The co-worker who tricks you into taking her load of the work by way of flattery. The family member who assumes you’ll pick up the check (again). The friend who only calls when her she’s got her eyes on a pair of shoes — and you wield a discount at Barneys.
We all have relationships that devolve to a place of imbalanced servitude, where the give and take are grossly imbalanced. But since women are often groomed to be giving and agreeable from birth, sometimes it’s we ladies who are more likely to get used in relationships. Even worse? We don’t always recognize when it’s happening, how we allow it to happen, and when to calibrate our relationships so we get as much as we give.
“Almost all women can look back and find that there were some relationships in which she was the Florence Nightingale or Mother Teresa, in which she gave, gave, gave,” says Dr. Susan Heitler, a Denver-based clinical psychologist and author of From Conflict to Resolution. “To some extent, being a good woman is someone who is all giving, opposed to being a good man, who is all about winning.”
The tendency to give (vs. grab) can be so ingrained in women that sometimes it’s difficult to identify exactly how and when we're being used. Heitler says that the best way to identify whether we are being used — whether in in familial, friend, work, or romantic relationships — is to get introspective and become aware of whether we feel depressed, resentful, or angry about certain relationships in our lives.
“Depression comes when we give up on something we want in order to keep a relationship,” she says. So, if you’re feeling bummed, pissed, or feel general negative energy about your work day, for example, those feelings may be rooted in the extra hours you agreed to take so a co-worker could bail early.
How do you go from noticing ambiguous icky feelings to sourcing the instance in which you became a doormat? Heitler suggests the following exercise: “Close your eyes and picture, if you’re going to be mad at someone, who would that be?” Once you have a person in mind, Heitler says to ask yourself, “What do I want, or what am I giving up on that I’m not getting?”
The answers to those two questions, Heitler says, will likely point to an asymmetrical relationship and the manners in which it is imbalanced. (Of course, the trick is not to get stuck in the blame-game mode — no matter how leech-like the other person may be — and instead, do something to change the dynamics of the relationship.) “The first step to empowerment is to switch from thinking ‘He or she is exploitative’ to ‘I'm giving up too much,’” Heitler says. (Though it’s also important to note that sometimes, the person causing the unhealthy give-and-take pattern is you.)
“For some women, giving of themselves is a means to try to win the affections of others,” says AJ LeVan, a resilience coach who works with the the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center to give resiliency training to U.S. soldiers. She adds that feelings of worthlessness or insecurity can cause women to put themselves in a position to give too much.
How can you know if you're dealing with a user? LeVan says that to pay attention to how often someone requests favors. “If the same person is always asking for help, it’s likely that they are using you. You can discern someone’s intentions when the behavior is repetitive,” she says.
Once you realize which relationships are burdened by someone else who takes too much, it’s time to change the course of the trend.
“In such cases, boundaries need to be set, and this needs to be done through an assertive conversation," LeVan says. "Not an aggressive, threatening conversation, but one that is communicated with clarity, confidence, and control.”
She suggests enlisting the help of a trusted, objective friend with whom you can practice saying no. “This person can give you feedback and help you get comfortable with what you’re going to say before you enter into the real conversation with the person who is using you,” she says.
Another approach is to readjust the relationship where in any moment, both people count. If a coworker is asking you to constantly take over a certain task, offer to trade that type of task for one you would rather not do. But, whenever an important decision needs to be made — such as creating a vacation schedule — assert that you be a part of that decision and that the input of both parties counts equally. “You want to advocate that the important decision to be made jointly, even though there’s a division of labor,” Heitler says.
Sometimes, making the effort to practice and deliver a “no, thanks” response to those who ask too many favors, or re-adjusting the balance of giving and getting in relationships, hardly seems worth it. Heitler points out that in some relationships (such as a friendship in which it’s all about your buddy), it’s sometimes better to simply walk away than make effort to fix the imbalance. In those situations, ending the friendship will feel freeing, Heitler notes.
Whether learning to say no to those who tend to use you, working with them to re-adjust the balance of giving and getting, or ditching the relationship altogether, setting boundaries with others that allow you to choose when you give to people, is a win-win for everyone — even the chronic taker you might despise.
“When we constantly help someone, we may be undermining their ability to help themselves — which is harmful to both you and the other person,” LeVan says. “Standing up for yourself is always worth it. It’ll either create boundaries and mutual respect, enhancing the relationship, or it will highlight relationships that need to be weeded out.” So, lace up your boots — you've got some standing up to do.