When I was in my early teens, my mum would send my younger sister and I to the local store with a basket and a shopping list to buy what she needed. Invariably, my sister would find something or the other to pick a fight over, especially on the way back carrying the heavy basket between us and simple dump the basket on the ground and stomp off home. And muggles here was always the one who carried the basket home because I simply could not just leave the shopping as she had done and walk away. I had an overwhelming sense of responsibility that dictated how I acted and I recognized that even at the tender age of thirteen.
That’s not my earliest memory of feeling responsible for someone else feeling bad though. When I was about 4 or 5, my dad used to take my sister and I to his barber to get our hair cut. I remember once, I was with dad waiting for him to finish his hair cut. When the barber told him he was done, dad walked over to the wash basin in the corner and picked up a comb to rearrange his hair how he liked it. The barber called out from where he was sweeping up the hair to say “no, not that one”. Dad promptly put the comb down in embarrassment. I have this really strong memory of feeling so bad for his embarrassment. I cringed inside on behalf of my dad. I didn’t know why, but I knew from that point on, that I couldn’t handle anyone I loved or cared about being in any sort of discomfort. I had to make it better.
Over the years, this manifested itself in various ways. When I was married, I took on my husband’s depression as a personal responsibility. I moved us across the country and across oceans, giving up jobs and even my citizenship and cut short my year of maternity leave to try to “fix” things for him. When he finally said he was leaving because I was the reason for his depression, it was like the bottom fell out of my world. I had failed.
Even right now, I am caring for a 70 year old friend visiting from Australia who had a stroke a few weeks ago. I have organised car repairs for another friend in Hungary who had intended to return late February, but had to postpone the trip as he couldn’t afford to pay for the car repairs. I have various friends who I affectionately call “basket cases”, people who have no one to go to, that come to me for solace.
I feel this sense of responsibility to fix people’s problems because I feel their pain, especially if they are close to me. A few years ago, I used to feel that pain even more acutely, even of those that were complete strangers. I couldn’t watch an Aid Appeal for Unicef or Red Cross on TV without making a financial contribution. It helped ease the pain somewhat I felt in my heart when I saw starving children. Since finding out my vascular system is seriously compromised and having to give up work, I have learnt to keep my distance somewhat and hold that pain at bay. I knew taking on so much of other people’s pain had affected my heart and for once had to prioritise self compassion over compassion for others.
I have no protection however, from those closest to me. I feel what they feel and if they are experiencing any kind of pain, I feel responsible for “kissing it better”, whatever the cost to me personally. At one time, my ex bf, thought this was me being a “people pleaser”. But I think he has a better understanding now of how I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders; much like Atlas holding up the sky.