Note: This article first appeared on my writing blog. I feel compelled to share it with you as well as it contains such an important message.
In her time, Virginia Woolf struggled with stereotypical expectations of women and the expression of truth as a writer. These challenges congealed into a phantom Woolf called “The Angel in the House,” after the character in a well known poem of the day.
“I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was draught she sat in it – in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.”
The Angel in the House tormented Woolf whenever she began to write, coaxing her to:
“Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own.”
But, finally Woolf stood her down.
“I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defense. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.”
The Angel of Perpetual Giving
I swear Woolf’s phantom has a twin sister named The Angel of Perpetual Giving.
Do you know her too?
Do you become so preoccupied helping others, there’s hardly a moment for your own writing or work? I confess: perpetual giving had soaked through my bones. It seemed I could not separate it out from my self for the life of me. Yet I know deep down this automatic response does not constitute intelligent giving, compassionate contribution, or intentional helpfulness. It’s merely profound neurosis at its very worst.
Out of sheer overwhelm and despair, I cried out. But, how would I kill this Angel of Perpetual Giving? Even Woolf found her invisible Angel intractable, and near impossible to subdue.
“It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had despatched her. Though I flatter myself that I killed her in the end, the struggle was severe; it took much time that had better have been spent upon learning Greek grammar; or in roaming the world in search of adventures. But it was a real experience; it was an experience that was bound to befall all women writers at that time. Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.”
If not for good friends, I would be lost indeed. With patience and care, they persuaded me to see it’s not just time I give away, but money to boot. If someone asked me for $500 would I hand it over without a thought? But asked for the equivalent in time and I would give it with glee. How is it labeled, this sickness that had befallen me?
Now that my synapses have made the connection – there’s a relationship between time and money – I’ll be more hesitant to give it away for free. I’ll practice my script:
“Yes, I’m happy to help. I charge XYZ.”
Or, I’ll say “no” to the stream of favors asked repeatedly. No more Miss Nice Girl, at long last!
That doesn’t mean I won’t help if I really care. But, I’ve dismantled the automatic switch that says, “Blindly give”. Each choice will come with a pause followed by mindful intention and an eye to the limits of time.
Do you know these angels? Have they visited you? Have you killed the Angel of Perpetual Giving? If so, please tell us how?
Excerpts from the essay Professions for Women by Virginia Woolf
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