When the Well Runs Dry

This article was first published in the July/August issue of Branches magazine (volume 26, number 3, page 13) on the theme of Water. Branches magazine is a print only magazine available in the Indianapolis area.

For many in this world, wells are a necessary source of the water needed for daily living.  When a well is the only source of water, it can be catastrophic when that well dries up, becomes contaminated or stops working. Another source of water must be found quickly for life to continue. Returning to the same broken well over and over again when it is no longer supplying usable water is not going to make the well spontaneously fix itself. The thirst will just grow worse.

This seems obvious when we are talking about water, but it's less obvious — though no less true — when we consider the life-giving water of emotional support and encouragement that is necessary to keep our hopes and dreams alive. How do we respond when our usual sources of support dry up or become contaminated?

I have some broken wells in my life — people and relationships that I go to hoping for encouragement, reassurance, approval, or support — but the well is not able to supply my need. Each time I return, I find myself hoping that this trip to well will be different. I keep hoping that maybe this trip I'll finally be "good enough" to get the response I was hoping for.

These broken wells disappoint me over and over again, but I continue to return to them. Sometimes I do this out of habit. More often, I do it out of a desperate need to get that imagined stamp of approval that will finally make me good enough in that person's eyes — and therefore in my own (or so I seem to believe).

I operate out of an assumption that the well is not working because I am broken, a belief that I need to fix myself or my approach to drawing from the well in order for the well to work again. So I keep returning and returning and returning, but my bucket is never filled. This becomes an addictive need to draw life-giving water from a broken well that cannot give it to me. And in the meantime, I continue to grow more and more thirsty, driving the addictive habit deeper into my patterns of behavior.

Freedom comes only in the moment that I am able to recognize that the well is broken. When I recognize that the well simply has no water to give me, I can stop returning to that well and go find a different source.

In the world of emotional needs, sometimes this means accepting that a certain person is not able to give me the approval or support that I need in a given situation, and I need to find other people who can do so. No one person or relationship can supply all of our emotional needs, and it's important to know who to turn to for different kinds of support. Other times, it may mean accepting that no one can meet my thirsty craving for approval and support until I can give it to myself because only then am I able to truly accept it from others. In this case, I'm going to the wrong well altogether by looking for someone else to supply what I can't give to myself.

Even this can be taken to unhealthy extremes, though. My tendency is try to convince myself that it is better to simply never need any more water from any other well. I want to believe that it should be possible to supply all of my emotional needs from my own well, but this all-or-nothing approach doesn't work either. The thirst is real, and my well has its dry spells too. We are social creatures, and even the healthiest of us have times when we are discouraged and need some support from outside ourselves to regain our footing. In those dry times, we learn to value ourselves again by seeing our worth in the mirror that others show us.

My own work on breaking to these broken wells of my past is teaching me to divide my efforts into several interconnected areas. First, I’m identifying the broken wells in my life, accepting that they are broken, and choosing not to continue to go back to them in the hope of a new result. This works best when I am able to treat myself and my broken wells with compassion and kindness. The fact that someone may not be able to provide the support I need in a given situation does not make them a bad person, but it does mean that they are not able to meet the need that I am asking them to meet. As humans, we all have our limits to what we can give.

Second, I’m identifying new wells to give me a range of options when I need support so that I don't become overly focused on any one source, since no well can do it all. Keep in mind that someone may be a great support in one area even though they are not in another area. None of us are one-dimensional, and all of us have our highs and lows when we are more or less able to give to others the kind of support they want from us. The more wells I have to choose from, the more likely it is that I will be able to find one that is working for me when I need it.

Third, I am focusing on repairing and tending to my own well, cultivating the inner resources I need to bring my thirst down to quenchable levels. This will make me less desperate and less demanding of other wells, which will increase the likelihood that those wells will be able to provide the support I need when it is necessary. In addition, the healthier my own well is, the more I will have to give to others so that they do not experience their relationship with me as a broken well.

These three approaches work together to make sure I have access to the life-giving water of support and encouragement when I need it and that I am best able to give that same life-giving water to others.

Do you have any broken wells in your life that need tended to (if your own) or replaced (if someone else's) in order to better meet your needs for emotional support and encouragement? What steps can you take to increase the chances that you will have a supply of  life-giving sustenance when you need it?

©2013 Kenetha J. Stanton