I keep struggling to relate the strange epiphany I had recently.
As with most epiphanies, it hit me like a ton of bricks and then seemed glaringly obvious.
After my divorce, I decided I was never going to let a romantic partner treat me like a convenience again. There is an argument to made for how selfish my love for him was, but at least I know it was real love. The knowledge that it was never truly reciprocated was devastating, but ultimately survivable. So I dusted off my hands and adopted a meme for a mantra: “I’m not tearing down my walls for anybody. You want in, fucking climb.”
Once I made that leap of logic – that real love was possible and I wouldn’t settle for less than an equal share – I was suddenly extrapolating that to all my relationships with varying degrees of ruthlessness. The outer-circle ties – some friends but even some family – that had always been so taxing I gently disengaged from.
I applied it to closer relationships, too, and that is a work in progress. As I’ve mentioned here before, love is a verb, and it turns out that most of my family is appalling bad at applying that concept. Realizing that I’ve spent the last 40 years returning and returning to a dry well for life-sustaining nourishment is… well, it’s why I’m back in therapy to be honest.
The epiphany came when I started to understand that expecting my relationships to nurture me meant my relationship with myself, too.
It’s so obvious, right?
In a culture absolutely obsessed with rugged individualism and “self care”, you’d think that would be the first lesson I’d learn.
But hold up – psychology has shown us time and again that how we feel about ourselves is directly related to how others feel about us. We’re social creatures and if our social environment is made up of messages of unworthiness, well…
This is not a new idea. It’s not even particularly revelatory.
But the first time I treated myself with care and attention and didn’t hear my inner voice desperately trying to justify it in order to keep the messages of unworthiness at bay – that was a revelation. It didn’t come from telling myself to love myself first, or that I deserved anything. It came from doing the hard work of organizing my life to my own benefit. When I say hard work, I mean it all – asking for help, going back to school, getting into therapy, moving, tackling a career instead of a job, and culling toxic relationships from my life. I did all that first, and the feelings of worthiness followed.
Are following. It’s an ongoing process.
I wish I’d had access to these lessons 20 years ago. I wish I’d seen self esteem, compassion and equal relationships modeled for me before I turned 40. I wish.
Time doesn’t move like that for humans, though. All I can do is go forward. And hope I’m showing those things to someone else, starting now.