My therapist once told me that if we were not modeled secure relationships growing up, we need to create them with others in order to understand what they feel like. She said we start with non-romantic interactions; a safe connection with a therapist, for example, or a friend. If we have only ever experienced unstable, codependent, dangerous relationships, how will we ever know how to participate in something else? By creating it in a low-stakes situation, such as those I just listed. It’s easier to try something emotionally new in this way, instead of jumping into a romantic relationship and attempting it where there’s more at stake.
It’s scary at first to try and create this kind of connection, even with a therapist. When we are not used to showing ourselves and exposing our vulnerabilities, it’s hard to do! I used to cry buckets in literally every therapy session I had. I really liked and trusted my therapist. I’d just never in my life experienced a safe space to talk about all my shadows, all my insecurities, all my ugly shit. I’d never had someone be so kind to be when I was down. It was very difficult to resist the urge to tell myself, whatever, she has to be nice, you’re paying her. The truth is that I knew she genuinely cared and that she meant every word, and that’s why it was so hard to hear. I had no idea how to receive that.
It’s not that everyone in my life is purposely unsafe or judgmental of me. It’s that I, used to protecting myself and constantly vigilant, instinctually choose people who do not let me in. That’s what I was modeled – emotionally distant relationships rife with codependency and a glaring lack of communication.
For a very long time, I believed that I was not the problem. I just kept ending up with emotionally unavailable guys on accident. Ha – joke’s on me! Turns out that kind of thing is almost never by accident, not when it’s a constant pattern. Now I realize that I am so afraid of emotional vulnerability and making myself open to a partner… that I purposely choose men who are emotionally unavailable. They do not want to be open with me, and do not want me to be open with them. They don’t inquire about my deeper self. Ironically, though I crave someone who does care, I am terrified of that kind of relationship and run like hell when I feel someone actually wants to get know me.
When with an emotionally distant and unsafe person, we can focus all our energy on trying to get them to open up. This allows us to control what’s happening, and to keep our own true emotions locked away. We focus on the drama and conflicts of the relationship, trying to change it or them, and ignore what it is we are actively choosing.
I tell you all this not only to reveal a personal account of what unsafe relating looks like, but to show you that I understand completely how frightening it feels to jump off that deep end of relating safely when you don’t know how. Just the other day, a friend and I had a little disagreement. I wanted to brush it off, but he wanted to talk through it. The whole thing was perfectly amicable and really a small conversation, but I am so afraid of conflict with people I love that I ended up sobbing. I didn’t know how to express my own needs and fears. Yes, I felt ridiculous – but I also try not to blame myself for that anymore. I’m doing the best I can with what I know, and so are you.
What’s most important is to work on finding people that feel safe and then developing open, communicative, vulnerable relationships with them. Keep doing the work, even when it feels scary. Choose people who are willing to do the work with you, who care enough about the relationship – and you – to remain safe even when there’s conflict. As you learn that you can trust them, you start to feel you can express and be yourself.
You’re doing great. This shit isn’t easy, so give yourself some love! You’re learning. Even if you fall down sometimes, keep getting back up and finding what works. You’re going to be just fine.