I often say that I am fine being alone, and I definitely am, but sometimes I worry about why I'm unable to take risks when it comes to relationships. I find it hard to be emotionally vulnerable with people I don't know well, and letting my guard down is really challenging since I've worked so hard to make myself strong on my own. When I have been more assertive, it hasn't really worked out for me, and it makes me not want to try again because it takes so long for me to feel comfortable opening up to someone that maybe the investment isn't worth it. I find myself stuck on the same guys over and over again, and I know that it's stupid to wish that things had been different, but maybe it's because I'm afraid to consider something new and unfamiliar. Any advice?
Dear Miss Independent,
I was a brace-faced 12-year-old, with uneven bangs and an affinity for ill-fitting red plaid jeans, when I learned people can be cruel. In the sixth grade, I developed an unrequited crush on a boy I cleverly nicknamed Spot because of the birthmark around his eye. I’ve never been artful in hiding my emotions, so one day Spot asked me out. (Who knows what those dreaded three words meant in the sixth grade.) But alas, like most promising things in life – low fat ice cream, 50-percent-off coupons with a long list of conditions, self-proclaimed feminist men who are outed for sexual coercion – it proved too good to be true. Turns out, in a perfectly designed, pre-teen movie trope, Spot had asked me out on a dare. Because of course, we needed more movie scenes where the chubby, nerdy girl in first-period science class gets publicly ridiculed by prepubescent boys.
Now, we could just discern that sixth-graders are cruel little creatures with an innate desire to ostracize. That the boys who one day became the men you and I might be infatuated with are just taught to be unapologetically mean at the un-ripe age of 12. Or we can get to the answer of the root question you’re asking me: How do we keep from getting hurt by other people?
I’m afraid, Miss Independent, you’re not going to like this answer. People can be cruel. They can be malicious, because they know they have power over you. Some wound us unintentionally when trying to navigate their own messy web of emotions. Others may not even know they ever hurt us at all.
When emotional people like us, Miss Independent, have existed in the world long enough to understand just an inch of how it works, it can seem like every person, experience and moment carries a huge hazard sign, flashing in bold above its head. Every encounter seems capable of Spot-like humiliation and pain.
You said being emotionally vulnerable is hard. But we both know that it isn’t. And that’s the problem. It’s almost too easy to expect people to match the emotional work you put into your relationships. I mean, after all, isn’t it the bare minimum to ask someone to match you in emotional capacity? But in fact, it can be a lot to ask. People work through and show their emotions differently than us. You can’t expect everyone to be just like you.
But you know this. You’ve learned that somewhere along the way. After enough rejections, failed relationships and tearful fights: You know what it’s like to feel like you did The Thing again. You put everything on the line for someone who can barely figure out how they feel about the new Fran's.
And after all those long nights damning yourself for caring about someone with the personality of a stale cardboard box, someone else comes along with their blandness, inability to show human emotion and lack of effort in relationships and all you can think to say is, "Sign me the fuck up!" All it took was one kindhearted exchange, one sentence where they proved they might not be a sociopath, and you were back on the “I’m ready to love again” train. Turns out they couldn’t match you. So you retreat to your very sad but strangely comfortable and soothing Square One. Now, as you sink into your emotional equivalent of a Norbucks bean bag, I want you to consider two things, Miss Independent.
First, you consistently fall for the same emotionally unavailable people. Chances are you know that they are incapable of providing human affection before you even set your sights on them, be it because they repeatedly obsess over an unrequited crush or have expressed their fear of commitment. At the very least, you can see the red flags they’re desperately waving as you fall deeper into your spiraling obsession.
Take a look at your track record and point to the patterns. Ask yourself: Why am I choosing the same people? Why am I deliberately or subconsciously choosing to exert my energy on people who cannot give me what I want?
I can’t answer that question for you, Miss Independent, but consider this: Is it because you think you can change them? Or because you believe in some twist of fate – that they’ll open up to you once you show them how vulnerable you are? Is it because this is the relationship dynamic you’re used to, because that dude in high school helped craft your idea of healthy relationships and fucked with your perceptions forever? Maybe this dynamic is the one you find yourself most comfortable in. Does the idea of mutual vulnerability and emotion scare the shit out of you because it means you’ll have to escape the fantasy and idea of love you’ve concocted in your mind?
Sometimes the thought of what someone can be and the potential relationship you’ve built up in your head can never match up to reality, so you’d rather retreat to your familiar scenarios.
That gets me to point No. 2: You’re too comfortable in your vicious cycle. Once your slight confession of affection doesn’t work out with these men, as expected, you retreat to your cocoon of comfort. All the while patting yourself on the back for your mediocre effort. Changing your entire frame of mind and usual behavioral patterns is like deciding to repave all of Sheridan in the dead of winter. It sounds impossible, messy and like it’ll be put on pause due to unforeseen weather circumstances until further notice – or maybe until the day you finally get tired of being comfortable. But, Miss Independent, instead of waiting years to realize you’re still stuck on the same queue of men relegated to the overthinking maze of your mind, why not start now? You need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You need to want to change, because no one can do that for you. Change is terrifying and overwhelming. But it’s also freeing. We always use emotions to drive our actions: hope, desire, greed, wanting to be well-liked among your group of 12-year-old boy friends who love dares. Why not let fear propel you into making a difference in your life? It’s all about breaking your cycle once. Then, and only then, you’ll finally enter the world of messy, frustrating-but-REAL relationships and love. You said it yourself, you’re afraid to try something new and unfamiliar. Fantasies can only last so long, Miss Independent – try being unapologetically emotionally vulnerable for a change.
You know I’m right,
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