“If you don’t love yourself, you’ll always be chasing after people who don’t love you either.” ~Mandy Hale In January, a couple of years ago, I had been declared unfit for work, suffering from anxiety and mental exhaustion. For too long, I had not listened to my body and soul complaining about all the heavy burdens I had been carrying. Out walking at this time, the bitter cold and relentless rain felt like a blessing to me, grateful to at least feel something. It was on one of these walks that I first bumped into an old school friend, hearing him call my name before I saw him smiling hello at me. To begin with, I felt reluctant to chat or attempt to return the happy smile as he asked after my brothers, having known us since we were all kids, but I began to walk away feeling a bit less tense and felt an urge to see him again: “Call in for a cup of tea if you’re passing.” And he did call. But I wasn’t in—I was out battling the elements again, trying to walk through my confusion and melancholy. My adult son called me: “Some weird guy with a ponytail has just knocked on asking for you,” he voiced with scarcely concealed outrage. I’m not sure whether the outrage was caused by the fact that a man had knocked on our door asking to see his mom or whether it was at the audacity of the man’s long, graying ponytail, at his age. A week later, he called again and this time I was home. I welcomed him in and shut the door against the winter blackness. The house felt cosier somehow since he was there, noticing my daughter’s artwork on the wall before he had finished taking off his shoes. Sat together in the lounge, I was struck by the way he curled his feet up easily on the chair as I sat upright and uptight on the couch opposite. Before long, I had confessed my inability to work. He shared that he was off work too as he had recently lost his father and that his mother was now terminally ill. The next time he called I was out again, so he pushed his mobile number through my door. I lingered looking at the bold handwriting in crimson ink. I do remember I hesitated before I put his number in my contact list. Why did I want or need his number? Maybe I had identified that he was a troubled soul too. I sent him a text saying: “Thanks for your number. This is mine.” Now we had both admitted that we wanted to be able to contact each other. From this point the texting became more frequent, and so did his visits to me. But then he told me that for the past year he had been living with somebody and her three children. Classic rebound stuff—he had moved in with her immediately after the end of a twenty-six-year relationship. Of course, I did the decent thing and said we couldn’t see each other anymore. I wished I could have been angry and indignant, but instead my vulnerable self crumpled a little more as he took me in his arms to give me a hug. I rebuked myself for being in this position when I was in the middle of so much mental and emotional turmoil. I had survived the break-up of a marriage and another long-term partnership—I told myself I could certainly recover from a few-week-dalliance. “I need a hug,” the message bleeped. So do I, I thought, but steeled my resolve to not return his message. Some time elapsed and then came another message, “My mum has little time left.” His pain was tangible. So I put my needs on hold and arranged to see him. A pattern began: talking through the night when the rest of the town slept; trips to doctors and hospitals; visits to see his mum together; soup-runs to him at the nursing home. And I suppressed the nagging question about where his ‘partner’ was in all this. In March his mum died. Our intimate bubble was burst by the grief, practicalities, and conventions of death. It was his ‘partner’ that stood by his side at his mum’s funeral in April while I sat home alone, bereft at the thought of his loss and facing the reality that I had been cast aside. I decided I would go away to visit friends for a month to get some distance. I needed to iron out my crumpled life, to see what was worth holding onto and what needed to be discarded. I also hoped it would give him time to decide if he wanted for us to share a future. Looking back now, I wonder if I was so desperate to be with him because dealing with his pain was a distraction from my own. “I will be ready for our future when you return.” I was relieved that he was resolved to sort the situation after all of the emotional angst of the previous months. “Only collect me from the airport if you are sorted,” I urged. The night before my flight he still hadn’t confirmed that he had left her. I needed to know the situation I was walking into: “Sorted?” “Not quite.” I know, not very fair of him, right? Not just to me, but to his partner who must have felt painfully his constant distraction. I had a long-haul flight to dwell on how another month could have elapsed during which he had made regular and frequent contact with me, promising me a future together, only to have let me down again. Jet-lagged and sleep deprived, I sat dejectedly in his car—hardly the homecoming I had hoped for. I might be a programmed people-pleaser, but even I could see this was going to dent my damaged self-esteem even further. “There is no relationship until this is sorted.” I stopped contact with him, but emotionally I hadn’t let it go since the promise of a relationship was still on the table. Eventually, he decided he would see a hypnotherapist. He began telling his painful tale. But it was still not completely told: he gradually moved his stuff out from her place but couldn’t quite tell her the final line of their story: “I have to leave you now.” I didn’t see him for over a year as he tried to muster his final resolve. I knew we three were squirming our way through lonely nights and taut days, as we crawled, emotionally spent, toward the end of our story. I knew that it would involve a final, painful telling of, “It’s over,” from one to the other of us caught in this mess. I had always imagined that it would be him that would make that call to either her or me. This shows just how powerless I felt. It is evident to me now that the three of us were caught in this web for one striking reason: we each didn’t love ourselves enough to withdraw from this damaging situation. I am so grateful that I eventually gave myself enough distance to heal myself properly. I now really understand what people mean when they say you have to be ready for a relationship. I became strong and I learned how to love myself first. So strong that I moved away from my old, unhappy life and took myself on an adventure where I had time and opportunity to listen to my own needs. I had spent months trying to fix a damaged and broken man instead of fixing myself. Many, many months later, when I had a new life and was at the beginnings of a new relationship, he turned up, out of the blue, and asked me to marry him. He hadn’t quite left her yet but would be leaving her that night. It was me who said, “You’re too late. It’s over.” I’m not proud of my part in all of this. But I have forgiven myself as I know I was so emotionally vulnerable when he first came into my life. Following this emotionally exhausting experience, I have learned: You can only heal yourself, you can’t fix others. You will be treated by others as badly as you allow. You are responsible for your own happiness. To let go of the people who have caused you pain. Above all, never wait to start living your life. It was painful to tell you this; to be reminded of how little I valued my own needs, putting his pain above my own and hers too. I am happy to say I now don’t recognize the me that was so damaged and broken. I love myself everyday and I’m delighted to know that “nothing can dim the light that shines from within.” (Maya Angelou) See a typo or inaccuracy? Please contact us so we can fix it!
“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.” ~The Bhagavad Gita Growing up, I couldn’t have been further from my ‘self.’ Early childhood experiences taught me to focus all of my energy externally. To put everyone around me first and to be insatiably attentive to their needs. This kind of thinking instills you with an incredibly low sense of self-worth, disconnects you from your own feelings and desires, and ultimately leaves your happiness pinned to other people. When you have low self-worth, you mostly want to contract away from the world like a turtle. Hiding in your protective shell becomes a way of life because you fear that by revealing who you truly are people will leave, reject, or mock you. A common response from those around me was “Don’t worry! Just be yourself!” When you have low self-worth, “being yourself” isn’t just something that worries you, it’s not something that simply makes you feel uncomfortable. It is quite literally something your brain deciphers as high risk. The act of “being myself” was unbelievably terrifying. I had my guard up all the time and a face for every occasion. In my early twenties, I started to analye my unhealthy thought patterns and tried three different therapists. Each one encouraged me to give a monologue about my life while they vacantly nodded and asked questions such as “How did that make you feel?” It did nothing for me. What I desperately needed was to cultivate a loving relationship with myself. I needed to get to know the girl I had been and the woman I was becoming. To be there for her, to soothe her, and to cheer her on. That’s where yoga came in. There was no single defining moment. My first yoga class didn’t change my life. Neither did the second, the third, or the fourth. Yet, little by little, as I went to more classes and read ancient scripture, I began hearing one important message reiterated over and over again—the importance of looking inward for validation, love, and support. Years of looking outside myself for these things had left my worth precariously hinged to other people, yet once on the mat, with only myself, I was challenged to connect with it all—my own fears, my own desires, and my own needs. Without this step, I couldn’t have moved forward in my life. My yoga practice went deeper when I found yin and restorative; branches of yoga which emphasize gentle support, nourishment, and mindful movement as opposed to any kind of striving or precision. Unlike the sweaty sequences of fast-paced flow classes, yin is a soft, intuitive practice that slowly guides you toward opening up, both physically and emotionally. Poses open your heart and your hips—places where those with low self-worth are often most closed off. Positions such as supported twist and swan can be held for over five minutes, encouraging a deep tissue release whereby tension dissolves out of your body and onto the mat. Meanwhile torso opening poses like butterfly and camel can make you feel totally vulnerable. As you sprawl out across the mat, the urge to close up can be powerful and it’s not unusual to feel emotional. It left me with no choice but to surrender, despite resistance from every cell in my body. Many of the poses in yin yoga are named after animals and insects we associate with peacefulness. The gentle movement of a swan emits a blissful sense of inner peace. The slow-moving ways of a camel and the flutters of a butterfly convey the kind of quiet strength you feel when you finally reach a solid sense of self-worth. When you know you are enough, the need to prove yourself gradually begins to subside, being replaced by a lightness in both the body and the mind. It is this lightness which yoga instils. Similar to yin, restorative yoga aims to center you through both stillness and slow movement. It took all the energy I was relentlessly giving out to the world and brought it back to me. It felt like the first time I’d fully, and completely, focused on my own experience. It felt good. I went to restorative classes on Thursday evenings. I remember the first class I went to vividly because it felt so unnatural. Away from the pace of everyday life, where there are so many opportunities to numb out—with work, TV, socializing—this session involved just four restful poses each held for five to seven minutes. Poses included reclining hero, where you relax your entire body onto a supportive cushion, and bend your knees gently back, and Supta Baddha Konasana—lying with your legs open, feet together and arms left flat to the side. Whatever the pose, the purpose of it was comfort for the body, rest for the mind, and replenishment of the spirit. At the beginning I found this practise excruciating. My body was tense and my muscles were contracted. After years of avoiding myself, I simply couldn’t relax and let go because I was scared. The teacher noticed and he often came over to lightly press my back down onto the mat. Other times, he’d swap the hard cork block I’d picked to hold up my head for the softness of a folded blanket. As with many other yoga teachers, his non-judgemental support provided the safe, gentle push I needed to finally relax into my own body. These simple yet nourishing acts reflect the philosophy of yoga so well, in that the practice has little to do with who can stretch the furthest, the longest, or the most elegantly. Instead, one of the key tenants of yoga is union with yourself. If a pose feels painful, you adjust. If you’ve reached your edge, you pull back. This mantra has been repeated throughout every class I’ve been to, and it’s the most tangible evidence I have of the effect yoga has had on my life. If something feels painfully uncomfortable, out of line with my true nature, I now ask “Why am I doing this? Is it for me, or to please other people?” Chronic people pleasing, in order to gain a sense of self-worth, always felt excruciating to me. It put me at the whim of just about everyone I met. But it was only when I found the teachings of yoga that I realized why it felt so bad and found the courage to change. When you’ve been so far away from yourself and finally connect to your inner being, it can feel overwhelming. The discovery that, I too, existed in the world, and not only that I had needs and feelings that deserved to be heard, but that who I was really, really mattered, was profound. In this way, yoga worked to highlight how prolifically I’d been neglecting myself in a way that talk therapy never even touched upon. I began to engage in radical self-care, I started a soothing inner dialogue, regularly asking myself if I was okay: how did I feel? (as opposed to how others felt). Albeit daunting and uncomfortable at first, I gradually stopped doing things to please others and started revealing every part of myself—the goofy side, the quiet side, the intelligent side. Why? Because my self-worth was inherent, it was within me rather than outside of me, and therefore, I had the safety to be exactly who I was. If you’ve ever struggled with low self-worth, you’ll know that the path to true acceptance is long, tedious, and never linear. It is a one step forward, two steps back process. One where you must wake up every single day and commit to building yourself up rather than down. One where you must silence your inner critic and instead begin to accept every part of yourself—even those which you find unpleasant. By practicing yoga and learning from the principles that underpin it, that path can be made easier, and a whole lot brighter, too. About Caitlin Kelly Caitlin Kelly is a twenty-five-year-old writer living and working in London. She is passionate about yoga and meditation, and the effects they can have on confidence and living in alignment with your authentic self. See a typo or inaccuracy? Please contact us so we can fix it!
“Let no one who loves be unhappy, even love unreturned has its rainbow.” ~James M. Barrie My first experience with unrequited love took place when I was a little kid at swimming lessons. I developed a huge crush on one of the instructors. I don’t remember his name, but I remember the excruciating feeling of absolutely adoring someone who didn’t even know I existed. I wish I could say that this was a one-time experience, but it wasn’t. Sadly, this pattern continued for many years. I seemed to have a radar device installed in my heart that would automatically fixate on the man least likely to return my affections and bam, I had to have him. Only it never worked out. I once spent many painful years pining away for a man I’d been crushing on, even after he’d moved across the country and married someone else. I simply could not get him out of my head. It should be noted that I never had a real relationship with any of these men. I never dated them, kissed them, nothing. I was friends with some of them, but that was it. Perhaps you can relate. You’ve finally met someone special after what seems like an eternity. It’s like finding an oasis in a desert of nothingness and you are beyond excited. It just has to work out with this person, so you immediately go into obsession mode. You have an agenda for this relationship. You know exactly how you want it to go and it needs to happen ASAP. Becoming fixated on someone can be an extremely uncomfortable experience. Insisting on one relationship working out exactly the way you want it to is like trying to put a choke hold on the universe. It simply cannot be done, and trying to do it will only result in frustration. If this is happening to you, see the situation for what it is, look inside for what’s really going on, and be open to the many amazing possibilities life holds for you. It’s tempting to think that this person holds the key to your happiness, but that simply isn’t true. He or she is a human being with imperfections, and you don’t know them very well yet. When you have an intense emotional reaction to someone you don’t know very well, you’re dealing with your own mind, not the other person. When you become infatuated with someone and think that life will be wonderful once you are finally a couple, you place your chances for happiness outside of yourself. Another person can never hold the key to your happiness, and when you believe that they do, you’re giving away your power. Of course, it’s possible that you’ve known the person for a while. He or she may be a colleague or a friend that you’ve developed intense feelings for. Do you infer much more meaning into a simple exchange than is really there out of your own wishful thinking? How much time do you spend analyzing your interactions with this person? Healthy relationships don’t need to be evaluated constantly. If you’re spending a considerable amount of time obsessing about your chances of being in a relationship with someone, stop and ask yourself what’s really going on. It can help to confide in a friend, therapist or coach to get some outside perspective. If you hesitate to do this, ask yourself why. When you become fixated on someone, it can feel confining for the other person. There’s a level of unease, a possessive desperation that can come off as needy or even creepy. You must address the part of you that wants to cling to this person and give it what it needs. That needy part of you has something to teach you, and it’s not about holding on to this relationship. It’s about being at peace with yourself. You cannot hide this by simply playing it cool or following dating rules about when to call or text. This needy energy will leak out of you and repel the other person. Don’t berate yourself about it; instead, listen to yourself with compassion and love. What is it that you’re not facing? Do you resist the idea that you’re responsible for your own happiness? Are you hoping that a wonderful romance will take the edge off the pain of a less-than-stellar career or boost your confidence? What do you hope that this person can give you that you don’t have now? Confidence? Love? The knowledge that you are special? What can you do to give yourself what you need? Whatever it is, you’ll never be able to get it from another person. Take care of this within yourself and you’ll feel much better. Trust that there is someone else out there for you and you will meet him or her when the time is right. There are so many people in this world. This is not the last eligible person you will ever encounter. If this relationship does not work out the way you’d like it to, trust that things happen for a reason and move on. When you’ve gotten stuck on one person, it’s the perfect opportunity to examine what’s happening inside of you. Life has dished you up a generous helping of potential self-discovery, so welcome the lesson as much as possible and learn everything you can. You’ll be so glad you did. If you dig in and see the situation for what it is, instead of waiting for your would-be lover to come to his or her senses, you stand a much better chance for happiness. All of my heart-wrenching experiences with unrequited love led me to so much growth and self-discovery. I came to see that my fantasy relationships with these men were my way of protecting my heart. I was alone, but I was sure that it wasn’t my fault; it was theirs for not wanting me. If only they’d see how great I was, everything would be fine. I was not opening myself to love by insisting that love could only come from one person. Once I was able to really see that, and to truly love myself, I never had another experience like that again. Every relationship and circumstance can bring you closer to the love you want if you open up and allow yourself to learn as much as possible. Love can come from so many sources. Don’t close yourself off. Be open to life, to alternatives, to possibilities. — This week only, you can get Renée’s Course, How to Find the Love You Want, along with 19 other powerful online tools, for 95% off in Tiny Buddha’s Best You, Best Life Bundle. If you’re frustrated with dating and are ready for a loving relationship, check it out here. See a typo or inaccuracy? Please contact us so we can fix it!
“Any relationship that could be ‘ruined’ by having a conversation about feelings, standards, or expectations wasn’t really firm enough anyway, so there isn’t much to ruin.” ~Unknown So many of us believe that not expressing ourselves is a noble thing to do. We get to feel stoic and in control. Others get emotional and overwhelmed while we can keep it together. The idea that we are strong because we don’t express our feelings is also socially reinforced, so we keep doing it because it’s the right thing to do, right? Not quite. In my previous article “The Negative Impact of Not Feeling Your Feelings,” I explained how feelings are not problems or evidence that we are broken but merely there to guide us toward greater well-being. They are a reflection of our state of mind, and they try to alert us when we engage in unhelpful or even harmful thinking. We then have the opportunity to realign with what’s good, healthy, and nurturing for us. Based on the many questions and messages I received following that article, I now want to explore what happens to our relationships when we withhold our truth and inhibit our feelings. So, first of all we need to look at what is required to create a healthy and loving relationship. Relationships thrive in an environment of emotional safety, openness, and authenticity. This means that both people involved need to feel safe with each other, be safe for each other, and be willing to express themselves openly and authentically. Many of us did not grow up in households where this was allowed or possible. We learned that expressing ourselves can lead to humiliation, shaming, and rejection. This kind of distress can be unbearable for a child, so we learned to inhibit ourselves. But what keeps us safe as children usually negatively impacts our lives as adults. Inhibition now stops us from creating healthy relationships and developing true intimacy, something most of us value more than anything else. We inhibit ourselves every time we do not speak up or stand up for ourselves. In relationships, we often inhibit ourselves by hiding our feelings and therefore withholding what is true for us. We go along with what the other person wants whether we really want to or not. This is a direct block to intimacy. When we are not open or honest with what we are feeling and what is going on for us, we deprive others of the opportunity to really get to know us. However, we only do this because we believe that this is the way to be in relationships. It’s part of our relationship blueprint, the model of relationship we’ve inherited and internalized. In our eyes, we do what is right and what is required to maintain a connection. It is, after all, the very thing that allowed us to maintain our attachment bond during childhood. We learned that in order to have a relationship, we must not express ourselves or share our feelings. We believe that our feelings are problems for others and expressing them would threaten the relationship, and that’s the thing we don’t want to lose. So, by that logic, inhibition is the way to go. And that is true for unhealthy, superficial, or unfulfilling relationships. It just doesn’t work if you want to have healthy, intimate, fun, and overall life-enhancing relationships. I learned this the hard way … All my life I struggled to express myself in relationships. I struggled to ask for what I wanted and express how I felt. I didn’t communicate or set boundaries but felt betrayed if they were disrespected or violated. I had lots of different expectations that I never shared but felt absolutely heartbroken if they weren’t met. In my eyes, I was easy to be with because I didn’t ask for anything. I didn’t complain and I wasn’t demanding. I didn’t nag. I kept my feelings to myself and avoiding confrontation and conflict. But I could only believe that because I was not aware of the consequences of my behavior, which in the end would lead to the breakdown of my relationships. Not expressing myself in my relationships meant that I did not consider myself. This in itself is a disastrous starting point because a relationship requires two healthy participating individuals. There simply is no relationship if one person is pretty much non-existent. But not considering myself also put pressure on my partner to consider me in a way that was highly unrealistic. Knowing what I know now, this was never his sole responsibility. It was always mine. It is my job in a relationship to stand in my truth and express it so that my partner and I can co-create a relationship that works for both of us. It is also pretty impossible to consider someone well enough when you don’t know what they want or how they feel because they simply don’t share that with you. So this was a strategy that was never going to work. However, at that time in my life, I believed that my partner should know what I wanted or how I felt without me having to express it. A fatal lie of the mind. In healthy relationships, we teach each other about ourselves. We teach each other as we continuously grow and change by expressing what is going on for us. We tell each other what we like and what we don’t like. We share our feelings and how we impact upon each other. We are open to each other’s feedback so we can adjust if we choose to do so. This is how we create an environment for ourselves and each other that is nurturing, respectful, and loving. It is a perfect environment for well-being and growth, but it is one we must create ourselves by expressing what is true for us. There simply is no other way. We often stop ourselves from expressing what is true for us to keep the peace and maintain the relationship, but a relationship that cannot handle your truth is not a relationship you should be in. As adults, we are not dependent on any one person the way we were dependent as children. Our survival is no longer dependent on a caregiver. We now depend on ourselves. Our well-being depends on us making wise choices for ourselves, and that includes the people we choose to have in our lives. Those people should be people who are safe for us and who love the full version of us. I used to believe that withholding my truth by inhibiting my feelings and desires meant that I was a good partner and easy to be with. I felt good about the role I was playing. I thought I did the right thing. It also allowed me to keep relationships going. But I kept relationships going that weren’t meant for me (and quite possibly not for my partners either). I presented a version of myself that was inauthentic. I did not contribute myself—not fully, not authentically. I withheld my truth and in doing so, I deprived my partners of truly choosing me. They got the superficial version of me. A Stepford Wife version that was a lie. It was dishonest. I didn’t understand that a healthy relationship requires openness, authenticity and honest self-expression. That was something that has never been part of my relationship blueprint. It was not something that had ever been allowed or encouraged in the past. And so, I followed my pattern. I desperately wanted a healthy relationship, but it looked like it just wasn’t going to happen for me. I couldn’t have what I wanted because I didn’t ask for it, and others didn’t consider me because I didn’t provide them with anything to consider. I relied on their guesses, which were usually wrong. I put my responsibility for my own well-being onto my partners and made myself dependent on their best guesses, which was never going to work out well for anyone. I am now a fierce advocate for self-expression. Self-expression as a way to well-being and healthy connections. Self-expression as an expression of self-care, self-respect, and self-love. Self-expression as the gateway to real, raw, and deep intimacy. Maybe, like ‘old me’, you believe that censoring yourself and inhibiting your feelings is good for your partner or your relationship. Maybe you feel stronger or tougher for doing so. Maybe you’ve never given it any thought before, and that’s okay. But please know that you are worthy of expressing yourself. You need to take up space. Your feelings and desires matter. They can’t matter to anyone if they don’t matter to you first. A healthy relationship requires you to be in it. All of you. You cannot experience deep connection and intimacy if you are not there for it. You cannot make good partner choices if you’re not honest with yourself or consider yourself. It is time to free yourself from old patterns that stop you from getting the love you want. It’s time to finally let yourself be heard and be seen. And all of that starts with you. Say yes to self-expression! Get honest with yourself about how you feel and what you want and don’t want. That is how you become safe for yourself and safe to be in a healthy relationship with. About Marlena Tillhon-Haslam Marlena loves people and life and is passionate about finding ways to make our human experience as fulfilling as possible. She works as a psychotherapist, relationship coach, and Clinical Director. She loves to connect on Instagram or via her Love with Clarity and Codependency Today Facebook groups and pages. She is an expert in human relationships and sees them as the lifeblood of a meaningful existence. See a typo or inaccuracy? Please contact us so we can fix it!
“The most painful thing is losing yourself in the process of loving someone too much and forgetting that you are special too.” ~Ernest Hemingway At Eagle Point Elementary, where I went for third grade, there was one very cute boy. Jason was the object of affection for seemingly every third-grade girl. He would make a list each day of the five girls he thought were the cutest. The list changed every day. Whoever took the top spot for the day was the girl Jason decided he was “going with.” (Was “going with” a thing in everyone’s elementary school or just in suburban Minnesota? What did that even mean?) I still remember the elation when I edged out my friend Caroline for the top spot. It was short-lived. Caroline was tough to beat. My dad got wind of this top five system and sat me down to say, “Never wait to be in somebody’s top spot. If you have to convince someone of how great you are, they shouldn’t be in your top spot.” I opted out of the competition the next day. Adults are subtler than Jason was, but my father’s “top spot” lesson was a valuable one. In my twenties, I dated a guy who ran cold and hot with me, leaving me insecure and obsessing over the relationship. Heeding my dad’s warning, I ended things abruptly. It was initially very painful, and I questioned if I had pulled the plug too quickly. But within a few months, I realized there was no happy future with this person—he either didn’t care enough about me or was incapable of a secure intimate relationship. Either way, I had dodged a bullet. Here is a scenario I see play out often in my psychotherapy practice: You meet someone and fall in love. After about a year of dating, you’re eager to marry and have children. Your partner is happy in the relationship, but not ready to move forward. Initially, you’re patient and sympathetic. But by the end of year two, you’re frustrated about putting your life on hold while your partner is “figuring things out.” Frequently, when you seem to have reached the end of your rope and appear ready to walk away, your partner begs for more time. By year four, you’re vacillating between rage and panic, but you feel like this has to work out because you can’t bear the thought of starting over with someone new. During year five, your partner announces they might never want to get married or have kids. In fact, they’d like to start seeing other people. If you’ve ever found yourself in love with a commitment-avoidant person, you know it can be hard to tell when to be patient and when to pull the plug. Do you walk away from someone you love just because you have different timelines? How much time do you give your partner to decide whether they are in or out? In other words, should you stay or should you go? Does any of this sound familiar? “He won’t commit because he’s still getting over his first marriage, but if I can hang in, he’s going to see how good I am for him.” “She had a traumatic childhood and doesn’t trust men, so it’s tough for her to be faithful. But she’s working on it.” “We’ve been together for five years, but he’s still not sure. He says he’ll know when he knows.” If so, let’s look at how you got here, why you stay, and what you can do next. Your parents give you your first example of how to give and receive love. Unfortunately, sometimes they’re not the best role models, especially when it comes to relationships. Did one parent prioritize work above everything and never make time for you? Or did you feel valued as long as you followed the rules and were easy-going, but shunned when you were struggling or needed extra attention? This treatment teaches you that the people you love aren’t reliable, that you’re ‘too much’ for people to love consistently, or that you aren’t valued as much as their work, their hobbies, or the other people in their lives. But what if you had terrific, consistent, loving parents? Maybe you even really admire their relationship and dream of having a similar one yourself. Then what? Look at your early romantic relationships. These can provide a prototype, for better or worse, for your future connections. Say, for example, that your high school boyfriend told you he loved you but blew you off to hang out with his friends at every opportunity. Or your first girlfriend cheated on you repeatedly. Our brains can lock into the idea that this is how love is supposed to feel. A different but equally tricky scenario is that you had no early romantic life to speak of. You feel like you’ve never been chosen as the special one. In this case, you might feel like you’re lucky to get any attention at all, and that you’d better not be too demanding. If this sounds like you, you may have an “anxious attachment” style. Someone healthily attached may strongly prefer to be in a relationship and may feel they are at their best when coupled up, but would rather be alone than stay in a relationship where their needs are not met. If you are anxiously attached, any relationship, no matter how unsatisfying, is better than being alone. In his 2012 book Attached, psychiatrist and neuroscientist Amir Levine writes, “Basically, secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving; anxious people crave intimacy, are often preoccupied with their relationships, and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back; avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and constantly try to minimize closeness.” I wish I could tell you that if you do everything right and handle yourself correctly, the scales will drop from your lover’s eyes, and you’ll be in the top spot. But that’s probably what you’re already doing, and it’s not working. There’s no magic formula for getting someone off the fence, but here are some ideas to keep in mind: 1. Don’t bet your future on someone else’s potential. People do grow and change throughout a relationship. However, after the first year or so, a desire to share one’s life, the depth of one’s feelings, and enthusiasm about committing to you probably won’t grow exponentially. Is what you are getting now enough for you? In her bestselling book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, a writer who has extensively chronicled her own relationships, writes “I have fallen in love more times than I care to count with the highest potential of a man, rather than with the man himself, and I have hung on to the relationship for a long time (sometimes far too long) waiting for the man to ascend to his own greatness. Many times in romance I have been a victim of my own optimism.” Be realistic. Is the person in front of you who you really want? Or are you waiting for them to conform to your fantasy of who they could be? 2. Sometimes you have to make clear what you can or cannot accept. Ultimatums have gotten a reputation of being akin to bullying, manipulating, or otherwise strong-arming someone into bending to your will. Ambivalent partners often feel victimized when faced with an ultimatum. They don’t want to want to be pressured to change the status quo and to risk either stepping up or losing the relationship. But often that’s precisely what needs to happen. Everyone should have a bottom line regarding what they want from a partner in a relationship. If you communicate your wants and your partner ignores them or can’t meet them, you should leave. Honoring what’s non-negotiable for you is the cornerstone of healthy self-esteem. A long-married couple I know likes to tell a story about the first night they were married. As they settled into bed that night, the man confided, as he had many times before, that he was having doubts; maybe they’d married too quickly. This time, his new wife looked him dead in the eye and said, “Why don’t you get out right now and you come back once you’ve figured it out.” It wasn’t the first time he had expressed ambivalence about the relationship, but it was the last. “That night straightened me out,” says the man, laughing. 3. Is there any hope at all? Sometimes the person having trouble committing recognizes that they have a problem and wants to work toward change. They might feel that the issue is their anxiety, trauma, or relationship history. If they are genuinely working to figure it out, that might be a reason to hang on to a relationship somewhat longer. But there should be a time limit on how long you’re willing to orient your life around someone while your own needs are not being met. Talking this through with a trusted third party, like a therapist, can be very helpful in this scenario. Commitment Isn’t the Finish Line—It’s the Starting Gate Do you want to stake your future on someone who you have to convince to be with you? It’s important to note that a healthily attached person can become anxiously attached if they spend too long with an avoidant partner. The worst-case scenario isn’t a break-up; it’s spending years of your life with someone incapable of being ‘all in’ a relationship. Say your partner doesn’t want to lose you but isn’t interested in changing the underlying dynamics of the relationship, either. Then you’ll find yourself tethered to someone incapable of real intimacy, who sulks in the face any expectations, and who is incapable of prioritizing you and your happiness. You will (sort of) have the commitment, but no closeness or trust. This is the worst outcome. How is your story going to end? The answer depends on your tolerance for speaking up for yourself, and your willingness to risk being on your own. Don’t let your partner leach away your time, self-esteem, and happiness. Our lives are determined by the quality of our relationships. Hold out for the partner who unequivocally puts you at the top of their list. About Tonya Lester Tonya Lester, LCSW is a psychotherapist in Brooklyn, NY. She specializes in relationships, anxiety, and parenting. She believes a good life is filled with purpose, curiosity and, most importantly, meaningful connections. You can find out more about her on her website, www.tonyalester.com. You can also follow her on Instagram at tonyalesterpsychotherapy. See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!
“Death is indeed a fearful piece of brutality; there is no sense pretending otherwise. It is brutal not only as a physical event, but far more so psychically: a human being is torn away from us, and what remains is the icy stillness of death. There no longer exists any hope of a relationship, for all the bridges have been smashed at one blow.” ~Carl Jung I’m at a dinner party with friends when I begin an engaging conversation with a woman I haven’t met before. Music plays softly in the background as our conversation touches on many different topics. She begins to tell me about a difficult situation she recently faced and how her sister supported her through it. I listen intently while she gushes about how lucky she is. “Life just wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t have her,” she looks at me and smiles. I take a sip of my red wine, her words piercing my heart. There’s a silence and I wonder if now would be a good time to tell her that I too have a sister. But instead, I gently change the subject. Often we never know what emotional wound we’ve reopened in others. How could we? The cuts and bruises of our own psyche are concealed so well behind earnest smiles and fake laughs. It makes me wonder how often I accidentally hurt others by bringing up the very thing they are trying to move on from. This particular conversation happens to come in October when my heart prepares for another anniversary of my sister’s death. Each year when this date comes around, I feel compelled to commemorate it in some sort of grand, meaningful way. But I struggle to think of anything that could ever be enough. Unfortunately, the comforting sentiment “time heals all wounds” doesn’t really apply when it comes to grief. At least not for me, or my parents. Together, we live in a world that still contains my sister. We re-live memories and laugh about the good times while the rest of the world seems to forget. It’s not that we are stuck in a permanent state of agony, we’ve just learned to adjust. I suppose the parallel could be like the adjustment to losing a limb. No matter how much time passes you will always remember what it felt like to run and jump and play, and how you can’t do that anymore. Some days you might particularly sad about it, other days it’s a bit more manageable. It seems like a human tendency to crave simplicity and a linear, systematic approach to grief. The infamous Elisabeth Kübler-Ross model has been widely misunderstood in assuming that grief passes in chronological order. But anyone who has experienced it knows that it’s a tangled up mess that slides backward and forwards. Especially on anniversaries. Everything about the time of year when the person we loved died can trigger us. It’s that familiar smell in the air, the change of seasons, a song on the radio—and in an instant, we are back to the day when we found out. It reawakens the shock we experienced all over again. The mind always wants a quick fix to move on, but the heart will never forget. So we tell ourselves that we’re fine, everything is fine. Meanwhile, our body surges with depression, guilt, loneliness, anxiety, irritability, anger, as well as physical symptoms from sleeplessness, unusual dreams, headaches, lack of appetite, difficulty concentrating or an increase in distressing memories. So, what do we do? It’s been six years since my sister died, and I’m still stunned by how powerful a force grief can be. No matter how fine I might think I feel, the pain of loss is still locked inside my body and I can’t quite find the keys to let it out. I’ve yet to find something that brings peace and connection to my sister. In the past I’ve tried to force the day by hurrying it along, only to find out that this never works. I’m now attempting to lean into the grief to truly understand it so that one day I can work in bereavement and help others. Here are some ideas that could help. Do something your loved one liked to do. My sister loved many things: animals, hiking, traveling, nature, and most of all, art. She was an incredibly talented artist. She would often spend hours drawing, painting, or collaging. I’m currently studying art therapy and while doing a collaging exercise in class, I felt this strong connection to my sister. After about thirty minutes the teacher told us it break for lunch, but I couldn’t stop. While the others left, I carried on as if I was in a trance. I felt so connected to my sister that it just about brought tears to my eyes. Create a physical reminder. When someone we love dies, it’s only in our minds or in our dreams where we can visit them. Having something physical that you can see can be healing. You could plant a tree in their honor. Watching the tree grow over the years allows for a physical reminder of them. Or you could plant flowers (or buy them if you aren’t into gardening) and create your own beautiful bouquet for your eyes to enjoy as a symbolic reminder of the transience of all beings. Flowers, like us, are only here for a short time. Remembering that could help us to accept mortality and enjoy the time we have while we are alive. Another idea could be to plant a veggie garden. Every moment would be a chance to connect to the loved one and once the garden is in full bloom, ripe with delicious vegetables, a meal can be enjoyed and you can give thanks for them for ‘helping’ in their own supernatural way. Write a letter. Often people say they can’t write but everyone can. It’s just the same reaction as handing someone a paintbrush and them saying, “Oh, no, I can’t paint.” Adults tend to hide behind “can’t’s” or “not good at’s” because we were told once that we weren’t good at it. But it’s not about being good at anything. It’s about healing your heart. A lot of pain from loss is around all the things we want to talk about and all the things that the person we love is missing out on. A friend of mine once said that she has continued to have conversations with her dad who died. It’s helped her immensely to talk with him in her own imaginary way, finding guidance on issues he always helped her with. So whether you talk out loud, or want to keep it a letter is completely up to you. Either way, it gives you a chance to release all the things you wanted to say. If the thought of it makes you feel uncomfortable, bring it up with your counselor and they will develop a plan that works for you. Set aside alone time. If you need to, take the day off. If you think, “Ah, I can’t do that…” then let me ask if you would go into work when you had the flu? Hopefully, the answer would be no. Grief is similar to the flu but instead of being a contagious respiratory illness, it’s a pain erupting from the heart and soul. Both need some inner tender loving care. Respect your body, respect your healing, and take some time for yourself. Accept the sheer power of grief. Many people mistakenly believe that grief is a single emotion. In actuality, it’s a powerful response that shakes us emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. It is a natural and normal process that all human beings must face when dealing with loss. As much as we may think we can outsmart it by ignoring or pushing it down, it will always find other ways to seep through. Accepting these raw and powerful feelings to flow through your body can be unbelievably painful. I sometimes think of it as an emotional storm. When nature breaks down in a thunderous rage with bolts of lightning, we all flee undercover. In these moments, I respect nature’s honest and vulnerable display of despair and pain. For me, it’s a reminder that we are all like nature, we all experience inner hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. No matter how extreme, they always pass. But we need to get out of the way and allow it through. Moving Forward No matter what happens to us in life, it moves on. We can be left with the most earth-shattering anguish and still find that the sun will rise for a new day. I know very well how unbelievably painful it can be to see the world carry on as you are left gasping for air. We all walk our own unique paths on the road to healing. No matter how much time has passed, our loved ones will always remain inside our hearts. They are the guiding lights that keep us moving forward, and I can’t think of a better way to pay tribute to those we loved and lost than to fill the world with even more compassion and gentle kindness. About Kimberly Hetherington Kimberly Hetherington is a Canadian writer and practicing Transpersonal Art Therapist based in Sydney, Australia. Her website, Life After Elizabeth is a tribute to her sister who died in the fall of 2013. The website is about healing after loss, self-discovery, ending the stigma of mental illness, and exploring how we can be the best version of ourselves we can be. See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!
“Let go of the need to control the outcome. Trust the process. Trust your intuition. Trust yourself.” ~Unknown I was talking with a friend one day at work, and we were discussing dating and the rejection that comes with that and the sense of failure and disappointment. We were talking about how we struggle to even get close to dating someone because we get in our own way, and our thoughts stop us from moving forward because we’re scared. We’re scared, so we blow the situation up with our inability to sit with the uneasiness of not knowing what the other person’s intentions are and whether or not this new potential partner can be trusted. We second-guess, we doubt their intentions, and we worry about where the relationship may be going. We assume and we make stories up in our heads and ask random and abrupt questions out of nowhere hoping to get an answer to end our anxiety-ridden suffering. Just recently I was rejected by a guy I wanted to know more about because I pushed for answers and for things to move faster than he may have been ready for. I struggled to let things evolve naturally because I feared the unknown and felt uncomfortable with my uneasiness. I’ve since begun dating again and putting myself out there, but I continuously find that I sabotage any potential relationship before it even becomes a relationship because my thoughts get in the way. But also because the hurt child within myself, who feels scared when she is vulnerable, repels all that may be good for her to return to what is familiar, the aloneness. Because there, she can’t be hurt. However, through this process I continue to hurt myself deeply. Time and time again this has happened, and I find it extremely frustrating and annoying to be stuck in this loop. Rejection I also find that when I am rejected it’s like this insurmountable blow to my hurt inner child, and I take the rejection personally, as though there is something within me that isn’t good enough. Or I feel as though I have done something wrong and that’s why they’ve rejected me. It struggles to come to me that we simply are not compatible or that it just wasn’t meant to be. The rejection runs all the way to the hurt child within, and I struggle to reconcile this within myself. Sense of Failure I then interpret this rejection as a personal failure on my part, since I wasn’t calm and open enough to allow things to evolve naturally. I feel bad about myself because I failed to be out of my head and in my heart, and I allowed my hurt inner child to once again to take over, consume my thoughts, and overrule rational thought. It’s frustrating for me that I keep struggling to stay calm and let things just be in flow since I’ve been trying to master for some time now. Recovery However, I know that this isn’t what I want to do anymore, and I know that one day I will master this sense of calm within the uneasiness life tends to bring, and I will have the loving relationship I so desire. If we recognize our patterns and work on the underlying issues, it’s just a matter of time till we see progress. I am not scared to keep trying and to keep putting myself out there. Even though I was recently rejected, I’m proud of myself for taking a chance, stepping out from my comfort zone, and breaking down the façade I’ve built up over the years. I’m also proud that during my interactions with this man, I was engaged, present with what was occurring right in front of me, and from that I take note that every step forward is one more step in the right direction. I’m also trying to focus in on the now and to stop my thoughts from running away from me. Yes, the man I was hoping to develop a relationship with has retreated, but I see that I am okay and that my world has not fallen apart because one man has rejected me, so I know I will be able to try again. I focus on what I have in my life to be grateful for, and I’ve been flooding my brain with positive affirmations and remembering my daily mantra that “I am deserving.” I know that I am a smart, brilliant, and amazing woman who has had a phenomenal journey of healing and recovery and who is simply trying to do her best with this new hurdle. I continue to reiterate this message to myself, and my level of rejection and sense of failure continue to improve as time goes on. I look at how far I have come and the growth that has occurred in the past year, and I am pleased to see that I now have trust within myself, to where I am at least comfortable to put myself out there in the dating world. I will continue trying not to force things so relationships can naturally evolve as they will. I know this will happen for me. I just need to keep trusting myself and keep showing up for me. Have you ever felt scared and uneasy at the beginning of a relationship? What helps you relax, let go, and let things happen? About Emma Junhankit Emma was a social worker who worked with children in state care and asylum seekers for eight years. She recently made the decision to take a leap of faith and follow her instincts, to find her true purpose in life. She has completed her 200-hour yoga teacher training and is now a certified yoga teacher. Emma has relocated from Australia to island living, in Koh Samui Thailand. She's extremely excited to see where this journey takes her. You can follow her on Instagram here. See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!
I love the holidays. I eagerly anticipate the first snowfall, adore the scent of pine, and watch It’s A Wonderful Life every year without fail. That said, even the merriest among us know that the holidays can be emotionally, physically, and psychologically taxing. In addition to buying gifts, negotiating travel plans, and shuttling from gathering to gathering, many of us spend extended time with our families—and every family, no matter how loving, has its fair share of challenges. When these difficult family dynamics combine with holiday-season stress, we may find ourselves at a crossroads. Do we burn out, freak out, and spend the holidays in a state of discomfort? Or do we set boundaries around our time, space, and energy? Setting Boundaries With Family Members For many of us, breaking the people-pleasing pattern and setting boundaries poses a unique challenge. Personally, I was taught that my value lay in how much I gave, and so speaking up for myself—or setting limits on my giving—at first felt mean and inconsiderate. Setting boundaries among family members can be doubly challenging. For years, we may have felt burdened by unspoken expectations that have made it hard to put our own needs first. For most of my life, I struggled to set boundaries with my parents because they raised me, fed me, clothed me, and supported me financially until I reached adulthood. At first, it was hard to instate boundaries because I felt I owed them everything. Likewise, many parents would leap out in front of a train for their kids, and many siblings would go to great lengths to keep one another safe and happy. As a parent or sibling, you may feel obligated to offer your time, money, space, or energy without limitation. Boundaries illuminate and challenge these unspoken expectations. Whereas before you may have been the resident people-pleaser or over-giver, setting boundaries changes your role in your family system. They enable you to prioritize your own needs and give at a sustainable rate. Boundaries can protect your material possessions, your emotions, your physical space, or your spiritual beliefs. They are not “mean.” They simply draw a line between what belongs to you and what belongs to others. As I prepare to have difficult conversations about boundaries, I like to keep these four key principles in mind: When we refuse to set a boundary, we prioritize other people’s comfort over our own needs. Setting boundaries is a courageous act of putting ourselves first. It’s a great way to break the people-pleasing habit and practice the art of self-care and verbal self-defense. Difficult honesty is not unkindness. It’s not mean to stand up for yourself. It’s actually the most truthful and authentic way to interact with others. You can manage your boundaries or manage other people’s feelings, but you can’t do both. The bottom line is, your boundaries might make people feel frustrated or resentful. That burden is not yours to bear. Other people are not mind-readers. Don’t expect them to be. There is no shame in directly asking for your feelings to be acknowledged or your needs to be met. Even our loved ones need ongoing instruction in how to care for us because we are always changing—as are our needs and boundaries. This holiday season, practice setting boundaries in your family to give yourself the gift of feeling joyful, peaceful, and empowered. Here are some common holiday scenarios in which boundaries might come in handy: Example #1: It’s okay not to go home for the holidays. Maybe your adult children have finally fled the nest and you want to spend the holiday in Cancun with your spouse. Maybe you want to visit your fiancé’s family instead of your own. Maybe home is a toxic environment and you’d prefer to stay home and enjoy the company of your dog, Bobo. You are not selfish for wanting to spend the holidays in the way you’d like. You are allowed to have desires that differ from your parents’ or siblings’. You are allowed to have a different understanding of what makes the “perfect” holiday. It can be tough to buck traditions that have been in your family for decades. Sometimes, finding the right language is the hardest part. My favorite way to communicate a boundary is the “I-statement” approach developed by clinical psychologist Thomas Gordon in 1970. It centers your feelings and experiences, reduces the likelihood of defensiveness in the listener, and offers concrete suggestions for change. Here’s how it works: I feel _________________________________________. When you _____________________________________. Because _______________________________________. I need ________________________________________. In the case offered above, you might try this: “I feel sad and overwhelmed when I come home for Christmas because there’s a lot of unresolved tension in our family. I need to spend a peaceful Christmas on my own this year.” Example #2: It’s okay to need a break if you’re hosting. Holiday hosting is no small feat. In my extended family, Christmas Eve was always a bonanza, complete with platters of hors d’oeuvres, mountains of gifts, and screaming kiddos hopped up on Neapolitan cookies. My grandma, our gracious hostess, would start preparing the moment summer vacation was over. It was a big deal. Whether you’re hosting the extended family for one evening or hosting your kids for two weeks, you are offering your time, space, and energy in a big way. It’s taxing for your nervous system and your body, and it’s okay to take a break. “Taking a break” might mean spending a day by yourself, enjoying an afternoon nap, or outsourcing host responsibilities for an hour in the midst of the party. Try this: I feel stressed when I host the family for Christmas Eve because it’s a ton of work to cook the food, mingle with guests, and clean up afterwards. I need someone to help me clean up when the guests start to leave. Example #3: It’s okay to need alone time if you’re visiting. Visiting entails fewer responsibilities than hosting, but it’s not always a walk in the park. As a visitor, you’re out of your comfort zone. You’re in a new environment, away from your routines and creature comforts. Even if you haven’t seen the folks you’re mingling with in months or years, it’s perfectly normal to take some time to be alone. Try this: I feel overwhelmed by the non-stop festivities when I visit for Christmas because I’m used to having a lot of time to myself at home. I need one day where I can be alone so I can rest and recharge. Example #4: It’s okay to disengage in controversial conversations. Despite the litany of horror stories that illustrate the dangers of talking politics/religion/etc. around the dinner table, some of our loved ones can’t seem to help themselves. I know from personal experience: Some family members get a kick out of instigating uncomfortable conversations. This year, you don’t have to choose between entering a heated conversation or forcing a chuckle on the sidelines. You can set a boundary that simultaneously protects your values and limits your involvement. Try this: I feel uncomfortable when you talk about politics over Thanksgiving dinner because it creates an atmosphere of tension. Let’s change the conversation to something less controversial so we can enjoy one another’s company. Example #5: It’s okay not to be okay with your family’s dynamics. Every member of every family changes over time. Habits or routines that you loved as a child might not feel comfortable as you get older. Certain family tensions may have worsened as the years have passed. Bottom line? Just because you accepted these behaviors and dynamics before does not mean you need to accept them now. Maybe your brother always comments on your weight, and you’d really like him to stop. Maybe your grandmother constantly asks you why you’re going to school for music instead of medicine. Maybe certain family members get really drunk at your annual Christmas party and, this year, you’re not comfortable with them attending. By addressing these discomforts in a straightforward manner, you can give yourself the gift of prioritizing your own feelings and needs. But What If They Don’t Like My Boundaries? The question I get most often is, “Okay, so I set a boundary. But what if they don’t like it? What if they don’t do what I ask?” Your family members might not like your boundaries. Your boundaries may activate their deepest fears and insecurities, and they might wonder, “Does she still love me? Is he angry? What does this mean for our relationship?” Your family members may get angry or upset. They may need time to adjust. They may even use guilt in an attempt to make you change your mind. It’s important to enter these challenging conversations with realistic expectations for how your loved ones may react. Preparing for surprise, anger, or sadness will make it easier to hold firm to your boundary when faced with resistance. During the conversation, acknowledge that your boundary may be difficult to hear. This helps your loved one feel seen and included in the process. I also like to offer positive alternatives to the behaviors I’m trying to quelch. I want to make clear to my loved ones that I care about our relationship and I’m willing to work to find ways of interacting that feel good for both of us. For example: “I will be staying at a hotel when I come home for Christmas this year. I would love to carve out a day to spend together, just the two of us.” “Talking about this topic is difficult for me. Can we change the conversation? I’d love to hear how work’s been going for you.” “It’s really important to me that I meet my need for alone time. That said, time with you is really important to me. Can we work together to find a balance that works for both of us?” Sometimes, no matter how firmly you hold to your boundary, others will be unwilling to change. Perhaps you express that your brother’s toxic behavior is no longer acceptable to you, but he carries on anyhow. Perhaps you explain that you’re no longer willing to host the annual holiday party, but nobody else steps up to volunteer. You cannot change other people. You only have control over your own reactions and behavior. Sometimes, you may have to choose between tolerating the unacceptable behavior or evacuating the environment (e.g., not attending the family’s holiday gathering, ceasing contact with a family member altogether, etc.) Though deeply challenging, making the bold decision to evacuate a toxic environment is a phenomenal act of self-care. Organizations like Stand Alone offer support and community to individuals who have had to make that difficult decision, and can be a wonderful resource this time of year. — Remember: you can simultaneously set boundaries and be loving, compassionate, and kind. You can sit with your loved one’s pain, hold space for their reaction, and reiterate how much they mean to you—all while making clear that your boundary is non-negotiable. It takes a great deal of courage to speak up and alter old ways of relating to others, especially in your family. Every time you set a boundary, you bring your outer world into alignment with your inner needs. It is a gift that only youcan give yourself—and a gift unlike any other. About Hailey Magee Hailey Magee is a Certified Codependency Recovery Coach who helps individuals find inner freedom by breaking free from codependency, setting healthy boundaries, and speaking their truth. Sign up for a complimentary, 30-minute consultation to learn how codependency recovery can radically transform your life and relationships. You can follow Hailey on Facebook and Instagram or visit her website, www.haileymagee.com. See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!
“Being willing to accept responsibility for the situation you’re in is the first step to a more fulfilling love life.” ~Renée Suzanne Remember the haunting ballad “Foolish Games” by Jewel? Jewel wrote the song when she was sixteen. She kept a serious journal, and said in an interview that a verse in the song was “about a relationship that I was dramatically involved in on paper.” That pretty much sums up my first relationship, which was a dramatic pseudo-relationship in many ways. I was sixteen going on seventeen, hopelessly romantic yet shrewdly skeptical of love at the same time. My emotions were wild and intense, and that was what I thought “real love” felt like. This drama followed me throughout the few but memorable relationships I had in my twenties. When a partner was rude to me or put me down, I’d think that I somehow deserved it or that it was a challenge to do better with a quick-witted comeback. I’d tell myself that the other person needed “space” to “calm down,” without giving as much care or thought to what I really wanted or needed. Mind games and second-guessing are part and parcel of an unstable relationship. As Anita wrote in a forum comment: “Maybe you are testing him each time you withdraw—will he go after me?” In my mind, I’d rationalize it as the need to be “reaffirmed” that I was really what the person was looking for in an ideal partner. All of the unstable relationships I was in ultimately failed. In hindsight, it’s no wonder why! I had constantly attracted and been attracted to partners who lacked commitment, reliability, and emotional stability. Things would blow hot and cold on a regular basis in either direction (“She’s So Cold,” by The Rolling Stones, was yet another song with lyrics I could relate to). When I reached my early thirties, I started putting in more effort to break out of these negative relationship patterns. I realized that I had to accept responsibility for being in horrible relationship situations that I thought no wise and sane person would ever put up with. I’d like to share what I learned in the hopes that my experience may help someone else who’s desperately trying to move forward from a troubled dating history. 5 Lessons About Breaking Unhealthy Relationship Patterns 1. Observe your thoughts and their actions. When I observed myself, I noticed that my own thoughts about love and relationships were full of negative or anxious associations. I believed that it was close to impossible to be in a healthy relationship or that I would always be attracted to unstable types. This anxiety carried over into my behavior on a daily basis. I was always skeptical to the point of being paranoid. Being too trusting is a fault, but I saw how the other extreme could be just as damaging as it didn’t give me much of a chance to see the good side of others. I couldn’t expect my relationships to improve if I had such low confidence in ever being in a fulfilling relationship. I also had to recognize when someone’s words and actions didn’t line up. A glib speaker might be able to use words to perfectly express or explain something, but it’s a person’s behavior that really matters at the end of the day. A partner who proclaims they’re the greatest is an egomaniac if they fail to see how their hurtful words or behavior affects you. 2. Get clear on your boundaries. Think about what makes you feel sad, uncomfortable, drained, or diminished as a human being. My list of personal boundaries includes the following: I need a partner who’s financially responsible. I need a partner who won’t resort to belittling my mind and opinions should we have a clash of opinions. I need plenty of alone time to rest, recharge, and dedicate to my creative projects. You need to understand what your personal boundaries are so that you can maintain them. More importantly, it helps you keep a distance from people who don’t respect your limits. Boundaries don’t exist because you’re selfish or because you want to make life difficult for others. Boundaries are a form of self-care for your mental and emotional health. If this makes things “difficult” for others, perhaps they’re not the people you should be spending most of your time and life with. 3. Get clear on what you want. When you have a better idea of what you don’t want, shift the focus onto what you do want in your relationships. Think about the time and energy you’ve poured into unstable relationships. If you spent as much time and energy on seeking a healthy relationship, wouldn’t you have a reasonable chance of success? To enjoy a stable relationship with someone mature and available, consider the deeper values you and your partner need to be in alignment with. Do you want to have kids, or are you looking for someone who can also be a stepparent? Are you adamantly childfree and need a partner to respect this choice of yours? How financially responsible would you like your partner to be, and what are your financial expectations in a relationship? These aren’t exactly romantic questions, and you don’t want to be unrealistic with a never-ending list of points that a potential partner must check off. But knowing what your deal breakers are before entering a relationship can save you a lot of time and heartache. 4. Don’t give up on yourself. You may feel like your dating history is akin to scorched earth, where there’s nothing but rubble, ashes, and a rancid boatload of chronic low self-esteem. No matter how bad it is, don’t give up on yourself. You are a unique individual, and the story of your life is up to you to create. There may be setbacks and failures, but you never have to lose sight of your dreams and goals. To lose yourself in a relationship is a sad way to feel out of touch with who you really are. Spend the time to not just get to know yourself, but to know what really motivates you. This self-understanding will serve as a source of inspiration whenever you need to remind yourself of your gifts and strengths. 5. Choose wisely. You always have a choice at the end of the day. Instead of self-destruction through an unstable relationship, you can choose self-love and commit to leaving unhealthy relationships behind you. Choose peace over drama and emotional rollercoasters when it comes to romantic partners. Choose relationships where you feel free to be your authentic self instead of needing to walk on eggshells for fear of saying something that will set your partner off. Above all, choose to be with someone who is kind and respectful toward you. Your failed relationships help you to recognize the negative patterns that you need to break free from. This freedom allows you to begin healing from within, and it helps you move on in wisdom, not anger. You’re then able to face each day at an optimum level with the knowledge that you’ll be able to handle whatever comes your way. Realize that it’s not impossible to break free from negative relationship patterns. Know that life has more to offer than unstable relationships, and that you are worth a whole lot more than someone else’s self-destructive tendencies. About Jess Chua Astrologically speaking, Jess Chua has a Venus in Scorpio (which probably explains most of her tumultuous relationship experiences). Jess writes and edits content for the Optimal Living Daily personal development podcast. She blogs about introverts and related topics on her personal site, Inner Life Goals. See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!
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