the reality of this moment

Yesterday I had one of those days that chews you up and spits you out. I got all caught up in multitasking on a bunch of complex and somewhat frustrating projects at work, as well as reading the news, as well as trying to get everything ready for my upcoming vacation. By the end of the day, I could tell that my fuse was much shorter than usual. I went home and sat down with some marinated mozzarella and a small tot of bourbon, all riled up but still aware that in order to be OK, I needed to recharge my batteries. After 10 minutes, I felt calmer and more at ease. I could laugh at my reaction to the day’s events. But I needed enough self-awareness to pamper myself first.

Now is the only reality we know. If it’s stressful, if it’s blissful, it’s all we’re capable of being fully aware of. It’s distracting and all-encompassing—even while it’s utterly transient. Now never lasts for long. Even hours of jury duty, even the worst date, the worst relationship, ends eventually. It might take time, months or even years, but ultimately the state we’re living in will change, end, transform and bring us to another state. More often than not, states last less than a day, to the point where we could look back in five days, five weeks, five months or five years and not remember what happened.

When I look back at the worst times in my life, drenching and awful as they were, I clearly see how they were also transient. They passed, though I couldn’t see the future at the time of their passing—they did pass. Most of my early adulthood was worst times and all-right times. There weren’t a lot of best times. Now that I’m in a better place, and can look back on the last four years as really, really good times, I don’t see it in terms of bad and OK. I see it as my life, with temporary periods, mostly days or partial days, when I’m not at my best, when I fight with my partner or fight a cold, when I’m cranky at work or things just aren’t going my way. But the baseline is good. The status quo, the reality of now, is good. I feel at home with myself, I feel free to create my life as I need to, I feel aligned with what matters to me.

This wasn’t always the case. And I have endless empathy for anyone struggling with a baseline, with a whole series of days or weeks, which doesn’t feel right. Doesn’t bring them joy, doesn’t open them up to greater understanding or compassion or gratitude. Which instead brings them pain and suffering—which they survive, like a post-apocalyptic Earth, scrambling for basic needs and hoping for a release. I lived through that with my ex-husband, who didn’t feel like he would ever measure up to thew world and decided not to try, eventually embracing the soothing torture of Oxycontin addiction to ease his pain. I lived it even more with my ex-boyfriend, a manipulative ex-addict who created drama for drama’s sake, stole from me and used me mercilessly to achieve his own ends. I lived it within myself, a person confined and smothered by the expectations and approval of others, unable to truly see or acknowledge myself.

Life will never be perfectly easy or purely delightful. No matter what we do, how much money we have, who we love, what we value, life challenges and irritates and surprises us. But we can live aligned with our values, and feel centered in that.

We can stand in our own truth, surrounded by those who support us, keeping at an emotional or physical difference those who don’t, and feel strong.

We can ride the news of each day with a balance of attachment and distance, recognizing that change is possible, that hope is not foolish, that united we are stronger, and each small step is valid—and now is not forever.

Now is our reality. Our consciousness only exists in this moment, for better or worse. We can’t go back, we can’t fast forward. Life is now, as we build it, as we create it, as we submit to it.

We can’t control it. But we can control the self we bring to it. We can determine how we act in it—not our reaction, necessarily, but the choices we make, what we say, what action we take.

The only way to thrive is to see, feel, and honor yourself in this now. Not to live only for now, because now leads to an endless series of nows, and one now’s impulse can create a lifetime of consequences. But to live within the now. To understand that it’s both transient and forever. To be self-aware enough to recognize the options and actions we’re presented with, to give ourselves the time and space to think through the consequences and sit with our inner wisdom.

It isn’t always possible, but there’s always another opportunity coming, another now, to practice in.

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Standing Up to the Storm

The moments I’m most proud of in my life are the ones when I stood up for myself. Really stood tall and strong in my values, stood firm in my boundaries and centered in my truth. These were pivotal moments that changed my life.

I can think of many times—many more times, in fact—when I did not stand up for myself. Mostly that was out of fear of not being loved, fear of rejection, fear of abandonment. Fear of rocking the boat and changing the status quo. I was afraid, and so I took the abuse or the unfairness, I was a passive and silent accomplice, I bent myself to the other person’s will in order to keep the peace. I was a pushover in every sense. I wanted everything to just be OK, and I believed that by keeping my head down and letting the storm crash around me, I had a better chance of getting through unscathed.

There were other times when I maneuvered around standing up for myself—I didn’t curl up into a ball mouthing abject apologies, exactly, but I wasn’t centered or steadfast, either. I allowed myself to be pushed to my furthest limit—even beyond it—and then mustered up the courage to push back a little. Still out of fear, still letting the waves and water move me from where I knew I should be. It never worked all that well.

These situations have ranged from petty to profound. Being bullied by friends or in the schoolyard, cringing with shame and fear. Or acting as mute witness to someone else being bullied—not participating, but not stepping in. Allowing those I care about most to manipulate me with guilt trips and silent treatments, feeling mortification for disappointing them and panic at their chilly rejection of me when I didn’t meet their expectations. Having the man who claimed to love me make unreasonable demands, one after the other, caught off-balance in his cycles of manipulation, love-bombing, fury and emotional abuse. Allowing him to effectively control, punish and use me, invading my home, claiming things I had already said “no” to, diminishing me with his very presence in my life. I didn’t truly stand up to him, not until the very last days of our withering relationship, when I finally realized I had nothing to lose by not giving in.

I regret every moment I accepted the unacceptable, cowed and inactive and miserable. It was never the right choice. It never created less conflict, nor inspired greater intimacy and understanding, nor changed anything for the better.

However, there were a few, critical times when I stepped forward—right out into the stormy waters, the thunder and lightning crackling above, the ocean black and roaring below. I climbed onto my rock and refused to move from it. Refused to be buffeted off by the winds of blame and guilt, refused to be frozen off by silent treatments and withholding of affection, refused to be frightened off by the storm of words or threats crashing around me. I stood in the center of my own truth, my own values, in the very center of myself, and refused to look away.

And every single time, without exception, it was the storm that failed and died away. The ocean that calmed. And my rock that remained dug into the foundation of the earth.

These moments created positive, lasting change—for myself, my relationships, my happiness. Not only that, but they didn’t cause the sky to fall. I didn’t lose the love or security I’d so feared losing. Because standing up for yourself doesn’t come at the expense of someone else’s values or truth. It only comes at the expense of their manipulations, bullying, boundary-crossing or other toxic behavior.

I’ve learned that there’s a huge difference between making reasonable compromises in friendship and partnership—compromises that respect both people’s needs, triggers and preferences—and compromising myself, my core values, my essence.

In one, I’m still standing in my own truth. No one is asking me to feel or be anything I’m not in order to satisfy their needs. There’s no angry or threatening push from either side. I can honor myself fully, and fully honor the other person, making choices and considerations that take both people’s comfort into account. No values are compromised. No one is giving up any truth.

In the other, I am asked or expected to compromise the very integrity of who I am, to relax, change or abandon my boundaries without regard for my comfort, to accept responsibilities and burdens that are not mine, or, at best, to find tricky ways to placate the situation that don’t exactly align with my truth—but hey, at least the boat stopped rocking.

You know something about that boat? Screw the boat. The boat can go to hell. I’ve spent enough time and effort carefully working to prevent that leaky little thing from shaking, failing miserably at every turn, frantically bailing water when the waves got restive and someone demanded more of me than I was willing to give.

The first time I ever leapt out of that useless boat, I found my rock there waiting for me.

I stuck myself in the boat again many times after that, imprisoned by the threat of loss or disgrace, felt myself being crushed against an unforgiving shore when even the boat failed me. And felt the weight of my fear holding me down.

I don’t allow that to happen anymore. I still get pushed at sometimes. I still find myself needing to find that center, seek out my rock, and stand there ready for the storm. I still have to separate my stories and triggers and fears from what’s really true and what really matters.

But these days, all it takes is remembering all those different moments. When I caved and crumbled and when I stood tall. When I honored another above myself, and when I couldn’t imagine doing so. When I chose fear over strength, and when I chose truth over keeping the peace.

I could continue to regret my choice to surrender, or I could celebrate my choice to fight.

And I will burn my damn boat rather than ever climb aboard again.

Honoring Ourselves

I like to use my birthdays as opportunities to look back and forward, taking stock of myself and my life story. It’s a different experience than at New Year’s, when I’m more focused on releasing from the year before and creating intentions for the year to come. Birthdays seem to give me a longer view of myself, a different way of marking my growth.

I recently turned 41, and found myself thinking about my situation 10 years ago: who I was, what I believed, what I feared and hoped. A lot can change in 10 years. A marriage I was deeply committed to ended in that decade. I made and walked away from friendships, creating a strong, supportive circle of women friends. I learned how to (and how not to) date consciously. I lost two beloved pets and adopted three new furry babies. I fell in love and out of love twice. I was broke, betrayed, robbed, manipulated and abused—and I was strong and resilient. I turned everything around.

In those 10 years, I learned what it means to honor myself. I learned to trust my instincts, fearlessly face and embrace my own truth, define and stand by my core values and live in alignment with what matters most.

I learned through trial and error, stumbling into toxic love affairs, trusting where it wasn’t deserved, struggling against intense grief and anger, playing roles that I’d outgrown or that never fit me in the first place. I learned it in the failure of my marriage and the loss of my husband and married identity, and I learned it as I came to understand exactly why my marriage failed.

Honoring myself became a priority after the two unhappy, overwhelming years when I allowed someone else to hold me hostage in my own life. I allowed my home to be invaded, my emotional space to be crowded, my boundaries ignored and overrun. As I emerged from that black hole, I began to understand that I’d been compromising myself to earn the approval of my partner, and when that didn’t work, compromising myself even further. I faced this truth, recognizing that I’d done the same thing during my marriage. A different situation, a different man, but the same pattern of choosing them, and their validation, love and approval, over me and my own self-respect, fulfillment and values.

Coming out of that second relationship felt oddly like a second chance to recover from my divorce—I was in the same place, just two years older and hopefully somewhat wiser. After my husband and I separated, I had the opportunity to examine myself and create a new life. But caught up in an emotional hurricane of rage, grief, resentment, loss, fear and disillusionment—feelings I’d suppressed and pushed aside in the months leading up to our final separation, I didn’t embrace the chance to build that life.

Instead I ran headlong into the worst relationship possible, speedily and efficiently binding myself into a web of lies, mistrust and conditioned responses. I was on edge for two years, always anxious, always fearing what was around the corner. A blind and punishing rage. A wheedling demand for money. A cold, dismissive response.

When I’d finally thrown myself free, as if from a moving car, I stood up and found that I was bruised and battered and scarred—and intensely relieved that the sickening ride was finally over. I was more ready than I realized to reclaim my life, to restore what I’d taken from myself and commit to a new sense of purpose and balance. To embrace my independence, my singlehood, my values.

Since then, I’ve lived with greater joy, self-awareness and freedom than I could ever have imagined.

It’s just as well that myself at 31 didn’t know what was in store for her. She was getting by on autopilot, earning money, forming a codependency, growing out of the novice period of adulthood and beginning to define who she was. My husband was not, and the deep chasm this created between us ultimately and dramatically fractured both our lives, as well as many other relationships. I was about to enter years of heartache, anxiety and pain, years that would define the person I am today.

The last decade taught me to trust and value myself first. Before I can honor anyone else, I need to honor and respect myself, with a clear understanding of my own values and intentions. Before I can give my trust to anyone else, I need to trust me—my truth, my story, my boundaries, my gut.

It taught me not to suppress emotion, but to accept how I feel, study it and let it go. To never place a higher value on the opinion or approval of someone else than I do on my own self-respect and self-awareness. To be conscious in my interactions with others, to be intentional, to be honest with myself.

I continue to work on all of that, of course, but it’s really empowering and inspiring to acknowledge what I’ve learned and how it’s impacted my life.

I also take a moment to wonder: if I’m lucky enough to have the chance, how will I look back 10 years from now? How will I view myself at 41, how will I have grown, what will I see that I can’t see in the present?

It’s impossible to know, but even just asking the question provides even greater perspective on where I am. Because as happy as I am, and as much as I believe I honor myself, I probably thought the same a decade ago—just measuring by a different scale.

Whatever the future holds, I can only bring the best of what I’ve learned to each day and be open to learning each new lesson as it comes, honoring every step and stumble along the way.

 

dating 101: fantasy and flattery

I recently came across the podcast “Anna Faris is Unqualified,” in which Anna interviews celebrity guests and then together they give callers dating advice. It’s always entertaining and often insightful. On one episode, she and Chelsea Handler were reminding a young woman that when a guy is in, he’s in, and if he’s not, then (say it together!) “he’s just not that into you.”

This truism has been well-covered in a book and movie, but hearing it in this particular context made me start thinking about why we need it in the first place. Why do we so often require this reminder in our romantic lives?

Why does a person who’s clearly not interested in us inspire us to be so completely interested in him or her? What’s the deal with crushing on people who couldn’t care less, who may be totally wrong for us? Or, conversely, stringing along someone who we really aren’t that into ourselves?

The reasons may be different for everyone, but I know that in my love life, these situations were caused by me getting caught up in either fantasy or flattery. And in my most vulnerable, least confident times, I was extremely susceptible to both.

The fantasy part created inauthentic, irrational crushes. I didn’t honor the reality of the other person and what they could truly offer me, but focused on the perfect fantasy of them. This created a sort of painfully sublime ideal of romance made up of genuine attraction + timing/proximity + vulnerability + pure imagination. I’ve had crushes on men I’ve never met or barely knew, men who were clearly a bad idea, men I knew were absolutely not interested in dating me, because they told me so—and yet I wasted weeks if not months feeling all sorts of gushy emotions toward these dudes, dreaming of how incredible it would be to have them like me back, believing that would bring me true happiness.

Is there any benefit to a crush? I guess it can be a nice, light distraction from more serious life problems, but in general they don’t do a lot for us, especially if we’re actively dating as adults. And at their worst, fantasy-based attachments can take us to some pretty damaging places. The truth is, it’s entirely possible not to develop romantic feelings for people we barely know or people who aren’t interested in us, no matter how “perfect” they seem on the surface.

The flattery comes in to play when the opposite happens: someone makes it clear that he or she really likes us—paying us compliments, flirting, asking us out, fanatically liking every single one of our posts. We can’t deny that compliments and attention feel good, giving us a nice ego boost, even if we don’t share the attraction. It’s alluring in its way—it’s flattering. We feel pleasure, validation, gratification from their positive attention. Which isn’t a super healthy or grounded state of mind. In my experience, feeling flattered made me far more grateful than was warranted—I believed I owed the guy for liking me, and that clouded my judgment. I’d conclude that I was single, they were the only guy interested in me at that moment, it felt good to be admired… what did I have to lose?

Well, a lot—namely my time and energy. Just like with a fantasy-based crush, we’re still in the position of wasting time and energy on a potentially limited relationship, distracting ourselves from other possibilities. Sure, there are stories of X who wasn’t that into Y, but gave Y that third chance and they fell madly in love and adopted triplets and a Beagle. It’s definitely a good practice to keep an open mind and give someone different a chance. However, when you reach that tipping point and know in your gut that it’s not going to happen, whether before the first date or after the fifth, it’s not in anyone’s best interest to continue. We can honor their attraction to us, appreciate it, and still remain steadfast in our goal of finding a true, authentic partnership.

So these are a few of the reasons why we might do this to ourselves. We sometimes look for distractions, we’re romantic and imaginative, we have a lot of love to give and want to give it, we feel flattered and like we have nothing to lose.

But how do we not do it? How do we not fall into these traps, when it’s so easy to slip off-balance either way?

When I started dating after my last relationship, I thought really seriously about this. I knew how likely it was for me to develop crushes, and how easy to succumb to flattery. Months before I even considered going on a date, I made some resolutions to help navigate the dating rapids.

I resolved that I wouldn’t talk myself into being interested in someone just because they were interested in me. Not out of niceness or misplaced gratitude, not because I was flattered, definitely not because I had no other prospects. I would acknowledge my appreciation and give myself permission to kindly and firmly detach.

I also resolved that I wouldn’t waste time or attention on any man who didn’t show me he was truly interested—who wasn’t “that into” me from the start. I would reserve judgment, and pay close attention to what his actions told me about him. It might take a date or two to figure out, but when someone’s in, they’re in, and when they’re not, they’re not.

If I didn’t believe he was genuinely interested, or found I wasn’t that interested myself, I’d call it early on.

In all situations, I committed to listening to my inner wisdom and following its guidance. These resolutions served me well time and time again, saving me from attaching myself to incompatible men and allowing me to enjoy the process as it unfolded.

Of course it’s disappointing when a somebody you like doesn’t like you back. Disappointing, but not devastating. When, after our third date, I ended things with one sweet, delightful man who really liked me a lot, I knew I was letting him down. It wasn’t easy to cause him pain, but I wasn’t right for him. The truth is, nobody who doesn’t want us can be right for us. They just can’t. That’s how you know. Whether or not they’ve raised expectations by what they’ve said or done, and no matter how wonderful, charming, sexy and perfect they seem, you can accept this truth, close that door yourself, feel the hurt and disappointment, and hopefully even learn from the experience.

As Chelsea Handler told the podcast caller: life’s short. Move on. If someone doesn’t want you there’s just no point wondering if they might someday, or why they don’t. It doesn’t matter. Stop wasting time and see what life offers next.

On the flip side, it’s fine to go out with someone we’re undecided about who likes us, but if we’re not paying attention, it’s a relatively short step from feeling flattered, relieved and grateful to convincing ourselves to get entangled.

Conscious dating invites us to walk a steady line, balanced between all extremes. We have to ask ourselves a lot of questions from the moment we meet someone new, stay open to facing every truth that arises—including that someone we’re attracted to doesn’t feel the same or isn’t available—and use our energy, time and attention wisely. You might have the most amazing first date ever, which is thrilling. Enjoy the thrill—and then sit down with it afterward, honor what your instincts are telling you, give it some room to breathe. By the second or third date, this person might have lost a lot of their appeal as you begin to understand your real compatibility.

Being with someone we know in our innermost wisdom isn’t right, for whatever reason, closes us off to the possibility of meeting someone who is right. You never know who might show up next, or what you could be learning and experiencing in the interim.

Not allowing ourselves to be swept up in either fantasies or flattery allows us to step back and see what’s really going on. It gives us space to listen to our instincts, and make the best, healthiest, most empowered choices possible.

 

relationships and the space around us

“Sorry, babe, but I need some space.”

“Needing space” has become a clichéd reason for stepping back from a relationship, a generic phrase that basically equates to: “I want to give you less time and/or intimacy,” and possibly even “you have too many demands/expectations.” It lives right alongside the classic lines “it’s not you, it’s me” (=”I don’t want to be with you”) and “I’m just not ready” (=”I’m not interested in continuing this or moving forward”). Another glib excuse to break up that really means nothing at all.

But the more time I spend thinking about conscious dating, it’s become clear that space has actually mattered a lot in my relationships. Not just a safe and comfortable physical space, but a safe, comfortable and expansive mental and emotional space. Like having healthy boundaries, having healthy space just wasn’t anything I valued or even really noticed before.

A depressingly apt is example is that during the two-plus years I was involved with a toxic and manipulative partner, I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking for space. I was heavily attached to him, while most of the time he was distant and withdrawn from me, even if he was sitting in bed beside me. It was a very lonely feeling. As far as I was concerned, I needed more from him, not less—more quality time, more affection, more everything.

I was wrong, though. Because the truth is, I had absolutely no emotional space with him. He crowded that from the moment he began love-bombing me, overwhelming my better instincts, zoning in on my vulnerability and kindness to achieve his own ends. And I allowed it. My gut told me that things were moving too fast, but I couldn’t seem to say no, even though nothing felt right. When I was able to take some kind of stock, I was already unbelievably entangled and had few boundaries left standing.

Added to that, my home wasn’t a safe space when we were dating. He moved in “temporarily” two months after we met, and temporarily turned into two years. Even when he wasn’t present, my apartment wasn’t mine. When he was there, I never knew what sort of mood he’d be in, if I’d find him in an icy rage or self-pitying funk, or if I’d accidentally set off the cycles of emotional abuse, crisis and seduction he excelled at. Home just wasn’t a comfortable place to be.

I was always uneasy, always watchful, always struggling against tides that I didn’t understand. I didn’t recognize that I was being crowded, suffocated and besieged, even though that’s exactly how I felt. Finally the tides shifted, circumstances began to change, I started to pay some attention to that strangled feeling and push back in small ways, and he cut his losses and agreed that it wasn’t going to work.

The day he moved out, I felt utterly, wildly free. I felt like myself. Suddenly there was space around me, all the space I could ever want. Emotional space to feel everything I needed without the exhausting burden of attachment or anxiety over his moods and drama. Mental space to clearly understand what had been going on, identify, process, evaluate. My home was a place of comfort and safety again, where I had full control over the emotional climate. I couldn’t imagine how I’d been surviving for all those unhappy months, or why I’d believed that he was worth everything I gave.

I relished my space. I dove into it and found peace. I was giddy with the freedom it offered. Space to grieve, to think through, to repair. To forgive myself. To imagine new possibilities.

Only when mine was restored did I start to understand how important space is, and begin to really notice and value it. It’s central to personal freedom and self-empowerment. It allows for true intimacy, creativity, growth, mental clarity and emotional well-being. It doesn’t stop us from being close to others, but does stop us from getting entangled with them in unhealthy ways.

Any relationship can push into our space if we allow it. When we feel like we just don’t quite have enough psychological “room” for ourselves, enough time to consider each choice, enough detachment from emotional burdens or expectations, or a safe enough environment, it’s much harder, if not impossible, to live an authentic life and be aligned to what matters most to us. We can feel trapped and smothered, anxious and exhausted, painfully aware that something just isn’t right.

Whether the crowding is innocent or intentional, whether we allowed it or inherited it, it’s not an easy thing to change. Recognizing the issue is probably the hardest part, since we almost never seem to value our space until it’s opened back up around us. Like all challenges in relationships and life, nothing changes until we do, until we’re ready to make the hard choices and take the hard steps.

Space matters more than I ever imagined it could, especially space between us and those we hold most dear. If we feel as though we’re emotionally stifled and entangled and have no room to breathe, desperate for some time alone or away to recharge and reset, that’s a pretty glaring red flag that our space has been compromised and we probably need to step back from the person or relationship, even just internally. It doesn’t have to mean the relationship is doomed or the person isn’t good for us, but only that we don’t have the space we need to thrive.

One of the most positive, empowering things about my current relationship is all the space I continue to feel around me. From the start I had unlimited room to react, analyze, process and make decisions that were right for me. It was beyond reassuring to feel that we could take our time and explore the possibilities freely and joyfully. Not once have I felt rushed or invalidated or anxious. I’m deeply attached to my partner, but that attachment has never put pressure on my emotional space.

I believe successful relationships have their foundations in profound respect: respecting the other person as a whole, unique being separate from us. Respecting their time, privacy, belongings and money, as well as their thoughts, beliefs, perspective, experience and opinions. I respect my partner’s emotions and feel empathy without taking on his feelings or worries as my own. When we disagree or muddy the waters, there’s always space to communicate, listen, forgive and compromise.

Space to ourselves is also one of the biggest benefits of singlehood, something I took for granted in the past. As I’ve written about previously, consciously being single is incredibly empowering and revealing, giving us one of the best chances we’ll ever have to recognize and prioritize the things that matter most to us, the places we need to grow and wounds we need to heal. Having no romantic entanglements, or only casual ones, allows us to fully appreciate the space we need and ensure that we keep it in every new relationship.

Right up there with healthy boundaries and knowing what you want, noticing and valuing our need for space makes it possible for us to develop stronger, deeper connections with others and a more empowered, authentic self. And that’s definitely worth paying attention to.