Forget the red flags and pay attention to how you feel.
I want to add one thing: SOMEONE ELSE'S PASTURE MIGHT BE YOUR STEEP CLIFF. In other words, sometimes these things don't boil down to NARCISSIST or NOT A NARCISSIST -or- ANXIOUS or AVOIDANT. (Right now my opinion is that most people are a little anxiously attached even if their childhoods were great because our culture and the ways we communicate and socialize are so BROKEN.) Sometimes the other person is perfectly secure and seems healthy but the whole thing still feels OFF. You just don't feel heard or seen or loved and when you try to express any dimension of that sensation, you're treated in a way that makes you feel smaller and smaller.
It's so easy to blame ourselves for these sensations, and to tell ourselves that if we weren't so paranoid or so insecure or so damaged, we would be easier going. SHAME will prevent you from looking at the truth, in other words.
But this is also why I say DON'T ANALYZE IT TO DEATH. You don't need a court of law to rule you the healthy one. You don't need to make sure you're right and she's wrong, or everyone agrees that she's a monster. You can simply say IT FEELS BAD and trust that and not even blame the other person for any of it.
And the less shame you feel (because you keep forgiving yourself every day for being a regular flawed human like anyone else!), the easier it becomes to release other people into the wild without proclaiming them BAD or BROKEN. You don't have to prove to everyone you know that they're rotten, or draw up documents that list the chronology of each offense or misunderstanding. You can just say THAT DIDN'T WORK. No harm no foul. We don't make sense together.
I used to have so much anxiety about cutting anything off, and that led to way too much circular thinking. That guilt meant that I would even get mad at myself in the most small-stakes friendships. I would start a friendship and then when it wasn't any fun at all, I would get upset about it. I would make it about how there's *something fucked up* about that person. All I had to do was give myself the right to have a preference about people! All I had to do was say "that wasn't fun, we don't connect that much, I think I won't do that again."
In romantic relationships, this translates into trying to either win someone over at all costs or trying to escape instead of just showing up and seeing what's there. You're afraid of feeling guilty again, or getting rejected again, more than you're open to reality. You hear lots of single people speak in these terms all the time: They want to prevent mishaps more than they want to connect. Understandable, honestly! But hard.
Keeping things simple is so important: "That was good." or "That felt wrong." "I trust him for some reason." or "I feel like I have to prove myself constantly." LETTING REALITY IN IS ENOUGH. It's better than analysis. It's better than blame. But shame and fear block reality, so they need to be addressed if you really want to show up and see what's in front of you.
Remembering that MANY people will not like you and that you will not like MANY MANY people is part of honoring reality. Your goal is not to make everyone like you, or trying to like people you don't like. Your goal is to notice what you love, what feels good, what makes sense, and to treat yourself and others with compassion along the way. It doesn't have to be difficult or dramatic in many cases. It can be simple and easy, particularly once you learn to accept and enjoy your flawed, humble self AS IS.
I needed to read this today. A few months ago I left a long-term relationship after years of being called codependent - I know what that is, and I’m not that, he called me that anytime I needed anything from him that wasn’t related to performing some kind of chore or task. I was also accused of making him responsible for my emotions any time I simply expressed an emotion in his presence. It was a horrible way to live.
But yesterday I started doubting myself. We still have frequent contact because coparenting and I know he’s not a bad guy. Things have been hard financially living on my own, and lately I’ve been dipping my toe into the whole online dating scene which is bringing up a ton of insecurity and fear for me. Last night I went to a dark place where I started wondering if I’d made a terrible mistake. I started thinking maybe I’ll never find someone capable of actual emotional intimacy and will die alone and destitute to boot. Maybe I should have settled for this overall decent guy and just accepted his inability to handle emotions.
Then I woke up and read this and remembered in full force what it actually felt like to live with him in this way all those years. Thank you for the reminder that someone doesn’t have to be abusive to be fundamentally incompatible. I just need to remember that while it’s hard right now, I’m clearing the way for what I actually want and need in life. Just because I’m lonely and broke right now doesn’t mean ending it was a mistake.
Thank you for writing this post, Heather. Can you write a post for people on the other end, who might be emotionally abusive? I fear that I have those tendencies... Depending on the relationship, I am either the abused or the abuser, I feel. Thank you so much for opening my eyes... I didn't realize where my behaviours were coming from. I know I'm a bad person but I'm trying hard to improve.
You continue to write the things I need to hear at the moment I need to hear them. My last partner told me he couldn’t love me enough to make me love myself. The audacity and cruelty of that statement annoyed the shit out of me. Aside from the beginning of us which felt magical the whole thing hurt, thank you for reminding me which bits of it were me and which really weren’t.
Thank you as always for following the long arc of my psyche which seems only to bend toward profound loneliness. I listen to their words and I believe them, but the men I love leave me hollowed out and like a fool. I sift for green flags in the litter of yellow ones and I guess I’m just red/green color blind. “But he has XYZ GOOD QUALITY.” As long as I am coming from a place of scarcity I will cling to any green flag and try and make it enough.
Thank you for this. I developed a friendship in 2020 that got super intense and for a while brought me a lot of joy, but after a year or so I started noticing the ways my friend put me on edge all the time. I know she has trauma and was just trying to feel safe, but it manifested in her implying that if I didn’t show her total devotion and attention on the level you might expect from a spouse, I had failed her deeply and needed to atone in order to re-earn her trust. She often didn’t know how to be vulnerable enough to tell me what had upset her in the moment, so she stewed about things secretly for months, which made me constantly paranoid. Nothing was ever her fault. When we tried to talk about it, it didn’t help. My mistake was that instead of just ending it, I made increasingly extravagant pronouncements of my commitment to her, which I hoped would earn back her trust and fix everything. But they didn’t, and as I found myself less and less interested in this friendship, I felt like a huge asshole for having said one thing and feeling another. We eventually drifted apart and I have a bunch of other healthy friendships now but this one still bothers me because I worry I am the person she thinks I am. I don’t think I am, though!
Wow. So simple and yet so profound. I did mental gymnastics for so many years, straining to figure things out. When the feelings were always loud and clear.
Heather, I'm pretty sure I'm both kinds of people you describe in this piece. I'm the kind person that once you know me, can be an irritant, a piece of grit you need to take you shoe off for and dump. And, I'm the kind of person who's prickly and says pointy things, but you keep as a friend because I can bring peace and calm to difficult things. I'm also pretty sure we all are like this. The best I've found to do is, be honest about it, and keep showing up. I don't care how good you think you are, you don't get a free pass, some exceptions for children.
This was so good it made me cry.
This is the most succinct description of this I have ever read. I’m this could save lives, I don’t think I’m exaggerating.
I’ve been sitting here for days trying to figure out how to navigate a friendship group I have been struggling with for years because of how bad it most often makes me feel. Currently, I’m in the doghouse because I expressed that something they did hurt me. And I’ve been wavering between “is it my inability to form healthy relationships, my insecurities, or their toxicity/issues that has brought us here?” I haven’t slept for days over it. Then I open my email and see this post. And what I do know is that I feel overwhelmingly bad in this relationship. What I do know is that I feel like I have given up pieces of myself, my thoughts, and my feelings to create comfort for everyone but myself. I want to take up space. I want to flail. I want to feel heard. And I want to do all those things while still being loved, and I cannot do that in this relationship. I want more, regardless of who is wrong or why or what - quite simply, I want more. Thank you for giving me the words to see that.
“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.”
I try not to do this and yet every time, here I am again, trapped in a loop I can’t see a way out of.
Thank you Polly, this means so much to me.