Today’s post is a Patron’s Choice post, meaning the topic was requested by one of my patrons. Before I get further into it, I want to give a quick recap of Patreon for those who may not understand how it works. Patreon is a funding platform similar to Kickstarter or IndieGogo, except instead of asking for one big donation that goes to a specific project, Patreon provides regular support on an ongoing basis. Patrons are able to pledge an amount of money – as little as $1 – per post. That money then goes toward helping me put out fresh content on this blog. (Notice how there are no ads? I’d love to keep it that way, but no ads means I’m making no money.)
I typically put out three blog posts per week, so a person who pledges $1 per post is agreeing to pay $3 per week. Patrons also have the option of making a one-time donation or setting up a monthly cap so that no matter how many times I post, they don’t go over their budget. If you enjoy my blog and have a few extra dollars available, I would really appreciate you checking out my Patreon page.
For those who pledge $1 or more per post, I encourage you to ask me your individual questions and I will answer them on my blog. For those who pledge $3 or more, you’re welcome to request specific content for the blog. And for those who pledge $5 or more, you will have the chance to share your story with me and be featured on the blog.
So that’s what this post is all about: one of my patrons requested that I write about learning to trust yourself and others after going through a dependent or dysfunctional experience. My patron shared with me some of the details of her own story and I related it to it very much. Reading her words made me realize how long it’s been since I’ve thought about this topic despite how consuming it once was for me. So I’ll take that as a sign of hope: the fact that I no longer even think about it means I found my way out of it, and I’m confident that she can, too.
It’s strange to think about now as a happy newlywed, but I used to have a penchant for bad relationships. It’s not that I dated terrible people, but I dated people who were terrible for me. Again and again, I found myself in situations where I was unable to fully be myself, either because I was never completely comfortable in the relationship or because I knew on some level that I should get out but stayed anyway (for all the reasons we use to justify staying).
As a result of all of my terrible relationships with others, what suffered the most was the relationship I had with myself. I never knew when to trust my gut. I argued with myself a lot. I told myself I must be crazy – that things were fine even if they felt like they weren’t. Despite often knowing the right thing to do, I’d convince myself to do something else instead. I masked my feelings and emotions – through food, through alcohol, through avoidance. I stayed in situations much longer than I should have and I numbed myself to avoid thinking about it.
I spent most of my twenties stuck in a pattern: bad relationship, bad breakup, a period of despair and moping in which I longed to find out who I truly was but never took the steps to actually discover anything, bad relationship, bad breakup, period of despair and moping. It’s like I never learned anything: about who I was, what I needed, what I desired, what I had to give, what I craved, what I was capable of, what I was willing to tolerate, what I yearned for. I couldn’t answer any of those questions about myself because I didn’t know myself. I only knew how to try (and fail) to make another person happy. I never tried to make myself happy and it never occurred to me that doing so would ultimately be helpful to whatever relationship I was in. I just kind of floated along, year after year, bad relationship after relationship, waiting for someone to scoop me up and figure things out for me.
Then I went through a breakup with someone who had a similar personality to mine: he was quiet, ambitious, inside himself. Of all the relationships I’d ever been in, ours was the one that was the most mirror-like – and therefore the most scary. I saw myself in him. I saw myself in his timidity, in his inability to make decisions, in his sensitivity, in his hiding, in his fear. I saw the way the two of us were drifting along without making any real effort to actually get to know the other person. We avoided all the real work of a relationship and now I look back and feel like I spent those months (the saving grace of this relationship was its brevity) with a stranger – a stranger who happened to be a lot like me.
A funny thing happened when that relationship ended. At the time I was deep in the thralls of therapy for emotional eating, where I’d been making discoveries about myself for about a year. And while there were certainly no aha moments or big conclusions, there was a shift. For the first time at the end of any of my failed relationships, I didn’t have the desire to go back and explore what went wrong. I didn’t feel compelled to find a new person to fill the void. I wanted simply to spend as much time with myself as possible, gathering as much information as I could, until I could reach a place where I said: I know myself. I now realize that by seeking to know myself, I was also looking for a way to trust myself.
I did the extreme version of what a person in this situation could do. I quit my job. I put my things in storage. I packed a suitcase. I gassed up my car. I took a few weeks and drove from my home in Portland, Oregon to my grandmother’s house in West Virginia, making several stops along the way to visit friends and family. My grandmother at the time was living in an assisted living facility a few states away near my aunt; she was a few months away from the end of her life. Her house was empty: no furniture, no food, no artwork. I brought in an air mattress to sleep on, a card table to eat on, a camping chair to sit on, a few outfits, and a few pots, pans, and utensils. There was no wifi connection. No cell service. The house was situated in a small village where I knew no one. There were no businesses around. It was a 15-minute drive to the nearest grocery store. It was a 30-minute drive to Charleston, where I would go when I needed to see people or walk into a bookstore or order a coffee or get a plate of huevos rancheros. For three months, I stayed alone in this house.
Other than these occasional trips to Charleston, I spent my hours in the empty, quiet house. I had no choice but to face myself every day: I was all I had. I wrote a book. I read a lot. I cooked recipes from scratch. Some days I exercised. Most days I did not. I went outside to rake the leaves or take out the trash, but mostly I stayed inside and worked. I’m not sure if I can ever fully convey how quiet how it was, especially at mealtimes. I made an effort to make things as nice as I could for myself: I put a tablecloth on the card table. I lit a candle. And then I sat with myself every day for three months. For the first time in my entire life, I listened to what I had to say.
All my thoughts passed directly through my brain without filter. There were no outside opinions to contaminate anything. There was no internet to influence me. Sometimes in relationships all it took was seeing the other person to make me want to change my actions. I would see someone’s expression and want to react accordingly. For these three months, there were no reactions. Each choice was my own. I’d go to a restaurant in Charleston and order something off the menu without even thinking about it. No more hemming and hawing. No more weighing my options. I made a choice and went for it. I’d ask myself what I wanted to do that day. If I wanted to walk around the town, I would. If I wanted to work on my book for eight hours, I would. I never understood how much I let other people influence my choices and how much I doubted myself until all the other people were removed.
Sometimes it was torturous to be by myself, to have no voices to respond to other than my own. In the beginning, I always felt like I was doing something wrong – should I really be spending my time this way? Should I really spend my money on that? Was it a good idea to come here at all?
I decided that since I was the only person around, I was going to be the nicest person around. I reassured myself. I said yes, this was a good idea, and lots of good was going to come from it. I told myself it was okay to spend half a day walking around in the sunshine if that’s what I felt like doing. I told myself it was okay to spend some days crying and grieving for a lost era – I was alone in the house once lived in by my grandparents, once filled with a family’s laughter and the aroma of chocolate chip cookies. By the end of that December, my two remaining living grandparents would be dead. Except for the funeral I’d never return to this house and it was unlikely I’d even return to this part of the country. It was okay to mourn what was lost.
It was okay to listen to what I needed. There were days when I needed to make gingerbread cookies and track down one of my grandma’s old friends and leave the cookies on her porch. There were days when I couldn’t face my own book and spent hours upon hours reading other books instead. There were days when I faced the quiet and other days when I drowned it out with the one book I had on audiotape, playing it over and over again. I watched and rewatched the first two seasons of Girls on a handheld portable DVD player. I made everyone in my family a homemade Christmas present. I bought a scarf at the local Wal Mart and I made cup after cup of tea.
I didn’t come home a drastically changed person, but I understood something about myself I hadn’t understood before. I’d always considered myself an independent person – I didn’t know a single person when I first moved to Portland, then London, then Boston, then Los Angeles. But despite how independent I was, I didn’t know how self-reliant I could be. I didn’t know I was capable of solving all my own problems. I didn’t know I could listen to the voice in my head guiding me to make decisions and I didn’t need someone else’s voice to counter against it. I didn’t know that if I let myself sit still, and if I soaked in the silence all around me, eventually my own voice would emerge and tell me exactly what I needed. And I didn’t know that it was okay to trust that voice – that she was looking out for me and wanted what was best for me. By the time I came home, I understood all of this. I understood that I’d be okay if I never met the right man. I’d be okay if I never had a family. I understood that it was no longer worth it to me to spend time in bad relationships – that I was happier being alone than I was being with someone who didn’t understand me or couldn’t fully see me.
Friends wanted to set me up with people when I got home, as friends always do when you’re the single one. I wasn’t interested. I had just learned to fully trust myself and I wasn’t sure if I was ready to trust another person.
Then a friend invited me to her wedding and I surprised myself by agreeing to go, despite not having a date and not knowing anyone there. This was completely out of character, but that voice I’d learned to trust told me it was the right decision. Not only that, but that voice I learned to trust told me with absolute certainty I’d meet my husband there.
I went to the wedding, I saw a man approaching me, and I knew my days of bad relationships were over for good. When he spoke, he spoke my language. No games, no trickery, no foolishness. I knew he was my future husband. The only way I can explain this is that I’d become so attuned to the voice in my head – the voice that had been drowned out for so many years while I listened to others above it – that I just knew to listen this time.
How does any of this help a person who’s not going to quit her job, drive across the country, and spend three months alone in an empty house? I think the next best thing is to set aside some quiet time each day and make it a point to listen to yourself. Listen to your mind. Listen to your body. Listen to your needs, your desires, your cravings, your fears. Try to eat at least one meal alone. Make every decision completely for yourself. Do you want a turkey on whole wheat or do you want macaroni and cheese or do you want Thai curry? I’m talking about what you really, REALLY want. Not what you think you should have. Not what you think is right. Not what might be right for your ex-lover or your mom. What you – you – really, really want. Do the same for other choices. What movie do you really, really want to watch? What book do you want to read? Where do you want to travel? What color do you want for your pedicure? How do you picture yourself growing old? What is your ideal date? What’s your biggest passion in life?
It’s okay if the answers don’t come right away or if you second-guess the answers that do come. That’s what happens when you’ve spent a long time balancing your voice against someone else’s voice, or balancing your voice against the voice of society. We’re told a million different ways what we should and shouldn’t do, what we should and shouldn’t want. What I’m telling you right now: It’s okay to shove all that to the side and ask yourself what you want and what you need to make this your best life. Ask yourself today, ask yourself tomorrow, and ask yourself the day after and the day after. Whatever your answer is, it’s okay. However you feel, it’s okay. Tell yourself that. Say, “It’s okay.” Tell yourself again and again. After a while, you won’t need to tell yourself anymore. After a while, you’ll trust yourself.
When you get there, the whole world opens up to you. You become braver just by being who you are. You’ll still struggle with some things. (I still waver over a restaurant menu for a good ten minutes.) But you’ll struggle less with the important things. When you have a clear idea of what you want and what you don’t want, you can confidently say “No thanks, that’s not what I’m looking for right now” to the friends who try to set you up. You can confidently say, “Actually, I’m just sticking to water tonight” to those who automatically pour you a glass of wine. You can say, “I’m going to stay in and watch a movie because it’s been a long week and I need a night for me.” You can say, “I need your help with something.” You can say, “I’d like to start a project.” Whatever you hear that voice inside of you say, trust that it’s okay. And trust that when the time comes to trust another person, it will happen naturally. Until then, don’t worry about it – you are your most important project right now. Work on yourself daily. The trust will follow.