I taught myself self-denial while worrying about my sister

There is a series of memories that I have from childhood, revolving around…lollipops.

There is a candymaker that produces three popular flavors: chocolate, caramel, and peanut butter. I’m a pretty big fan of chocolate, and have been for probably all of my life, and I used to enjoy those little lollipops a whole lot. The thing is, I rarely was given a single candy, in this set of memories. I frequently was given a few, to share with friends or classmates or neighborhood children.

I almost always ended up with the peanut butter.

How? Why? Well, I was taught to give my guests their choices first. Most other kids will easily go for the chocolate flavor, and many will want the caramel. Very few kids wanted the peanut butter. I was annoyed, within those moments, in trying to negotiate who got which candy, that I so clearly wanted the chocolate and knew I wouldn’t end up with it, that I would sometimes pick the peanut butter to spare the feelings of my companions. I would help them feel like it was really my choice – which, clearly, it was, just not in the “I’m picking what I truly want” sense. And yes, I remember this happening fairly often. I didn’t always end up with the peanut butter, but I did often enough that I do very much recall this as a series of events that transpired.

To be perfectly fair, yes: the peanut butter was still candy, and it was tasty! It wasn’t some major burden. But I regard this as a symptomatic memory: from a young age, I was picking things I didn’t want in order to avoid/minimize confrontation or disappointment, to help keep as many people happy at once as possible, even if it meant that I didn’t get what my heart (or taste buds) wanted.

I just ran across a snippet of online chat between myself and a close friend, in which we were discussing my shame about how hard it can be for me to express some of my real desires to the man I’m dating. My friend noted that I’ve had relatively little practice with expressing myself in romantic relationships, since I haven’t had a lot of them, and further opined that asking for what I want was not something I ever really was encouraged to do. At the time, this was mostly revelatory; I had gotten so used to thinking it was not a good thing to pick what I wanted, finding it selfish, that I had not given myself permission to ask for what I wanted. This explains a LOT about me, including how I will not spend money on, say, new jeans…until the old ones are beyond saving, even if I needed new ones sooner (or wanted them), despite having the money to pay for the jeans…and at the same time I would not hesitate to spend the same $30 on a gift for a friend.

What does this have to do with worrying about my sister? I’m used to wanting her to be happy, and I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about her happiness, with less consideration of my own. Oh, sure, we were rivals, and I fiercely defended my toys and books from her grabbing hands, but I also made sure to share when I snuck cookies or chips from the cupboard. I think that it’s an extension of the fact that her medical needs often mean the rest of the family has to drop whatever we’re doing and care for her. We do it without hesitation, of course – we love her – but growing up with it, I think I didn’t notice that I started treating a lot of the rest of the world that way, too.

Since then, I’ve wavered a bit. It feels wrong to say that I’ve never been encouraged to do what I want, when my parents were so careful to help me find and pursue a career of my choice, so supportive of my decision to go so far from home for my education. I also can’t and won’t say that it was a constant thing, that it was entirely bad, or that I feel like I’ve suffered because of it – sometimes being able to predict someone else’s happiness and to choose that over your own is a necessary skill. I’ve decided recently that the two aren’t mutually exclusive: it’s possible to have had encouragement to make certain big life choices with an eye towards what would make me happy, and also to have not gotten the external reminders that now it seems I needed that I should be doing this, to some degree, in all parts of my life. Especially relationships. It might have saved me some grief: not asking out a high school crush, or continuing to “date” a young man who didn’t want to kiss me ever, or accepting a friend request on Facebook from a classmate I can’t stand.

Difficult life lesson: it’s okay to be happy, and to pick what you want. Even if it’s just a flavor of candy.

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