I’m really struggling to regain a healthy sense of what relationships – romantic, platonic, and beyond – look like. I’ve struggled with abuse and mental health (anxiety and depression) for most of my life, and even though I’m dating, I’m having a difficult time unlearning this toxic behavior and relearning healthy habits, especially self-love. Any advice?
About three or four years ago, I went through my second-ever really bad, heartrending break up. Now, from the perspective of four years (and another heartbreak) later, it’s clear to me what went wrong. The rush to intimacy via a closeness that was quick and insistent rather than slowly built and earned, was the first big red flag that helped me identify what my role was in that pattern. For a long time I had considered myself to be the victim in my relationships: helpless, innocent, and acted upon. It took four years and the end of another relationship, this time with a person who I thought was going to be my life partner, to realize – without blaming myself – how I had contributed to the pain that I was experiencing. At the time, I was hungry for love, ravenous for it. I was in my mid-twenties, and I has spent the entire decade since I had started dating as a teenager bouncing from one partner to another, trying all sorts of relationship styles, from casual dating, to attempts at ethical non-monogamy which in practice were messy and not as ethical as we aspired to be. I was also deeply, deeply lonely. Now, with years in between the person I was then, and the person I am now, it’s clear to me that I was acting from that lonely, desperate place, seeking lovers who seemed to promise that they would complete me, fix me, heal something in me that I was certain was broken.
If you had asked me then, though, if I thought I was broken, I would have laughed at you. I’ve always had what I consider to be fairly high self-esteem. In general, I like myself. But what I’ve now learned to be true is that there is a lot that we don’t know about ourselves, and the relationships we choose – especially in our twenties, as we are learning for the first time who we are, and who we want to be, in the world – become our mirrors; the portals that introduce us to our selves.
Almost immediately after this break up, I was scheduled to start my sex ed certification program live classes. One of the classes was called The Joy of Intimacy, about how we cultivate connection with others. I couldn’t think of a thing I wanted to do less at the time, but it turned out that the timing was perfect. I don’t remember the specifics of the class, to be honest, although I do remember that it was a moving one. It seemed like something magical happened in that class, because a room full of a dozen strangers somehow was able to form profound, though temporary, connections with each other. I remember looking into the eyes of people much older than me, people of different genders, from different parts of the country, people who I was to spend an intense two-week workshop program, and who afterwards I wouldn’t see again, and weeping, though none of us could explain in any eloquent way, why. Some of the people I partnered with told me that when they looked into my eyes, they felt safe, and they also felt sad, and that it was okay to express that sadness through tears. Inexplicably, wordlessly, I felt the same way as I looked into the eyes of some of my colleagues. The program wasn’t perfect, but those moments still stick with me: it was the first time I really understood what it meant to hold space with another human being, to bear witness to whatever was within them without judgment, and allow it to be expressed between the two of us, as well as among the group.
On the way home, though, it struck me that perhaps intimacy with others wasn’t exactly what I needed at that moment, as I waded through my heartbreak unsure of what was on the other side. Instead, I wondered about what intimacy with myself might look like. One of the workshop participants pointed me in the direction of The Universe Talks, a fairly innocuous little website that allows you to set an intention and then sends you “Notes From the Universe” in your inbox each morning that gently draw that intention out of you each day, becoming a small, simple daily practice. My intention was to “cultivate a sense of self-intimacy” – a somewhat clunky phrase for the bot to plug into my daily Notes From the Universe. Sometimes the notes are silly, or corny; sometimes they make me roll my eyes. But sometimes they’re uniquely timely, exactly what I need to read that morning, and I still check them every day.
Six months later, I got involved with another partner, and this past January that relationship ended, and I had to come face to face with the fact that I hadn’t done as much work as I thought I’d done to cultivate my sense of self-intimacy. Once again, in hindsight, it became clear to me that I’d started this most recent relationship, too, from the place of a hungry need for validation, rather than grounded assurance of my own self-worth. Things came to light, upon reflection, of the ways I had abandoned myself in the relationship – operated from a place of perceived scarcity, ignored things that made me unhappy in the relationship and made myself smaller, rather than trusting in a more expansive, abundant, authentic experience of love, a love more aligned with my values.
I think this is a not uncommon element of learning to love – how to find love, how to give love, and perhaps most importantly, how to practice discernment in how you receive love — especially if you’re someone who has experienced trauma and abuse. If you’re someone who (like you, like me), experiences anxiety and depression — those whispering lies and half-truths in that always echo around the backs of our minds, about who we are, what our worth is, and how we deserve to be loved — this is even further complicated. How you find your way back to yourself – because that is what the practice of self-love is — is different for everyone and is, as you note, an unlearning process.
What is it you are unlearning? What are the narratives about yourself that you are unraveling from your heart like so much tangled yarn? And can you be gentle through the unraveling?
Cultivating self-intimacy, or self-love, is a long and circuitous process. It happens in fits and starts and sometimes, just when you think you’ve made “progress,” you backslide. It takes time. It’s not easy. Sometimes it happens beneath the surface as time passes and you live your life. Sometimes it’s something you have to struggle for. It sounds like you’re already on your way; the intention is there for you just in the fact that you’ve written this letter and identified self-love as something you would like to cultivate in your life. Perhaps try “externalizing” the unlearning; that’s fancy therapist talk for getting it outside of yourself, to observe it with some distance. Write it down, maybe, in a journal, or on a scrap of paper you keep in your pocket, or wallet, or on an altar, to sit with and reflect upon.
In addition to unlearning, it might be helpful to reframe some of your behaviors in relationship with others in a different light, especially since you characterize some of your behavior as “toxic.” The way you are in relationship with others is not working for you now – but relational therapists will tell you that how you are in relationship with others did not develop in a vacuum but rather within a lifelong social and interactive process. At some point in your life, the way you interact with others – romantic partners, family, and friends – was all created in response to your needs within your environment. As vulnerable human creatures, the way we act is always informed by self-preservation, especially as a very young child. Your behavioral patterns (particularly the ones in response to trauma) were developed a long time ago, before you could consciously remember learning them, in order to keep you safe in a chaotic and unpredictable world – this is especially true for those who have survived abuse from an early age. If you are frustrated with yourself and your process, remember this, and thank and honor your past self for trying their very best to keep you safe and alive. Anxiety, by the way, serves a similar function – it’s a warning bell, attempting to alert you to when there is danger around, so you can find a way to circumvent it. Knowing this, does it change the way you relate to your anxiety and your relational patterns? Can you approach them with tenderness, and gratitude, and from that place, remind yourself, and your anxiety, that times have changed? And that you are safe now — safe enough to be doing this deep and profound self-work.
I read something recently about the movement toward self-love as something of a hero’s journey, though perhaps one that doesn’t have a neat and finite end to it. Life is an unlearning process, and who we are is always changing. The ways in which we practice love for ourselves, therefore, is dynamic too. For me, I know that there may always be a part of me that feels a little broken, and that longs for someone else to fix it for me. Fix me. Knowing that, bearing witness to it with tenderness, is what takes me forward, and what keeps me safe now in a healthier way – and frees me to seek love in a way that serves me, rather than hurts me. This time around, I am choosing to be alone consciously, and paying attention to the wisdom of my body and of my feelings in a way that I hadn’t with these previous relationships, when I choose to abandon myself by trusting the partners I was with over myself. Trust yourself. Be alone with yourself if you need to, or hold yourself closely while you’re dating – pay attention the way your body and your emotions are responding to the situations you find yourself in, and the people you find yourself with. Be brave when you look into the mirrors that others hold up to you. Be brave when you look into your own eyes, too. Allow yourself to sit with whatever feelings come up – fear, grief, loneliness – knowing that you are not alone, because you are in your corner, and you always have been.