Delving

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.

 

ignoring the red flags

My boundaries were crossed recently by someone I trusted, and uncomfortable as it was to go through, I’ve learned a lot from the experience. I’m still learning: as I’ve gotten some distance from the situation, I know that the person who crossed the line didn’t do it out of nowhere. She was, in the words of Charlie Murphy, “a habitual line-stepper.”

I just didn’t see it—or rather, I DID see it, I just didn’t allow myself to recognize her actions as red flags. This realization really surprised me, because I’ve been extremely wary and aware of red flags in dating since my terrible relationship with a narcissist ended. After it was over, I reviewed all the zillions of bright flashing neon red flags he waved at me, from our first conversation on. It was beyond mortifying, all the ways I compromised myself to be with this guy who showed me he was bad news from the start, but it was also really valuable. I took the time to define what was acceptable and unacceptable for me, and carried that with me like a magic talisman on every date, in every email exchange and conversation with a man.

And it worked. I could trust my intuition to tell me exactly what I needed to know in order to navigate through dating again. There were kind, smart, successful guys I knew just weren’t right for me—and there were charming, attractive guys who I could tell were toxic. I got so good at it, when someone really incredible crossed my path, I knew before we even spoke, just by reading his energy and trusting my instincts, that he was someone worth meeting.

I got pretty smug about it, thinking, “hey, I’ve really got this ‘gut’ thing dialed in! I’ll never trust the wrong people ever again!”

But no.

When a line was crossed, it felt like a punch in the stomach. My friend did something I never would’ve imagined I’d need to worry about a friend doing, making me so uncomfortable I was anxious and sick over it. I had no idea how to react, second-guessing myself, hoping it didn’t really happen. But it did.

After a few days of writing, thinking, and talking to other friends about it, I brought it up to her. I believed she had no idea, that she didn’t mean harm, and I needed her to know where my boundaries lay. Rather than listening with an open mind, respecting my feelings and working to clarify any misunderstanding, she went a very different route—angrily denying the whole thing, turning it around on me, calling me insecure and threatened, calling it “bullshit,” bringing up things I did wrong in the past, suggesting ways I could work on my psychological and personality issues… Your basic recipe for authentic, home-cooked crazy-making. It really stunned me; I’d encountered that kind of reaction from my toxic ex, but had never experienced it from her. Her response went so far as to tell me she knew what she was doing: her boundary-busting behavior was intentional, she just didn’t like me calling her on it.

I believed that she was a good friend, someone I could trust. I ignored a lot of red flags.

As a result, I was blindsided by something that was actually right in line with who she was.

Now, looking back at the three years we’ve known each other, I see she was showing me that all along. All the times she cancelled plans last-minute or left me waiting or stranded; her lack of self-awareness; the ways she taught me not to count on her; her ambiguous comments to and about me; her actions, lifestyle and choices—these were red flags, speaking volumes about her priorities and our differing values. She isn’t wrong, I’m not right—but I see that our closeness came from convenience and proximity when I desperately needed someone to turn to, rather than genuine compatibility. Something always felt off. I just wasn’t letting myself notice, disregarding my instincts like I had in the past.

Because of how she chose to act and respond, because she so clearly had no respect for me, and because I’ve learned not to accept what’s unacceptable, I chose to walk away from the friendship. I’m sincerely grateful for her friendship and support during a hard time in my life. Ultimately, though, what I believed about our relationship, and about her, wasn’t really true.

I don’t regret anything I said or did, but I’m not feeling especially proud of the blinders that got me here. For all my hyper-awareness of red flags in dating, I’ve ignored the fact that they can exist in any type of relationship, and ended up being hurt and disappointed by my own laziness and lack of perception. By believing what I wanted to believe and holding onto that.

The truth is, eventually everyone shows you who they really are. It’s up to us to choose whether or not we pay attention.

the extreme effort of autopilot

Looking back, I think the worst decisions I’ve ever made were because I was on autopilot.

I wasn’t paying attention. I was choosing not to.

Instead, I survived in a depressing, narrow rut day after day, using most of my energy to avoid facing the truth about myself. As if that truth would be so shameful and terrifying and horrible that anything was better than facing it, so I worked to tune it out. I flipped through every possible channel in a daze of noisy distractions, rather than simply turn off the TV and sit with whatever was going to come.

This was happening after I started practicing yoga, meditating and writing in a journal, even while I was in therapy. I was still switched off somehow, actively not noticing what my own inner guide was trying to tell me. Ironically, autopilot requires a whole lot more effort than facing whatever we’re avoiding. The truth is always grounding and centering, even when it’s challenging, and it’s often challenging. Even when it isn’t what we wanted it to be, it brings ease of mind, balance, and, ultimately, hope. The truth of who we are and what we need, what we’re experiencing, what we’re carrying around with us—that truth can only help us make the right choices. It can only lead us to deeper compassion, honesty, understanding and growth.

So why was I so afraid of facing it? Why do we go years on autopilot, why do we make decisions for ourselves in direct opposition to what our instinct is telling us to do?

I believe my answer is: because I didn’t trust myself.

I trusted what other people wanted and what my past told me I should be and do, I made what decisions I convinced myself were best. I knew my own truth all along, I just didn’t trust what I knew. So I survived, ignoring what I feared to face, making a lot of intention statements that left out the most important intentions, choosing poorly and then struggling with the consequences of those choices.

It seemed safer not to be aware of any of this. And yes, it does take a certain amount of bravery to face what we’ve been hiding from ourselves. We’re probably going to have to let go of things—preconceptions, habits, patterns, triggers, expectations. We might very well lose people we care about, and the selves and futures they represent to us. Things will change, and change is scary and full of unknowns. We’re afraid it’s going to be a lot harder and more painful than ignoring what’s clamoring to be noticed in ourselves.

But, as I once heard at a work seminar, You can either be brave or safe. You can’t be both.

I hid from my truths because it felt safe. The truth that I wasn’t honoring myself in my relationships, that I wasn’t taking care of myself, that I was compromising who I really am. That my quality of life was suffering from the choices I was making. That doing just barely enough to get by wasn’t what I want or deserve.

This last time I was on autopilot, I was jolted out of it by the death of someone I loved very much. My grief affected everything, and made it clear how much work it took to make my very un-OK situation seem OK. Things got real and dramatic and then, suddenly, it was over. I was free from fear—awake, in control, accountable, balanced and at peace. The truth I faced was a friendly one. I could feel ashamed and angry and sad without resistance. I could let go.

Maybe autopilot is necessary sometimes. But now I know, without any doubt, that it isn’t easier. That ignoring what’s really true doesn’t serve or honor me or anybody else. And that if I can keep paying attention, keep facing my truths no matter how challenging, keep trusting my inner guide to steer me, I won’t be in a position to make such poor choices again.

a place to start

“You seem embarrassed by loneliness, by being alone. It’s only a place to start.”
—”Sabrina,” 1995

The character who says this to Sabrina in the 90’s movie adaptation is a chic, successful Frenchwoman, speaking wistfully of her own experience in coming to Paris years before. I remember being struck by her tranquil confidence, and by the suggestion that being alone or lonely could be embraced, rather than feared. It stayed with me, though at the time I didn’t have the experience or the self-awareness to understand what it meant. Being on my own was unthinkable—loneliness was a worst-case scenario, something to be avoided at all costs.

One early marriage, one divorce and one toxic rebound relationship later, I’ve grown to love these words. They come back to me whenever I’m feeling the lack of something inside me—not just a loving partner or the companionship of others, but lack of worthiness, or validity, or visibility. I’ve come to understand that longing and loneliness are part of our journey as people. Our quest is not to eradicate any sense of lack within ourselves, or to never ever be lonely ever again, but to honor and embrace these feelings.

They will come, no matter how happily married we are, how successful, how busy, how fulfilled. Perhaps not often, or perhaps daily or weekly or hourly, we all experience some level of aloneness and the longing to connect. Spiritual practices are built to help us find that connection within ourselves, and can be very successful at doing so. But I don’t believe they stop the emotions, they only provide us with tools and methods for experiencing them in a healthy, healing way.

And so the feelings come, at some moments stronger than others. Ignoring them doesn’t work, they only grow bigger and wilder, until we’re desperate to assuage the craving to be made whole, grasping for it with insatiable need. My determination to avoid my yearnings and aloneness in any way possible catapulted me into the arms of a narcissistic manipulator, who was all too happy to use my vulnerability against me. And I can’t even blame him for taking advantage of it, I basically walked into the lion’s den, knelt down and bared my throat.

Only after that unhappy mess finally ended did I started to understand the power of honoring my loneliness. Of looking at each negative or difficult emotion—anger, grief, longing, fear, lack, disorientation—as a place to start.

This simple phrase carries such limitless hope for me. In my darkest moods, in my worst anxiety and deepest anguish, to come back to that place of calm, that still center in myself that loves me and knows me and will never abandon me. “It’s only a place to start.” More than that, it’s the best possible place to start. It’s everything I need it to be, right now, at this moment.

Here is where I love myself better, and am my own friend and ally.

Here, I start again to let go of my resentment and process my anger, to understand my own spirals of fear and denial.

Here, I wake up again from autopilot and am conscious of the beauty and joy and vibrancy and transience of my life.

Here, lost and alone, I embrace my suffering.

Here I begin and begin again, as many times as I need to.

I’m no longer embarrassed by my lonely moments, my longing to belong and to be needed and loved, my fears and resistance. These are all part of who I am, and part of what I have to go through to find my way to feeling whole, valid and fulfilled.

“It’s only a place to start.”

one tiny piece of a big puzzle

“I’ve been over what I’m supposed to say and I’ve got to tell you, it’s pretty persuasive stuff, but is it the whole truth? It’s a slice of truth, a morsel, a fraction. It’s a piece of the pie, certainly not the whole enchilada, and now that I’ve been thinking about it, I don’t think I could tell the whole truth about anything. That’s a pretty heavy burden, because we all just view the world through this little piece of coke bottle. Is there such a thing as objective truth I wonder.”  – Jeff Melvoin, producer/writer, “Northern Exposure”

I had a personal lesson this weekend that reminded me how narrow my perspective is, how this narrowness affects what I feel and limits what I understand. First person is the only point of view we know. We can’t choose otherwise, as much as we might like to see the world from other people’s perspectives. We can hear their words, and read their words. We can empathize, we can absorb their ideas into our own. But no matter how hard we listen, it just isn’t possible to turn off our subjectivity—our own minds are all we experience, and even recognizing our own truth is challenging.

Last week I was mildly obsessed with the idea that I’d embarrassed myself out socializing, and a week later, when I had a chance to speak to one of the other people involved, I discovered that he had felt the exact same way. To the point that this person apologized to me, and said he’d been worried that he had embarrassed himself. It’s pretty comical, and also a prime example of how we’re all only seeing a very small portion of what’s happening. We’re telling a story about ourselves to ourselves, and chances are it’s either totally imaginary or only a tiny bit true. It’s one small piece of the larger story, one tiny fragment. In this case, our stories were identical but from completely opposite points of view.

Taking this further, I can look back at my past relationships and see much more of what was really going on between my ex-partners and myself, but that wasn’t the case at the time. The stories have opened up to me now, months or years later, to include a greater part of the truth—I won’t ever know all of it, it’s not up to me to know all of it. I’m able to view scattered scraps and sections, more than what I knew when I only saw my personal sliver, but still less than the whole.

Each story and layer of story is like a jigsaw puzzle—for years I tried to obsessively fit two pieces together that didn’t really fit, focused entirely on those two pieces and nothing else. I couldn’t see that one was sky and one was rocks. I struggled and pushed and obsessed over those two pieces. I put one down and glared at the other one, and then put that one down. It was all I felt able to do. And now, after much thought and processing, I’ve drawn back far enough to see the puzzle they belong to, see many pieces laid out and fitted together with gaps remaining between them, a half-finished jigsaw. And I can finally let go of my two mismatched pieces, placing them easily into their right places, with a better idea of the picture being created.

Every day this is a struggle and an opportunity, and it will continue no matter how self-aware or actualized we become. I’m reminded to keep my mind as open as possible as often as possible, even when I feel stuck in my own perspective. To step outside the narrative I’m telling myself about what’s happening, and to remember that there’s a much, much bigger story in play—and that everyone is seeing it from a different, unique and valid angle.

I can’t stop looking through my tiny piece of coke bottle, but I can remember how limited it is.