August 30, 2013

Tearing Down the Walls That Keep Love Out. ~ Sandee Sheldon

Photo: Chris Fry

As a woman of 44 who has never been married, I have often joked that I skipped my first marriage.

I have pretended that by skipping my first marriage, I have avoided all the heartache that comes with a bad first marriage. The truth is though, that there is no way a single person of 44 has avoided heartache. My heart has been broken many times; often because of the very defenses I built to protect myself from it.

Although I have always craved love—as all of us do—I spent most of my life unknowingly building a fortress that worked to keep love out. I don’t know when it started or why—perhaps at a very early age I came to believe that I was unlovable—but for at least thirty years, I built a stronghold in which I sequestered my true self so that it was protected from those who would know me and love me, lest they too discover my flawed nature.

The first walls went up at an early age.

For whatever reason, I did not feel worthy.

I did not think I was lovable because I did not wear the right things, did not live in the right neighborhood and somehow missed the instruction manual on how to be cool. The first walls I built were defensive responses to my peers and a posture of superiority in the classroom that had to have been annoying to all involved.

In my teens, although I had learned to temper my displays of superiority and worked to moderate my defensiveness, I nevertheless, masked my shame at my failings in the social arena by telling myself I was not attractive—a self-fulfilling belief that grew and grew the more I reinforced it. I told myself I was too stocky, too fat and too short. I had man legs, my eyes were “squinty.”

I blamed women’s magazines for perpetuating unrealistic expectations of what women should look like and I blamed myself for not looking like the magazine women anyway.

Obviously, when one walks out the door already thinking the deck is stacked against her, it is.

In my twenties and thirties, having navigated college and learned that I was not completely unattractive, I again found myself perpetually single. I told myself I was too smart, too clever, too strong-willed and that men were not strong enough or interested enough in those qualities to pursue me.

I blamed society, “women’s liberation had allowed women to have high-powered careers but did not teach men how to live with strong women,” I said. I took solace in my independence and pretended that my life was exactly as I wanted it.

All the blaming I did, all the pointing outwards at amorphous “others” who were ostensibly hurting me, had the desired effect of raising the height of the walls between me and the rest of the world. It had the effect of making the walls thicker, nearly impenetrable.

The walls of the fortress were further fortified when I surrounded myself with “almost” relationships. These were friendships with married men or gay men who were “safe.” There was no hope or expectation of a relationship, so I could bare my soul to them, be vulnerable with them and get their support without any real downside repercussions. In these “almost” relationships, I could get 80% of my emotional needs met and keep myself busy enough so that I did think about the fact that the remaining 20% of my needs were not being met.

I also filled my life with “faux boyfriends.” For 20 years, I had a string of straight, platonic male best friends that provided me with entertainment, support and good conversation, but no physical intimacy. These long-term friendships also satisfied some—but not nearly all—of my emotional needs.

They provided great fodder for my dreams. I fantasized that the faux boyfriend du jour would wake up one day, realize how much he loved me and come rushing to me in a dramatic gesture of big love as one does in a romantic movie. I saw my love life working out much like When Harry Met Sally. When that did not happen, my heart was broken—sometimes repeatedly by the same relationship.

However, looking back, I can see that I had unconsciously chosen each of my male best friends because there was no chance of intimacy.

Each of them struggled with their own issues and/or had made clear they were not physically attracted to me. Although I thought I was looking for real love, my hopes were dashed again and again; I used those dashed hopes to shore up the walls of my fortress. Each failure was further proof that I was unlovable and further proof that I needed to bury myself deep inside the walls. These were men that really knew me and really loved me. We had shared interests and enjoyed each other’s company. We traveled together and experienced all that life had to offer.

If these men who knew me so well were not physically attracted to me, then no one would be, right?

So I added a few more stones to the walls with each one.

Meanwhile, to fill the void of physical and emotional intimacy created by the “almost” relationships and the “faux boyfriends,” over the years I had flings, one-night stands and horribly dramatic short-term love affairs that I clung to as if they were life rafts and I was drowning at sea. This substitute intimacy, as dysfunctional as it was, temporarily fulfilled my need to be touched, let me feel lovable for brief moments and helped maintain the illusion to me and to others that I was looking for Mr. Right.

But with each intimate encounter that failed to turn into something real, my response was to toughen myself up a bit more, to reevaluate the sturdiness of the walls and decide that they probably needed another layer of reinforcement.

To the casual observer, the walls of my fortress looked a lot like a person who had her act together.

I had a successful career, a nice apartment, and really nice friends. I traveled to exotic places, had interesting hobbies, and wore nice clothes. I cultivated a façade of carefully crafted perfection so that no one would see the deeply flawed real me.

My life became a Potemkin village artfully disguising my internal dissatisfaction, my unhappiness, and my loneliness. I did not want anyone to see behind the walls and learn the truth. I even hid the truth from myself.

I told myself I was happy.

But looking back I realize I labored under the immense weight of masquerading the guilt, shame and anger I felt about being me. I sometimes cried myself to sleep at night because of the unbearable sadness of being so deeply flawed.

Although I tirelessly toiled building the walls of the fortress for years, adding on a new section every time my heart got broken, until very recently I did not even realize I had built any walls at all.

For a time, I had been studying Buddhist teaching and psychology, trying to find answers to the questions of my unsettled heart. I spent a lot of time reading, thinking and talking to friends and therapists looking for wisdom. I do not recall however, the exact moment in time nor the exact wisdom that finally showed me the walls. All I know is that I looked up one day, and saw that a small chink had been cut in one of the walls, and light was shining through the newly created space. Seeing the ray of light required me to acknowledge the walls of the fortress for the first time.

And then, like a timid child, I peered through the gap in that wall, and was blinded by the light coming through. I looked again and after my eyes adjusted to the brightness, I felt the warmth on my skin.

I sensed that love and happiness were on the other side and I recognized my longing for them. Looking through the hole in the wall, I saw a life where I could be me, really me, and not some poster child me that I thought the world wanted. I saw a place where I could embrace others and let them embrace me back. It looked like freedom: liberation from the fortress I had built around myself, and I wanted it badly.

And so, I set about to tear down the walls.

Demolition of long-standing walls requires persistent attention and a fair amount of tenacity. Some of the stones have been in place for a very long time. They are quite heavy and are difficult to move. Others come down more easily. But I have learned that all of the stones are made lighter with self-love, self-acceptance and positive self-talk.

I have found Buddhism and insight meditation to be very helpful in giving me the strength and skills needed to move some of the more difficult stones. I have listened to some gifted Buddhist teachers articulate the same fears and worries I have tried to hide for years.

Through them, I have learned that we all share many of the same “flaws” that have caused me deep shame. Knowing that others share this burden gives me added motivation to demolish the walls, because I want to be with others that are struggling as I struggle, not locked away.

Through reading and therapy, I have learned to recognize patterns in my life so that I can understand the root of some of my anxieties. I have confronted and named my fears so that they will be diminished by exposure to the light as the walls come down. I have forgiven those that I blamed in the past, including myself.

Love has an amazing capacity to move earth and tumble even the most stubborn stones in my walls.

The toughest lesson I have had to learn about using this amazing tool, though, is that the love that best removes stones is the love you feel for yourself.

I have learned to speak only positively to myself and to set an intention to make every day about love. In doing so, the walls come down. As the walls come down, I feel my capacity to love others grow and I am learning how to let them love me back.

Dismantling the fortress has not been an easy process. Sometimes, I make great progress on the walls and huge glimmering shafts of light break through. Other times, the stones feel incredibly heavy and as I try to move them, they fall back in on me as I pull them down from the inside. On those days, I retreat and lick my wounds. I take sustenance from more meditation, more reading or I reach out to a friend or therapist for advice on how to tackle the trickiest stones.

And when I feel my progress has been too slow, I gently remind myself that the demolition of such a firmly built foundation cannot be accomplished overnight.


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Asst. Ed: Gabriela Magana / Ed: Catherine Monkman

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Sandee Sheldon