I recognize that title may antagonize a few people. We all like to think we are indispensable--at our jobs, as parents, as friends, as partners. When we feel indispensable, it gives our world meaning. Because when we are indispensable, we are important and we are seen. People need us. Or so we think.
To me, being indispensable implies a false notion of both control and intimacy. Keeping it together, problem solving and being present for everyone else may provide a sense of purpose, but often masks enmeshment. Enmeshment can feel like deep intimacy, but it is actually the direct opposite. Because when you have become the superhero with no needs, the person everyone runs to with their problems, you are missing from the equation. In other words, there is no reciprocity. You have been a one person clean-up crew, but when you have a spill in aisle 5, no one else is coming with the mop. Yeah, you're expected to take care of it yourself because the lights are off and everyone else has gone home.
So how does this happen? And why do we feel more comfortable with that perceived locus of control when, in the end, it often leaves us depleted and lonely? Well, many of us come from families where healthy boundaries were just not a thing and parents leaned on us as confidantes and caretakers. When a child gets positive reinforcement for taking care of others, that role gets cemented pretty early in life. And because these children are often sensitive and empathic to begin with, they are naturally inclined to help their parents. This type of responsibility can feel like intimacy because "saving" parents can feel like a very deep bond--it's special. But where are these children in that equation? And how do they get their needs met?
Unfortunately, the parentified child is often the product of chaos in the family home. This chaos can be due to addiction, marital unhappiness, depression and/or mental illness. The child will do what they can to not only take care of things but to also stop the chaos, thinking that when they do, everyone will be safe. This outward focus may feel strangely powerful, but the child is only seen for what comfort they can give to the parent(s). They are indispensable for what they provide.
When parentified children grow up, they turn into givers--the person who works 60 hours a week, is on call 24/7 for the needy friend, the mom or dad who volunteers for every school function. They maintain that indispensability because the role is familiar and safe, but somewhere down the road, many wake up from the dream and wonder, "Where have I been?"
If this sounds familiar to you, take a breath and ask yourself these questions:
"What is intimacy to me?"
"If I were to let go of the wheel, would it all go to hell?"
Are my relationships transactional rather than intimate, and what is intimacy really?"
"Am I indispensable to others but actually feel abandoned by them?"
If any of these questions resonate with you, or if you have a history of being the "savior," please think about what it means for you and who you've actually been this whole time. You are not the quicker picker upper, and rather than cleaning up other people's messes, you deserve true intimacy, friendship, love and most of all, reciprocity. So where do you start? By entertaining the thought that you actually deserve it. And knowing that external validation is not the answer. Indispensability is an inside job. You've heard it all before, but yes, your worth is not dependent on saving others, but by acknowledging you are enough without spinning plates in the air. So why not let those plates crash to the floor and let someone else pick up the pieces? Because really, they weren't your pieces to begin with.
Monica Lowy is a Certified Holistic Life Coach, NYS Licensed Speech-Language Pathologist and integrative bodyworker. She invites you to speak your peace, so feel free to leave your comments!