Working through the most recent bout of depression, I’ve faced up to the way in which I tend to treat myself as an object. I see my time, energy, even my body all too often as something that exists to be of use to other people. I’ve never bought into self as object of desire or beauty – I just never had that sort of face – but plenty of people do go that way. No one does this by themselves.
We are creatures living in societies that require us to be co-operative and to act in ways that other members find acceptable. In theory this should be a good thing, and should enable to us to get along and survive. However, all too often what happens is we are competing with each other for rewards from those who control the resources. The more economically oppressed we are, the more we have to compete with each other for the resources. Never mind that we have the technology and energy to feed, clothe and shelter the world. In such a climate, how useful you can be is a very relevant issue.
It is interesting to look around and see who in your family and your social circles is allowed to be inconvenient, and who isn’t. Whose illness is treated seriously, and whose is written off as making a fuss? Who is allowed to express dislike and discomfort, and who isn’t? Who feels able to speak up and who feels obliged to stoically take it?
I think for many of us this is about how we are taught to behave as children. Some girls get to be precious little princesses and some don’t. Some boys get to be princely tyrants, and some do not. Some children are rewarded with attention and care if they act out, some if they express distress. Some get what they want for having a temper tantrum, and some will be left with bruises if they dare to express discomfort. And so we learn whether our opinions matter or not. We learn whether there is room in our lives for wanting things that are not useful to other people, not convenient, or whether we are the most important person in our little world and entitled to bawl if things don’t go our way. Those patterns, once set, are really hard to break.
In our adult social circles and relationships we will stay with what’s familiar, all too often. If we’re used to being co-operative little bees, we’ll get on with fitting in. If we’re lord of the manor, we won’t accept friends who expect us to play fairly. These patterns are so deeply ingrained, from so early a view that they shape our world view, and our understanding of who we are in the world. Our families, schools, peers and teachers help us build those realities when we are too small to know we are doing it, or what the consequences might be.
I learned to be quiet, to try hard, by busy and productive, accept what I was given with as much grace as I could muster, and not make a fuss when I wanted something different. I learned that I had a low pain threshold, so expressions of pain were trivial. As an adult I’ve been adept at finding people who would take that and exploit it, because oddly enough I feel safer being someone’s useful object than I do trying to stand on my own. Feeling useful is a form of comfort and security, and it’s that which keeps me in places where I work to mental and bodily exhaustion.
That I can see it might make it possible to change something. How do I get to feel safe without feeling necessarily that I am useful and convenient? That may take some figuring out. And as an aside, how do we get rid of all the little lords and princesses bawling for more sweeties, who get themselves into positions of power?