From a reader: My other half is driving me crazy. I can’t seem to make him happy no matter what I do. He wants all my time and attention and if he doesn’t get it he makes me feel like I’m neglecting him and like I’m a bad lover. I work full-time at a demanding job, and if I’m tired when I come home and need a little time to myself to unwind, he acts all rejected. Recently, I’ve developed a new interest in photography and I’d like to pursue it by taking some classes. But he tells me he won’t stand for it because “we’re a couple” and since he isn’t interested in photography that would just be more time away from him so I can’t do it. I can only take up interests outside of my job if they also interest him. On the other hand, he likes to shop. He can shop for hours, which drives me up the wall. But if I don’t want to spend hours in the stores with him he makes me feel guilty that I’m not “sharing” with him. When I think about that, it doesn’t seem fair to me, but if I say so he convinces me that I’m wrong and tells me that I’m just a self-centered person. That confuses me. Is that possible that he has a point? Lately I’m wondering if I’m just too selfish a person to be in a relationship.
No, I think you’re being guilt-tripped and that you don’t need to accept it. It might be helpful for you to explore why you’re so susceptible to guilt, and what your ideas are about what constitutes “selfishness.”
I’ve been fascinated, over the years, to learn how many people have the identical, deep, dark secret about themselves—“If people really knew me deep down inside, they’d understand how basically self-centered and selfish I am.” Many people are vulnerable to accusations of selfishness because they harbor this “secret.” What is sad, and sometimes tragic, is how many people who have this self-perception aren’t nearly as “selfish” as they need to be.
What is guilt? Fundamentally, it’s an idea. It’s the belief that something I’ve done, or failed to do, has harmed someone else. This idea gives rise to painful feelings, which I think are best described as depressive anxiety, and these feelings are so painful that most of us will go to great lengths to avoid doing anything which gives rise to guilt.
It’s important to understand that guilt is fundamentally an idea, because we can change our ideas by critically examining the basis for our assumptions. It’s very helpful to get clear with ourselves about when our guilt is rational, and when it isn’t. It’s irrational when we have the belief that we’ve harmed someone when, in fact, we haven’t. I don’t think that there is any question that your guilt is irrational, because pursuing your own interests is in no way injurious to your boyfriend. He’s promoting the idea that it is because of his own excessive demands for attention, but do you have to buy into that?
In my experience, people who are easily manipulated by accusations of selfishness usually grew up in families in which members were expected to sacrifice their legitimate individual needs and goals for the “good” of others. Parents who use their children to meet their own needs often use the “selfish” speech to make them feel guilt for having independent desires. Maybe you’ve heard it—“You’re so selfish! All you ever think about is me, me, me, etc.” Children subjected to this kind of treatment tend to have trouble, later in life, distinguishing between selfishness and legitimate self-care. I know a man, for instance, who grew up with a depressed mother who needed him by her side constantly to cheer him up, and sulked and pouted whenever he left the house. To this day he finds it almost impossible to be away from anyone he cares about, because he can’t shake the idea that any time away constitutes abandonment, and he fears that he’ll be causing them intense suffering if he’s away from them at all.
Your partner’s suggestion that any independent interest on your part is a betrayal of your relationship with him is crazy, and it’s important for your well-being (and probably ultimately for the survival of the relationship) that you see that clearly and not buy into it. My hope is that you will conclude that you have an inherent right to thrive and to enjoy your own life, and decide to pursue your interest in photography as far as you want to take it. My hope for your boyfriend is that he’ll come to understand the difference between a partner and a hostage.
Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco.