By Esther Mann, LCSW
I’ve always considered myself a nice person. I’m nice to everyone—not just the people I like or feel close to, but people in general, even strangers I pass on the street or in stores. I think I am particularly nice to lost souls. For instance, if I’m at a wedding and I see someone sitting at my table who doesn’t seem to know anyone, I’ll try to bring her into the conversation.
My radar is always up for these seemingly lonely people. And sometimes I think I’m a magnet for these people, somehow causing them to find me. Whatever the case, I find myself busy more often than I would like with needy people who are desperate for companionship and always need some sort of help.
I feel good about caring about them, as often it seems that no one else does. Usually they have little family contact, no friends, and an abundance of problems. I look at it as an act of chesed when I invite them over for a Shabbos meal, take them out for a bite to eat, or give them stuff that I feel they could use.
We live on a budget, so it’s not like I can spend a lot of money on anything beyond necessities. But I do what I can, and always feel lots of gratitude that my life is so much better off than theirs.
My problem is that when I give them a finger, they often want a hand. I’ll give you some examples.
I don’t invite people over Friday night for two reasons. My husband works hard all week and is exhausted by Friday night. He’s not up for much socializing and wants to eat quickly and get to bed. Also, I find that during the week, my children are all running in different directions and we never have an opportunity for family time when I can connect with each of them, and with all of them as a unit, and they can connect with each other. So Friday night is when we get a chance to feel like a family. I don’t want this sacred time to be interrupted by anyone else. It might sound selfish, but I believe I have to put the needs of my husband and children first.
For Shabbos lunch, I try to host as many people as I can who seem to have nowhere to go. Last week, I invited Linda over. I recently met her at shul. I don’t know her well, but sensed that she was alone and could use company. She told me that she usually sleeps late on Shabbos and couldn’t make it for lunch, but that she would come on Friday night instead. I told her that Friday night isn’t good for me, but she started insisting. I found myself practically arguing with her about Friday night. Guess who won the argument? She did! She came, and it was a disaster. My husband was annoyed with me. My children felt neglected, and she didn’t leave until all hours.
Or there was the time when Ruchie, a young single woman whom I try to help out, told me her cousin was getting married and she had nothing to wear to her wedding. It broke my heart when she told me she didn’t own anything appropriate for a wedding. I told her that I would take her shopping and treat her to a dress. This was not something I could do easily. But I took her to a store I frequently go to, where you can find lovely things for under $100. We looked through the racks together and I pulled out several dresses in the price range I felt I would be able to manage. She nixed everything I picked up and pulled out a dress for $225 and told me she had to have it, that it was the most perfect dress for her and that she dreamt of owning such a dress her entire life. She sounded like Cinderella. My heart broke for her, like it breaks for everyone, and I wound up buying her the dress. I know that I will have to tighten my belt for a while to make up for this expense that I should never have taken on.
Occasionally I find myself involved with someone who is grateful for any little act of kindness I offer them. These women are pleasures to know and they enhance my life in the same way that I hope I enhance theirs. But more often than not, I find myself made to feel guilty that I’m not doing enough, guilty that I have more than they do, and guilty sometimes for my very existence.
So what’s wrong with this picture? My husband thinks I should stop collecting these stray people and find another way to do chesed. He gets annoyed when I complain to him when I feel like I’m being taken advantage of. Maybe he’s right. On the other hand, my heart breaks whenever I meet someone who is down and out, and I just want to save them—even if I’m only capable of saving them in small ways.
What do you suggest? How do I continue to help people without feeling resentful? I want to do it with a full and pure heart and not have any negative feelings toward these various women, so that I don’t need to complain to my husband and I can feel truly good about what I do.
First and foremost, you are a do-gooder, and you should never question that reality. The fact that you are so sensitive to the needs of others and intuit when someone is lonely or needy, when so many other people simply don’t pick up on their angst or don’t bother doing anything about it, makes you very special.
Your heart bleeds for other people’s pain and you find yourself pulled into their world, no questions asked. You have a beautiful soul, and the world would be a much better place if there were more people like you.
So your issue is not about whether you should be reaching out to people who need some sort of rescuing. Your issue is about creating boundaries from the beginning, so that your experience can be joyful and fulfilling and not mired in resentment or even anger.
Not to cast aspersions or to generalize, but sometimes people who have been given the short end of the stick become, understandably, comfortable in the role of the taker. Often they have no choice, and in order to survive they have to make peace with the idea that they rely on favors and the kindness of others. And in extreme cases, a needy person can feel entitled to expecting others who have much more than them to share, that it’s coming to them. After all, there is great inequity in the world, not only monetarily, but in terms of the ease, or lack thereof, with which people go through life. Some people seem to sail through, while others never catch a break. And it can wear one down and change one’s attitude toward what is fair.
Since your arms are open to embracing so many “lost souls,” as you’ve mentioned, you’ve interacted with all kinds of people: gracious individuals, who appreciate every little thing you offer them, and those who not only seem to take for granted what you offer, but demand more than what you had in mind and in some cases even what you can afford to do.
Therefore, as you reconsider what your boundaries need to be, bear in mind how your compassion sometimes pulls you into situations that aren’t helpful for yourself or your family. You have to establish, as a given, where your line in the sand exists and how to kindly say no, without feeling guilty or worrying about being disliked. Life should never be a popularity contest, and you need to know that you can never be all things for all people—though we all know that you would if you could. Sadly, you have to accept that you will never be able to totally fix another person’s life by filling in all the gaps.
But you could and should continue to show up for them, offer companionship, a homemade meal, and support. However, the only way for this to work is if it is done on your terms. And that’s all right. Frankly, for the person who pushes the envelope and doesn’t “hear you” or respect your limitations, it’s good for them also to sometimes hear “no” and learn to respect that response. Ultimately, it will teach them how to more successfully manage in the real world, where they don’t want to be alienating others by behaving in ways that could be perceived as aggressive or ungrateful.
So keep up the good work! As far as I’m concerned, you are a superstar. But know your limits, continue to put your husband and children first, as they should be, and give with a full heart, but a clear limit.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.