Fear of being a burden
Updated: Dec 15, 2022
Hint: being a “burden” is part of the human condition.
A client of mine recently told me that she felt liberated to talk about her problems with me, because she was paying for my time.
She said the simple act of having paid for it erased the constant fear she had of over-burdening, taking up too much space, demanding too much attention, or being too needy.
She made a joke about how she felt like she could do anything during our sessions, including just sit in silence, and that while I might find that extremely weird, I wouldn’t judge her or be bothered by it. (We laughed at this idea, but she was totally right.)
Then we started to unpack this feeling, this fear of being a burden to the people in her life who aren’t paid to sit with her, listen to her, or focus on her.
It’s something I hear from my clients so frequently that I often assign homework to face the fear of being a burden by asking for help, asserting their feelings or needs, talking about themselves, asking for attention, and making ridiculous requests they know will be rejected, just for the practice.
There is so much fear around the idea that we could possibly be burdening the people we love, especially for women, because we’re taught that our value comes from how little space we can take up and how easy we can make life for the people around us.
Our value as women seems to be measured by how generous, compassionate, nurturing, and self-sacrificing we are… how much we’re able to put the needs of others first; and be a blank slate for others to write on at their convenience.
As a result, it can become unbearable to imagine bothering people, forcing them to focus on our needs, inconveniencing them, or taking them away from whatever other thing they would have been doing or thinking. Thinking about doing so can bring up the fear that we are only loveable if we don’t make anyone do any work on our behalf, because needing to put in work will make them realize we are unloveable or “not worth it.”
This is the whole “too much” feeling held by many of my clients, and myself once too.
I remember personally this fear being especially prevalent during sex when I was younger. I hated for people to go down on me because the thought of them just doing this thing that was purely focused on me was so… stressful. It put up red flags of danger; even if they volunteered I was terrified that unless I was doing what they wanted (which I equated to focusing on their pleasure, not mine) they would… I don’t know, realize I was actually a whole person, and decide I was too much work?
Anyway, I’ve been helping clients unpack and break through this fear of burdening people for years, but I recently came to understand the concept with an entirely new framework.
It started when I spent October with my family, including my niece and nephew (who are two and four years old respectively) and realized that ummmmmmmm children are a huge, ridiculous inconvenient burden. Like, this is not metaphorical. Their very existence brings constant disruptions, and their needs are constantly placing demands on your time, energy, and attention. They need help getting snacks, wiping their butts, finding lost legos, and not getting hurt every five goddamn minutes.
Kids are the very definition of being a burden: their very existence makes the lives of their caretakers more difficult. I imagine a lot of shame and fear about this topic comes directly from this awareness.
But the thing is, that particular burden is also chosen, and (according to most parents anyway) totally worth it.
As an auntie, I don’t regret a single moment of choosing to play archeologist and baby dinosaur over editing my book, and even now when I’m editing my book in coffee shops, sometimes I desperately wish their tiny, perfect hands would come interrupt me and distract me with tiny, perfect problems.
This new awareness got me thinking about the way we view “burdening others.” With new eyes I can see that it’s really existential shame.
It’s quite literally the shame of existing, the shame of how our existence impacts others, and the feeling that if we didn’t exist, other people would be better off because they wouldn’t have to focus on us. It’s as if we believe someone’s life would be better if we didn’t exist in it, or didn’t take up space in it.
This shit is deep.
I suspect our individualistic culture is partly to blame here, because when “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” and “never needing help” are the cultural ideal, the very nature of our human interconnectivity is a source of shame.
But then I became aware of the flip side of childhood, and the fact that at some point if you’re lucky, you will again be a burden on people.
The aging process is one that strips people of the facade of individuality, forcing them to again become reliant on others. At some point, everyone who lives long enough will need help getting snacks, wiping their butt, and finding lost items. At some point, whether the people doing this care work are loved ones or hired help, there is no avoiding fact that you must rely on others, that your existence is only possible with the help of others, that your existence takes up space in the lives of others.
Do elderly people experience shame, I wonder, for the “burden” their lives place on others? Is it different for elderly folks in communal cultures who respect elders, compared to individualistic ones who discard them?
And more importantly, what does this book-end fact of life mean about the nature of being a burden? It seems to me that the whole concept of individualism is a lie, designed to serve the ego at the cost of our self-worth, and that maybe instead being a “burden” is part of our existential wiring, an unavoidable demonstration of our connectivity and belonging.
What if it’s this way on purpose? What if the exact thing that creates bonds and makes us feel like are a part of something bigger is the fact that we absolutely must rely on each other and take up space in each other’s life?
And if that was true, could we view this mandatory interconnectivity as a gift rather than a source of shame?
We are wired to connect, and we are wired to regulate each other’s nervous systems through connection (which leads to way better health outcomes jsyk). By trying to not burden people, you may be depriving them of the source of connection, regulation, health, and meaning that they need.
I’d love to see “being a burden” called out for the existential shame that it is, to see a world in which people consciously choose to take up more space in the lives of people around them, instead of less.
I’m so glad you exist.
PS: I’m gonna be traveling to Hawaii with my mama the next few weeks and going off the grid as much as possible, so if you have any questions about joining my business mentorship in 2020, now is your last chance to set up a call with me to talk it through!
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