Asking for a Friend: Being Solid Without Being Stuck

Dear Olive,

I have been the “solid” one my whole life, the person who takes care of everyone, an amazing friend, sibling, daughter, and partner. It’s just who I am. But it can be exhausting, and means that I often don’t leave space for myself. My husband and I recently (amicably) separated, and I am working on taking this time to prioritize ME, for once. But this means I’m not totally there for my friends and family, and it feels like I’m losing my identity. Who am I if not the caregiver? Can I continue to take care of everyone, and still take care of myself?

-Not-So-Solid

Dear NSS,

The short answer is: yes, kind of, depending on what you mean by “everyone,” and probably better than you used to.

But let’s back up.

You write that you’ve always been the solid one, a description that sounds simple until you try to figure out what exactly “solid” means. Predictable? Responsible? Available? None of those is incompatible with a person who takes good care of themselves, but that doesn’t mean they’re always good. There’s “solid” as in steadfast, reliable, reassuring — and then there’s “solid” as euphemism for regularly exploited without putting up too much of a fuss. I don’t know which you are, and the fine line between them may be hard to see from where you’re standing, but it’s interesting that “solid,” in your definition, means solid for other people. You are the giver of airport rides, the shoulder to weep on, the middle-of-the-night phone call. You are the scaffold, and for years, somebody else has gotten to be the house.

You write that this role is just who you are, but also that you’re exhausted by it, that you don’t have enough space for yourself, and that you’re ready to put yourself first — that same self you describe as being the solid caretaker of everybody else.

Do you see the contradiction here?

It’s true, of course, that life can be difficult and draining — even the most honest, authentic parts of it. Deep engagement demands a lot from us. Wanting a break from being so thoroughly yourself is extremely ordinary. But when you’re asking about how to make sure your self sticks through this upending of a life-long habit, it may be worth considering how sure you are of that self in the first place.

You’ve defined yourself as a certain kind of person for years, if not decades — but perhaps you’ve also defined yourself by your marriage or your job or your favorite karaoke number, and none of those is carved in stone, as you’re experiencing. Set your identity aside for a minute. Forget self-description or self-analysis. Don’t be a “kind of person who” — just be a person. Not a self you’ve defined and defended — just you.

Ask yourself: what feelings, new and old, color in your days, now that the outlines have shifted so dramatically? What new discoveries have you made? What have you learned to cook from weird market vegetables? What new color have you painted your bedroom?

What, in short, are you learning about yourself in this space you’ve created?

It’s so much easier to consider what’s missing from that space instead. The phone calls you’ve let go to voicemail. The obnoxious second cousin you didn’t let crash in your guest room. The bake sale you didn’t stay up all night to prepare for.

You don’t have to start by cutting any of these out of your life. Start instead by adding in the bits you want. Don’t deprive yourself; nourish instead. Don’t think of your own time as borrowed from somebody else. Keep your appointments with yourself. Soon enough, your life will be so full of what you’ve decided to prioritize that the favors you give away will have to be choices, not habits.

It’s important to note that prioritizing yourself doesn’t have to mean abdicating responsibility or meaningful work. Self-care doesn’t have to be rest; it can be engagement, persistence, flow.

And putting yourself first doesn’t mean that you can’t pick up your phone in the middle of the night or that you’ll never haul another friend to the airport at 5 a.m. It just means you won’t have to do those things to remain yourself. It means you can decide how much juice you have to deal with a friend’s anxious fretting about an awkward work email or exciting new date or ocean acidification, and that sometimes, that friend can be you.

You say you feel like you’re losing something, and you might be. But loss doesn’t have to be a bad thing, especially if it makes room for finding something better. Your life is changing in many ways, both obvious and subtle. Change means losing what the past once provided, whether it’s an identity or a dreamed-up future or the solidity that kept you rooted for so long. It means ditching the uncomfortable safety of something not quite right for the uncomfortable danger of vulnerable transformation — but it also means getting to replace what you let go. What if, instead of solid, you were porous, permeable, bendy? What if you got to be responsive instead of rooted?

You wonder whether you can still take care of everybody. Everybody? No. But the care you give to the people you choose to take care of — yourself included — is going to be deeper, richer, more freely given, and more easily replenished than the care you’ve doled out to all comers in the past. Being surer of your outlines — and of your boundaries — isn’t an affront to anyone who matters. You still get to be solid, as in grounded, steady, secure. You can be as generous and thoughtful and supportive as you’d like to be, and this way you get to offer shelter, not just scaffolding. You get to be the house.

Love,
Olive

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