drawing boundaries with the self-absorbed

I am not a single-mindedly ambitious person ala the workaholic when it comes to my “work”, which encompasses many “non-resume” pursuits too like trying to be a better person or taking care of my health. Yet I seem to be regularly drawn to them. Just as (coincidentally?) I have been to alcoholics (note past-tense). Perhaps there’s a connection?

Anyway, i’ve wondered what this attraction says about me. Certainly there’s a fundamental discord between my desire to possess such slavish ambition and my finding its underlying core cold and often opportunistic.

Those with a holier-than-thou attitude about their devotion, be they human rights crusaders or agents, can be the worst. They don’t usually do intimacy very well because it complicates and distracts their focus. Seeking approval, superiority, or status by association under the guise of helping others, they’re the sort that don’t care about what others do unless it dovetails with, or promotes their own agenda. Not that it matters, for I’ll always admire the determination, the urgency of the workaholic-on-a-mission. I can’t help it. I find it compelling and inspirational. I’ve just learned that its best to keep most of them in my professional/acquaintance periphery.

Similarly, I’ve recognized that in turn, narcissistic women seem drawn to me. The kind who have few real friends, especially of the female persuasion, and who exhaust most with their demanding neediness and self-absorption. You know the type, constantly looking in the mirror, literally or otherwise, yet often fun to hang out with – just not too often. I’ve typically let them attach themselves to me, and take take take…until I find myself awkwardly trying to extricate.

I think growing up with a demanding, unhappy mother (who had her reasons) enabled me to understand and accept such women. They are familiar to me as is the one-way exchange I must’ve been conditioned to reflexively accept and even feed: this need for everything to be all about them. I remember working as a director for a women’s art collective many years ago, and a board member remarking to me how amazed she was by my ability to get along so well with the difficult divas in the group.

Still, not all skills are meant to be exercised, especially those learned under force or duress. For example, I was a competitive swimmer as a kid because my mother made me take lessons, join a private club like my brothers did (to consolidate her running around, I suppose, and still make sure we were all learning a sport). I hated it. Trophies, ribbons, being scouted by high school varsity teams in 7th grade, none of it made it worthwhile. The good thing about being forced to attend the all-girls catholic high school I went to was the fact that IT DIDN’T HAVE A POOL. To this day I have no desire to swim laps in a pool. Its an activity entangled with bad feelings, and so is my capacity to reflexively care for and tolerate demanding, needy, competitive women. I may be good at it, but its unhealthy for me.

So the real lesson here seems to be one of boundaries. Learning where to draw them, and how to be resilient in the face of those who would dismiss or or trammel all over them. A skillset well worth cultivating, I think. Also, I clearly find resonance in extremes: people who can’t give and people who can’t take enough, and I must work toward a better middle.