Love Shouldn't Feel Bad
Forget the red flags and pay attention to how you feel.
Untitled (1964) by Helen Lundeberg
I don’t write about sorting partners or friends into piles of good and bad very often for one obvious reason: It’s often more relaxing not to view the world through those reductive lenses. If you want to feel hopeful and open, it’s not always great to walk around with a map covered in steep cliffs, quicksand, and rip tides.
Nevertheless, lately I’ve been feeling grateful that I still have so many of these maps, folded up in my top drawer, covered in scribbles and notes and red wine stains. Because the healthiest, happiest relationships in my life were guided largely by what I learned from those hazard-riddled maps — what I could tolerate and accept, and what would never work for me.
The good parts of the map are as important as the dangerous parts. This is why it’s so important to nurture and honor the relationships that you know are solid and real — so you notice how that feels. The more you experience people who relax you, the more you talk to people who seem genuinely curious about you, the more supported and embraced you feel, the more you understand, in your cells, that good relationships make you feel good. They make you feel clear-sighted and happy. And when you feel bad and confused and you’re doubting yourself constantly? Something is very wrong.
Unfortunately, some of the most misguided people on the face of the planet talk ceaselessly about principles but don’t honor them or adjust their behavior to fit their words. They tell you they love you and behave like they hate you. They tell you that you should open up to them and tell them everything you’re thinking and feeling, but whenever you talk they act angry or impatient or they explain directly to you that you’re doing it wrong. You make adjustments and it’s still not good. You honor their needs and it’s still not appropriate. If anything goes wrong, it’s always you who’s fucking up. If any misunderstanding occurs, talk doesn’t help. Clarity and connection never follow.
There are people who believe that they’re open and honest and loving, in other words, but in practice, they experience every word and movement that comes from you as an invasion. Some authority figure left them no room to breathe when they were small, so they encounter most relationships as confinement or oppression and they don’t know why or don’t realize that they require complete control and authority even when they’re supposedly communing or collaborating.
Once you understand that some of the most sensitive, creative people have this problem, and that they are tirelessly working to keep themselves safe and in control at all costs, with words that always sound honorable and actions that always feel a little off, a little queasily unfair, a little high strung for the circumstances or the conversation? It’s helpful. Because now you have a map with a steep cliff on it. And you can decide not to fall off the same steep cliff again.
This clarity also makes it possible to recognize other sorts of sensitive, creative people in the wild. These are the ones who look like steep cliffs because they say sharp and pointy words a lot. They tell the truth without hesitation. This can be jarring at first, since it’s so unusual. But eventually you notice that being around them feels like lying in soft grass in an open pasture. You notice that all of your sharp and pointy words about reality are forgiven and even enjoyed and embraced. You notice that when YOU voice a principle or an idea or offer a structure for how you two might connect more deeply or trust each other more completely, this person doesn’t get tense or awkward or disappear, doesn’t start talking over you or rolling their eyes or changing the subject. They welcome the chance to try out a new way of relating to you.
And when conflict arises and you need to talk openly about differences and disagreements, you can state what you believe and value, and there’s room for it. Talking to these people about what you value feels like floating on your back in some warm, gentle sea on a beautiful day. You can see a path forward.
That’s reciprocity. But it’s not possible for some people. Some people are so afraid and so locked into a place of extreme insecurity that they always feel like they’re giving much more than they are, and getting much less than they are. And because they don’t love to listen, because they aren’t curious about you, because even deep conversations with them are an elaborate attempt by them to get the upper hand on intimacy (which feels too threatening and unpredictable for them to handle), they project this on you, and experience your softest words around ideas and emotions as an attempt to control or even bully them.
With extreme cases, it can be hard to get a handle on how different they are with you than they are with other people. That’s because they’re only thrown into a defensive, despairing, punitive state with the people who are closest to them. Most of their acquaintances and casual friends won’t witness them lashing out or hear how denigrating their words become when they’re under stress, because those relationships aren’t as intimate or as threatening.
I want to make it clear that these people still deserve some compassion. They’re suffering and they’re very confused. For many of them, it’s less about trying to dominate or soak up all the attention or all the power, and more about trying to feel safe or in control. If you asked them about what they want, most of the time they’ll talk about things that calm them down. But this is also why words like narcissist and abuser can be deceptive! Because you might tell yourself that if someone isn’t throwing punches or grandstanding or insulting you repeatedly, they’re not hazardous to your mental health.
The truth is that many of these people are leaders, managers, executives, musicians, artists, even therapists. You’ll hear them eloquently describing what they aim to give to others, and how they want to transform the world and make it better. I hate even writing that down, because it sucks to walk around feeling suspicious of people who are actually sincere and honorable and aren’t afraid to look closely at their own flaws and mistakes.
You might suspect someone is toxic because they make sharp and pointy sounds, and you might suspect they’re toxic because they make sweeping, epic, idealistic sounds, and you might be right to be suspicious in both cases! But you probably won’t know you’re dealing with an unprincipled, punitive person until you spend a fair amount of time with them in close quarters. And when you do, this is how you know:
You were invited to lie in a pasture but it feels like you’re being pushed off a sharp cliff.
And at other times, you might think the worst of someone. They are known to be abrasive at times. They say very direct and sometimes very emotional words about what they believe in and what they want, and you wonder if they’re selfish or they’re trying to manipulate you. And yet, the more time you spend with them, the more accepted and loved you feel.
They invite you to cliff-dive with them and it feels like lying in an open pasture.
So while you’re reading articles on the seven signs of a narcissist or the fifteen red flags that you’re with an emotionally abusive person, you still need to pay the most attention of all to HOW YOU FEEL.
Sometimes it’s subtle. Something in the mix feels off. Soft words sound harsh. Something in their tone makes you feel like they’ve got a switchblade tucked into their boot. You’re tempted to ignore these sensations and suspect that you’re paranoid from too many bad experiences or from too strong a desire for love and connection.
But eventually you start to notice that long lectures about mutual acceptance and compromise and communication are accompanied by assertions that your generous gestures are manipulative and your most vulnerable moments are selfish. You’re often encouraged to believe that your hopes and dreams are delusional, simply because this person gave up on the same things. You’re told that the things you love with all of your heart are a waste of time, or they’re pointless, or they’re dangerous, or they’re greedy. You’re told that your hopes for the two of you come from an immature place, or that you need to become better in order to ‘earn’ more closeness. Your preferences aren’t just disrespected, they’re treated as side effects of a major personality flaw or a clinical diagnosis. Your feelings aren’t just ignored, they’re described as a manifestation of what’s broken about you.
For all their talk of honesty and reciprocity, you’re the source of all trouble, always. And while they may claim to want to help you, there is a persistent, haunting lack of curiosity about your sensations and your beliefs. And the more careful you are to say “This is mutual, we are both flawed, we’re committed to working on this!” the more the other person feels comfortable instructing you on allllll of the things you need to work on in order to win their trust or love.
So you stop asking for things. You demand more and more from yourself. You bend until you’re exhausted. And often, you feel less and less love for them, or more and more sick about the state of your life, but you tell yourself that this is yet another embodiment of how much work you have to do on yourself, in order to become more lovable.
This is why I often tell people to stop trying to improve or behave in a more lovable way. Feel exactly where you are instead. Let reality in. WHAT FEELS WRONG IS USUALLY WRONG. WHAT FEELS BAD IS ALMOST ALWAYS VERY BAD.
You don’t have to nurture and protect a confused person until they can see clearly again. You can just walk away. You don’t have to feel bewildered and sad or apologetic and numb around the clock. You can spend time with people who see you, hear you, enjoy you, and want you to be exactly who you are right now, flaws and all.
That said, as long as you’re more afraid of the people who love you than you are of the people who secretly hate you, you’ll struggle. That’s what self-hatred and shame and lack of compassion for yourself do to your cells.
So pay attention to how you feel. Don’t get distracted by what people say about what they want. Look closely at how they behave.
Look for open pastures. Tolerate the feeling of being loved and heard. Tolerate not having to chase and solve puzzles. Tolerate the vulnerability of deep connection. Tolerate simplicity and solidity. Tune in to your own simplicity and solidity.
Love doesn’t have to be hard. Good love can be frustrating, boring, irritating. But it’s often easy. It’s comforting. You feel known and adored, even when things are challenging. You feel relaxed when you’re together. You feel accepted and loved.
If you’ve never had that kind of love, it’s enough to believe in it. It’s enough to notice when it’s not there. It’s enough to lie in the open pasture of your own patient acceptance and say
I WILL BE FINE. I WILL BE LOVED. I WILL STAND UP FOR WHO I AM.
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