, and even then we just think we want them. In short, it’s important that we focus on being compassionate for the people who take advantage of us (whether in reality or in our own insecure fantasies) – they were addressing a need, healing some pain, and it’s within our power to be strong enough to not succumb to anger and instead to empathize with the person who felt the need to harm others to get something they want.
As I’ve written before, perhaps my favorite book is Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. In the book, The Idiot is constantly abused by everyone – his family, friends, lovers, strangers. But, instead of becoming angry, he remains every bit as peaceful, kind, generous, and loving as he was before. For this, they call him The Idiot. However, Dostoevsky’s name for him (how he’s referred by the Narrator) is “The Prince”. There is something princely about being free from one’s attachments, suspicions, and remaining kind to people even when they’re unkind to you.
One argument I’ve heard against this philosophy I refer to as the “pitcher of water” argument. It says that each person has a pitcher of water (e.g. generosity, love, kindness, etc.) and when each person takes from that pitcher and fills up their glass, eventually the pitcher becomes empty and the person needs to receive some love back before they can keep being positive and friendly. While this made sense to me when I was younger, now I think it’s total bullshit. We shouldn’t give love in order to love back, we should give it because its an awesome thing to give and it doesn’t cost us anything. If you say ten nice things to people and nobody says one back, you shouldn’t swallow the eleventh. Yes, I understand that when we feel suffering (physical or emotional) our capacity for empathy decreases, but this is a function of both our mental control and our initial capacity for empathy. If you’re significantly more empathetic than most, it will take you a lot of suffering before you reach average empathy, which is pretty rad. If you have a lot of mental control, you can tolerate even more without losing your kindness or compassion. Building and maintaining empathy is probably the concept on which I meditate most often (other than maybe which Rick and Morty episode is the best, or my magical sleeptime river meditation, ask me about it sometime).
I know this blog isn’t as fun as some of my others, and I’m sorry for that. Here’s a clip of Tiny Rick to make up for it:
So really, I’d stress two key points:
- Most likely, you’re not being used, it’s all in your head, and people will get you back with nice things on the other side
- Even if they don’t, be happy – you’re helping someone satisfy a need and it doesn’t cost you much.
I know it’s not easy, but keep those emotions front-of-mind and you’ll conquer them.