Generally speaking, people don’t like “being used.” When a friend borrows money and never repays it, I can feel “used.” When I meet someone at a party and spend the next half hour listening to him talk about himself, I can feel “used.” When I have made dinner for my family, set and cleared the table, and washed all the dishes myself, I can feel “used.” These experiences and others like them can be unpleasant. While I might not be conscious or determined enough to avoid them, I can certainly complain about them. I seem to believe, first, that such experiences should not happen to me and, second, that they are always someone else’s fault.

But the truth is that people use each other all the time. The very nature of fitting together, of plugging into each other, means that I am just as active in being used as others are in using me. I may not be conscious of the purposes my actions accomplish for me. I may only be conscious of what others are getting out of me and the negative emotions I feel about that. But I am active in every interaction, even those in which I am utterly passive, for doing nothing counts as a meaningful move in relationships and interactions.

And having emotions counts. It is interesting to note that in all of the examples above being used can accomplish some valuable, “positive” emotional purposes:

  • I might enjoy feeling generous and indispensable to my friend when I lend her money. I might also relish, perhaps unconsciously, the belief that I am morally superior to her when she fails to pay me back. Her use of me, then, can feed a positive self-image that I want to maintain because it accomplishes my purpose of feeling good about myself.
  • If I expect to be invisible at parties, to be left standing in a corner by myself, I might welcome and even attract people who need to talk nonstop, as if at a wall. The feeling of being needed and occupied could be a great relief. And the sense that I am invisible might also comfort me, as it would confirm a basic belief about myself that previous experiences at parties has helped to shape. Like many relational patterns, this one might be unflattering, but at least it would be familiar.
  • Being hyper responsible and super competent is a reward in itself. Unfortunately, earning that reward requires others to be irresponsible and incompetent. Once again, by doing everyone’s work, I can feel superior to them, a feeling that my simmering resentment reinforces.

In these scenarios I am certainly being used by others for their purposes. But I am also using them for mine. Some of these purposes are noble; others are undermining. Often they are unconscious, and they are fundamentally emotional. But they are always present, the underlying “good” reasons for why I do what I do.

So the bad news about being used is that I am always complicit, whether I am conscious of it or not. I might want to believe that I am at my family’s mercy, that they can “make” me do and feel things, but the truth is that they cannot. I am, in fact, in charge of my own actions and responsible for managing my own emotions. So while I might blame my family for letting me do all the work at dinner, I am the only one I can legitimately blame for, well, doing all the work at dinner. And I can wonder how I am benefiting from taking all this work on.

Whether and How

The good news is that I can make conscious choices about whether and how I am used. The next time I find myself cornered at a party, I can excuse myself with “So sorry — I’ve got to go check in with a friend.” Or after listening to my conversational partner for 15 minutes, I can ask him to go grab me another Fresca. By making choices about whether to be used — “No, thanks” — or how to be used — “Sure, I’ll do this for you, but you need to do something for me” — I reduce the probability of feeling resentful or shamed. I am also managing reality; that is, I am embracing the fact that people use and are used but that I do not need to be a victim if I do not want to.

There is real danger, though, in decided whether or how to be used. Standing up for oneself, as those in subordinate positions know all too well, can activate the wrath and violence of those in power. Children, people of color, women, people who are attracted to members of the same sex, members of certain religions, and others who are “different’ and disempowered have historically suffered extreme consequences for “being uppity.” The choice to resist being used can feel, in these cases, like no choice at all.

Even when the stakes are not life threatening, there is often little incentive to rock the boat. Telling my broke friend a firm “no” could trigger extremely uncomfortable responses: wheedling, the silent treatment, wrath, slander, violence, abandonment. It is not difficult to understand why many people consent to be used rather than face the unpredictable, possibly hurtful, sometimes dangerous consequences of refusing.

Another way of putting this is that it can be easier to “take it personally” (to collaborate with and perpetuate others’ use of you) than to “not take it personally” (to decide whether and how to be used). Taking it personally can result in perpetual repeats of the same galling situation or in impulsive, emotional action that temporarily relieves one person while hurting and confusing others. Not taking it personally means detaching, seeing the situation for what it is — an instance of using and being used, pure and simple — and deciding what to do about it.

— pp. 94-97, The Feeling of Teaching: Using Emotions and Relationships to Transform the Classroom