Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

What's the real difference between feeling used and feeling useful?

What's the real difference between feeling used and feeling useful?

I hate feeling used; I love feeling useful.

Really, what’s the difference?  In both cases I help someone.  But one feels awful and the other feels great.

An intuitive answer is that you feel used when you’re not compensated and you feel useful when it’s a fair exchange.  There’s something to this but it doesn’t jibe with the high value we put on being generous and giving selflessly.  If “tis better to give than receive,” why would you feel used when you do just that?

Another intuitive answer is that you feel used when you give involuntarily and useful when you give voluntarily.  There’s something to this also but the line between involuntary and voluntary is often not easy to draw.  Yes, if forced at gunpoint you give what you are absolutely sure you don’t want to give, you are likely to feel used and not useful.  Still, there are a lot of cases in the gray area between voluntary and involuntary.  If you invest money in a venture based on an accurate but charismatic sales pitch about the venture’s prospects is that voluntary or involuntary?  If it tanks, and you feel used, is that because you gave against your will?  Would you still feel used if it succeeds gloriously?

“Synantonyms” is a term I’ve had to coin for paired terms like “feeling used” and “feeling useful.”  They’re synonyms in that they describe more or less the same activity—in this case giving to someone. They’re antonyms in that they suggest opposite value—very bad and very good. Being useful has very positive connotations. Being used has very negative connotations.  And yet other than the pro/con distinction, I can’t find a clear objective way to differentiate them. 

Synantonyms seem to swarm to and cluster around life’s tough judgment calls the way that antibodies swarm and cluster around open wounds. There are other synantonyms that swarm to address the tough judgment call of whether to give to someone. Positive terms include being of service, serving, contributing, being selfless, donating, helping, aiding, and being generous. Negative terms include being exploited, manipulated, duped, conned, ripped off, taken advantage of, robbed.

Basically, I’d say the difference is in outcomes. If my investment pays off I’ll feel useful. If my investment doesn’t pay off I’ll feel used. That doesn’t help me decide today what to invest in. But then that’s the nature of investment.  Buy low sell high. Invest today in what paid off tomorrow.   Since tomorrow isn’t here yet you have to make your best educated guess. Let the buyer beware.  This outcome distinction doesn’t make it clear who is to blame when you feel used. 

Imagine this scenario:  You meet someone attractive who is attracted to you.  You start to hang out.  You find yourself falling in love, investing yourself in this person.  You’re still not sure you belong together, but to find out whether you do, you try out what it’s like to kiss, to have sex, to go on weekends together, even to say “I love you.”  Then one day this attractive person says it’s over.  He or she has decided that the partnership isn’t a good fit.

You feel used.  How dare say “I love you,” and then withdraw just like that?  The liar.  You’ve been left in the lurch. 

People do use people unfairly. If this person said “I love you” just so he or she could get things from you, knowing full well that it was a lie, then you’d hope the person would feel some shame for using you.  Still, knowing that many people in the world are just that unscrupulous, it’s our responsibility to enter relationship aware and wary.  It’s too bad that we have to, but we do.  

Sometimes in our hunger we enter too recklessly. We get hungry because we really really could use someone. We could use their loving. 

The hungry are soon eaten.  If you enter the tentative exploration with a major Jonesing, the user can read your needs and pretend to fill them in exchange for get everything he or she wants.  There are con artists and there are easy marks, but the marks are often easy because they too, for better or worse, want or need to use others.

And there are still risks even in the most equal pairing between two strong people who have a handle on their hungers, and aim to stand, rather than fall in love.  No one wants to buy into a relationship without trying it first, and you can’t really try it without, in effect buying it first.  To know what it feels like to invest fully in a partnership you have to act like one.  Even the most solid relationships sometimes end, if not with indifference, rancor or incompatibility, then eventually with death.  It’s understandable we might feel used when we’re left in the lurch by a partner who is gone.  But it’s also understandable that such stuff happens even between equally honorable people.

And love itself includes a bit of this tension.  Love often translates as commitment: “I love you so much I want to be with you forever.” But if one really loves someone, isn’t that about helping them get what they need, which would include letting them go if you become bad company for them.  It could even include pushing them away if you become bad company and they don’t realize it. 

I’ve had a few readers interpret these articles as arguments against moral principles. I’ve been accused occasionally of self-servingly supplying handy rationales for my own immoral behavior.  If I was subjecting you to articles that were just my manipulative way to give myself permission to use people, you should well feel used. 

I do in fact argue against moral principles.  I have found very few that don’t have major exceptions, doing roughly as much harm as good.  That doesn’t make me a moral relativist or a moral agnostic (though I will admit to being bagnostic—I don’t know which is morally superior--paper or plastic).

Although I don’t generally believe in moral principles, I believe deeply in moral dilemmas, getting to know them, struggling hard with them, trying to figure out how you can distinguish the moral from the immoral to the best of your ability when there are no absolute moral principles you can rely upon. That’s why synantonyms are useful.  Noticing how we have paired terms to define the same behavior as either very good or very bad can help us face the dilemmas.

My articles aim to tease out moral questions that, if respected can spare us considerable grief and immorality done in the name of moral principle. There are plenty of other writers who argue that such questions can be easily answered.   If you ignore or dismiss my articles, don’t worry. I won’t feel used.

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Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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