Last summer, a friend whom I don’t see very often and I were having an epic, late-night conversation about our issues, channeling our inner Woody Allens and offering up all of our neurotic tendencies for careful inspection. Yes, this is actually what we do to have a good time. Go figure.
I was sharing my frustration over one of my behaviors that felt as if it had been plaguing me, if not most of my life, at least since junior high. It was the source of a lot of internal turmoil, hence I was eager to kick it to the curb, but nothing I had tried so far seemed to be working.
Since you probably don’t want to stay up until 4 in the morning reading this post, I’ll condense our saga-length conversation into the nutshell version: You know the clownshit crazy intensity of a new romantic relationship? Well, I was really hooked on that experience, and it was incredibly difficult to make long-term relationships work, because I’d invariably get bored and want to abandon ship, no matter how awesome the person might be, because I was no longer getting a hit of my emotional drug.
That’s not all that surprising, since I’ve met a kajillion other people who share the same struggle to some degree, but when I began to dig deeper, I started putting together the pieces of why recapturing this experience again and again was such a powerful motivator for me (aside from the potent cocktail of chemicals flooding through my “love”-sick brain, of course).
I started picking apart the experience with my friend, describing precisely which part gave me the strongest emotional high, and the image that kept playing over and over in my head was of the object of my affection looking at me with a consuming stare of total desire and lust. That look made me feel 100% unconditionally seen and accepted, which was indescribably wonderful. Again, not that surprising, right?
But where things started to get interesting is when I asked myself why this could only be experienced with someone new, preferably someone who barely knew me. My friend said, “Maybe it’s because if someone who hardly knows you wants you this badly, it means that your awesomeness is so blindingly overpowering that people can recognize it a mile away, before they’ve even met you.”
In accepting this, I could only laugh at myself, because when you actually think about that it sounds incredibly gooberish, to put it mildly. And at the same time, understandable for someone who struggles with feelings of low self-worth at times.
Fast forward to last night when I was reading a book called The Energies of Love (which is awesome, by the way), and something triggered a memory of that conversation with my friend. But this time, I felt another layer of interpretation revealing itself.
Let’s do this stream-of-consciousness style…
My deep fears of being unlovable and unworthy are really running the show when it comes to this issue. With someone new, it’s quite easy to project a perfected image of myself onto them, partly because I don’t really know who they are yet, and partly for another reason that I’ll cover shortly. This projected image is composed of all the qualities I want to see in myself–I’m funny, sexy, confident, self-sufficient, flexible, honest, never triggered by jealousy, wicked smart, and creative.
What’s interesting is that I actually do possess quite a few of those qualities, but they become marred in my mind by my very human (aka, imperfect) expression of them. Yes, I am smart, but I also say and think stupid things on a regular basis. Yes, I am very self-sufficient, but I also have to rely on others for help at times.
In the new relationship bliss, however, I can project these qualities in all their ideal glory, without the taint of imperfection. And because I don’t really know this person and they don’t really know me, pesky reality doesn’t interfere with this blissful fantasy. Until it does, and then I have to move on and find another person on which to project my ideal self.
To top it off, because I’m focusing on all this surface-level stuff (the way I appear to be, not my authentic self), the other person doesn’t get to see the deeper side of me that really is wonderful (and not so wonderful at times, too–but human), and this reinforces the false belief that these superficial qualities are the only aspects of myself with value, perpetuating the never-ending struggle for outward perfection.
Before I paint a completely dismal picture, here, let me catch you up to the present. I’ve been in a very satisfying relationship with my husband for six years and counting, so even without having complete understanding of the issue and what’s driving me, we’ve been able to create real intimacy and love. Yet another reminder that perfection is not a requirement for happiness.
And yes, I have made mistakes. There have been times when I’ve wanted that superficial validation so badly that I’ve made poor decisions (nothing too terrible, thankfully!), but what has been the greatest teacher for me has been pausing in those moments of longing. I sit and I feel the longing. I let it wash over me, and once the emotions subside a bit, I ask myself what it is that I’m craving.
Without fail, the answer has never been the temporary object of my affection. It has always been a deeper need for being seen, heard, loved, or accepted. And what has been truly transformative is the realization that–as cheesy as it might sound–this must start with me. My husband can tell me until he’s hoarse that he loves and accepts me, but until I can hear that from myself, he might as well be talking to a wall.
A simple practice that has dramatically changed how I feel and act around this issue: Once I’m aware that I’m in one of those hot-button moments, I identify exactly what it is I want. And for me, the easiest way to do this is to check the fantasy that was just running through my head, the fantasy in which the object of my desire was fulfilling this want for me.
So, for example, if the fantasy involved the other person telling me how amazing my work is, then I know that I’m craving validation in that area. And then, I give it to myself. I look myself in the mirror and I say, “You are doing a great f@*#ing job. That piece you just sculpted? It’s awesome; you should be really proud of yourself.” And then, in true crazy-person fashion, I answer myself with a smile, “Why, thank you.”
P.S. While you might feel like a total goon at first, this practice gets easier over time, I promise. And if my dramatic change in behavior and emotions is any indication, it can be incredibly powerful. What do you have to lose? Now, step away from the screen, and go talk to your beautiful self in the mirror.