When I started watching "Lady Dynamite," comedian Maria Bamford's wonderfully wacky new Netflix show, I was seeking some relatively mindless laughs. Little did I know, Bamford, a seasoned stand-up vet of two decades, was planning to hit me with a major epiphany that would send my mind whirling mid-show.
It happened during Episode 6, "Loaf Coach," when her character (who's basically an exaggerated version of herself — think "Broad City") is having a conversation with her boyfriend of a few weeks. Said boyfriend has just moved in with her, at her invitation, because his credit score was too low to get his own apartment. But, despite what it sounds like, Bamford is actually completely terrified of commitment. The invite was the product of a slew of word-vomit she simply couldn't contain. And here is where I started to painfully identify with her.
I, too, have volunteered to do completely ludicrous shit I haven't the time, desire, or energy for. And this isn't because I grew up in Tennessee (the ~Volunteer State~, in case you weren't aware). Instead, I think it's because of a psychological trait Bamford and I both share, one that isn't quite people-pleasing, but related. I call it being a compulsive people-helper.
The resemblance only got more uncanny as the scene progressed.
Her boyfriend's children were coming to visit, and he (at Bamford's uncontrollable urging, of course) had invited them to stay at "their" house.
Boyfriend: "The kids get in town tomorrow. You're sure you're OK with them staying here?"
Bamford: "Yes! I don't at all feel unnerved. I love kids and their faces and skins."
And once the "I can help!" word-vomit began, it was impossible to stop.
Boyfriend: "OK well I'm going to get someone to hang out with them tomorrow since I have to work."
Bamford: "OK well you tell that person that they are going to have to hang out with me too because I will be spending ALL. DAY. with your children."
Boyfriend: "Really? You don't have to do that."
Bamford: "I do have to do that because I love being busy with kids. Have them bring friends. Have their friends bring friends!"
She soon excused herself to go scream into a loofah in her bathroom.
"Why did I say that? I hate kids! Why would I do this to myself?" Is I'm sure what she'd be saying, if her screams weren't so absorbed by that sponge.
The number of times I've found myself in this exact same metaphorical shower is actually insane.
A simple example is a memory I have of a birthday party I attended as a kid. One of my friends started having a hissy fit that she wasn't sitting next to the birthday girl like I, coincidentally, was. Even though I should have just ignored my friend's obnoxious temper tantrum, I remember getting up and offering her my seat in the hopes of making her happy (she quickly and ungratefully accepted, because let's be real, the kid was a brat).
A more problematic example is how I allowed an ex-boyfriend to continue to rely on me for emotional support and affirmation in the wake of our breakup, when HE was the one to instigate it. I even gave him remedial reading material. Which all sounds exceptionally pathetic, I know. But, like Bamford, when I care about someone, I really care about their happiness, often more than I care about my own.
As Bamford perfectly demonstrates, wanting to help people becomes a real fuckin' problem when you consistently prioritize others' needs before your own.
The harmful effects of compulsive people-helping are widespread. At what I now consider to be the height of my compulsion, I was volunteering multiple days a week at an agency providing domestic violence victims with legal counsel. My time there was deeply fulfilling and rewarding, but it had an unexpected negative consequence — I began to feel extreme guilt any time I wasn't helping people. College's endless parade of house parties and bar nights lost their luster once I associated them with selfishness and superficiality. In my mind, time spent purely for my own amusement or enjoyment was a waste when I could be spending that same time helping people who dearly needed it.
Word to the wise: Time spent for your own enjoyment is *NOT* a waste. It's deeply necessary to your own well-being and happiness, which IS important!
Eventually, I had to recognize the negative toll volunteering was taking on my mental and emotional health and take a (temporary) break from it. Bamford does something similar in this episode by hiring a "Loaf Coach" who helps instruct her in the art of saying "no." The idea is that she can't do it all. No one can be everything to everyone.
Ultimately, being selfish at times is essential to your well-being.
I'm still working on it, as the journey to allowing yourself to be selfish free of guilt is a tricky and gradual one. But when the alternative involves metaphorical showers, screams, and loofahs, it's clearly one worth making. Thanks for the reminder, Bamford.