I am proud of myself.
But I was not always. Life has been a roller coaster of experiences: my parent’s divorce, my bi-polar mother’s addiction and subsequent death, my own divorce, several crazy relationships with aggressive, narcissistic, confused and inappropriate people.
Each member of this parade marched through my life greedily taking my love and devotion and inadvertently teaching me to expect and accept less and less for myself.
When we let ourselves get emotionally invested in other’s lives, as I have repeatedly done, we give away our sense of inner peace and allow the opinions of others to mean more than our own. This is especially damaging when those opinions are negative and we believe them, thus destroying our sense of self.
How can we make better choices?
Why do many of us find dating and relationships so scary? My guess is because when things go badly, as so many relationships do, when those we’ve trusted the most disappoint us, or hurt us, trash us or betray us, it leaves a gaping hole in our hearts that seems very nearly impossible to fix.
Can this hole be repaired? Can we learn to trust again? Can we gain the courage to be vulnerable and let in someone new and risk heartbreak again?
It’s easy to imagine that by the time this parade of narcissists ended, I could barely fill a shot glass with my self-esteem and under-valued almost all of my (now favorite) characteristics. I was miserable and, although I didn’t know it at the time, it was because I had completely lost all sense of myself.
I was missing someone. I was missing who I was. I was missing me.
Lost in the fog, I was a airplane endlessly circling an airport without permission to land. I wanted to be in my world, not hovering over it.
How does one actually live one’s life and stop treading water?
Once we have let others tear us down, how can we regain clarity, sense of purpose, passion and rediscover ourselves?
I made the classic mistake when I was ready to connect with myself.
I started to look outside myself for happiness, as I always had done, because I didn’t have much to give myself. I looked outside myself because looking inward was painful and I thought only finding the right man would make me happy. Many of us have made similar mistakes. It’s time to forgive ourselves and do better.
Somehow, I felt I was ready to try dating again so I resurrected and updated my online dating profile. I had always dated the same type of men, which of course didn’t yield desirable results and proved to be so very disappointing. My new theory was to date men who were radically different than the others, who still had my basic three criteria: intelligence, kindness and height (I can only date men who are taller than I am—it’s really my only physical requirement).
My therapist joked when she heard my theory, said I was dating the United Nations, and praised me for my open-mindedness. (Then she sat back and watched.)
I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know different men of all types, races, ages and ethnicities. By purposely dating out of type, I was offered glimpses into their lives, their tastes, interests, passions, cultures, music, books, philosophies and politics.
And I got to try on lots of different versions of myself—depending on the situation or environment.
I went on a lot of weird, terrible and exceptional dates.
The highlights: there was a Trinidadian, 50-year-old man, who was a little harsh, abruptly honest and ultimately unhealthy for me. We tried some interesting and adventurous things together that satisfied my curiosity for things on the wild side (and put another notch or two on my lipstick case) but despite the fun, still left me alone and empty.
After him, I met a Greek, 52-year-old college professor with vague insinuations of a relationship that went unfulfilled and with whom I talked about education and fitness. He was a workaholic and despite good intentions, rarely made good on his promises to anyone in his personal life.
All work and no play made him too difficult to be around and helped me prioritize my own obsessions about work to make more room for play.
There was a 47-year-old Bengali salesman, who talked of brain science and near death experiences who helped me embrace my burgeoning sense of life after death, spirituality and changed my own personal cosmology.
I’m no longer a hard science atheist.
By this time, I had learned I am too great a catch to settle for that.
All in all, I met some interesting, but unavailable or disappointing men, who offered me brief, sometimes meaningful, fun and sexy encounters. We ate, drank, talked endlessly, kissed for hours, found much needed solace in each other’s arms that kept the loneliness and ghosts at bay, however temporarily.
What is important about all of this is that I started really seeing these flawed men I was dating and not idealizing them.
I began to focus less on making them like me by molding myself to their ideal and I began to listen to my own needs and consider the way I felt with each one.
I asked myself which version of me felt most comfortable?
In retrospect, this seems like a simple and elementary thought process.
I was dating to find a man to love me, when I should have been looking for the right man to love. This is a subtle, yet significant distinction that is much too often overlooked by women, like me, who have been beaten down by our past.
Taking an honest inventory made me see that all along I had been cutting off pieces of myself to transform into the woman I thought the men in my life wanted. But, along the way I stopped being my authentic self.
I stopped being me.
Seeing others as they truly are is a gift because we can learn to turn the mirror on ourselves, truly see how wonderful we are and get to know who we are in a whole, new way. Looking in other’s mirror gave me the vision to see the rest of the relationships in my life with improved clarity and a lot more honesty.
For the first time, I began to truly see myself for the exceptional woman that I am and appreciate my talents and gifts. I learned that my intelligence is deep and varied—I have the ability to converse on a wide variety of subjects. I am fun, silly, adventurous, wild, loyal and loving.
What all these men had in common was that they each, in their own way, taught me about myself. They helped me refine the characteristics and qualities I desired in a future life partner, but more importantly, they helped me refine my opinion of myself.
I began to see who I am through their eyes and I really liked what I saw.
Being on my own does get lonely and daunting sometimes, but I am proud that I can handle everything life throws at me. I’m resilient and proud of who I am. I’ve surrendered my questions and uncertainty to the universe and trust that the rest of the answers will come when they are supposed to, when I am ready.
So what’s the take home message?
The way I see it—we have to cherish ourselves—our talents and our quirks, our passions, our pain, our resiliency, every last piece of us. We need to fully embrace how amazing we are, take good care of ourselves, as we would others we love, and make sure that those in whom we share or invest our time, energy and love, cherish and respect us as well.
This starts with choosing people wisely—choosing people who encourage us, feed our souls, sprinkle kindness, honesty and love over our lives and in doing so inspire us to be the best, most authentic versions of ourselves, while allowing us to reciprocate the favor.
I had restarted my journey of self-discovery by looking outward toward the men I was dating and hoping to find the love of my life. I learned that I needed to look inward at myself with honesty and clarity and learn to love and cherish the woman I am.
Instead of finding a soul mate in them, I found a soul mate in myself.
I was the jackpot and I had won big!
By looking deeply and honestly at ourselves and truly seeing our value and worth, we will all win big—because we are the jackpot!
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Marci Stern
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock