In part 1 of this series, I addressed the challenges women face in acknowledging (and living from) what we want and don’t want. How it can feel positively revolutionary to do something simply because we want to, and not do something because we don’t want to. Something so basic and yet so powerful, to consider our wants and don’t-wants, and trust that our own experience matters.
Because we’re so trained to shape-shift into whatever version of us will be most likable, our relationships often feel imbalanced and draining. Many women feel like they have to abandon themselves in relationships, to go “out” to the other and join them where they are, with the end goal (conscious or otherwise) of giving them a positive experience, and favorable perception of us. Relating requires being “on,” and it’s not until we are alone again, with no one else’s feelings to attend to, that we can “come home” and re-inhabit ourselves.
This disappearance into the other’s experience happens so instinctively and instantaneously that it’s hard to see unfolding, much less prevent. It’s as if we leave the scene, switch on auto-pilot and assume the wanted character before we even know it, as if we’ve been sedated with a what-do-you-need-from-me-chloroform, only to wake up later, back inside ourselves, physically and metaphorically, where we remember (and feel) our own experience, what we think, want, and need.
We’ve been conditioned to be selfless, valued, and admired for our ability to disappear and take care of other people’s experience. As a result of this training, we’ve learned that the best way to take care of ourselves is to abandon ourselves and become what’s likable—to relate from a place of absence, with our sense of self-determined by other people’s perception of us.
To show up and stand in our own shoes, to stay connected to ourselves and simultaneously in relationship, can feel like an aggression, as if our separate experience, which may be different or undesirable, is something we’re doing to the other—something that, if we were better behaved, we could choose not to do. Staying rooted in our own truth seems self-centered and withholding; either we evacuate ourselves and merge with the other person, or we stay home with ourselves, which feels “selfish.”
Furthermore, because we’ve learned that taking care of others requires being selfless, the sheer act of being embodied and existing as a self in the interaction, a self with her own wants and needs, can feel like we’re saying we don’t care about the other. It’s as if we’re abandoning the other by staying home with ourselves. Having a self feels inherently un-loving, the opposite of the selflessness to which we aspire.
Fear of Judgment and Rejection
But perhaps, at the deepest level, what compels us to abandon ourselves in relationship is the fear of being judged and, ultimately, rejected. If we take our eye off the other’s experience, let down our guard, and speak from our own experience without managing the results, we risk being unwanted and unloved. We’re vulnerable to potential abandonment from the other. The threat of being rejected and unlovable then keeps us dancing the dance of our own abandonment.
We didn’t learn these habits overnight, and we won’t rid ourselves of them overnight. It’s a practice, daily, hourly, moment to moment. Learning to relate to others while staying connected to ourselves, to be with another and ourselves simultaneously is a process, and, like most, one of three steps forward, one step back. We feel ourselves fully present and embodied in one interaction, and then in the next, will have slipped into the old pattern—disappearing into the other and making the interaction go well, only to remember ourselves when it’s over. In the beginning, we might not realize this until we wake up after the interaction has concluded. We might berate ourselves for “doing it again” with the assumption that we had a choice and chose to disappear. But, in fact, we don’t choose this; such relational patterns are deep in our conditioning, hard-wired into us; they link to our drive for survival, and take time, effort, and intention to unravel and uproot.
Connecting With Ourself
Over time, the periods between our disappearances get longer, and our ability to stay gone gets shorter. With more awareness and practice, we start waking up in the middle of conversations and realizing that we’ve gone away. An awareness of our own disappearance begins to dawn, and a part of us remains present and conscious of our own behavior. Eventually, we stop abandoning ourselves altogether, and both the drive and willingness to evacuate and become what’s wanted disappear. “Safe” is then linked to staying connected with our own experience—as opposed to joining with the other’s. What previously felt counterintuitive and unthinkable becomes intuitive and instinctive and, in fact, nonnegotiable.
In part 3 of this What do you want? series, I’ll offer some practices that encourage this relational shift and build our ability to stay embodied and in touch with our own experience while, at the same time, attending and connecting in relationship—ultimately, how to be in relationship without abandoning ourselves.