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“I can’t make it today.”
I looked at my phone, waiting for him to say more, as anger surrounded my skull like a too-tight swim cap.
My stomach growled.
I had a brunch date planned for 10:30/11:00 with “Paul” (not his real name) from a dating app. I was hungry. I needed coffee. And now, I was also pissed off.
Earlier in the week, we had exchanged several days of text banter, the conversation flowing effortlessly. As we got to know one another, I could feel expansive energy in my body, and I was looking forward to our date.
The texts that had flowed so easily were now reduced to one: him ditching me.
I could feel the heat from my headache lining my scalp. My jaw clenched as frustration filled my chest.
Taking a sip of home-brewed disappointment coffee, I called a girlfriend. I could feel my voice intensify and sharpen as I gave form to what my body perceived and internalized:
“How could he do this to me?!”
We assessed. We analyzed. We ripped him to shreds…
It’s easy to focus on venting and criticizing. It’s hard to address the grief, sadness, shame, and disappointment hiding beneath our anger, anxiety, ruminations, and preoccupations.
We can spend hours holding court to dissect and decide the meaning behind someone else’s every action, text, emoji, and moment.
We can call someone a jerk (which can feel validating) and bemoan the state of their communication. We can call friends or post in Facebook groups to blame the situation, the person, or the cultural conditioning that led to this (which can also feel validating).
We tend to believe that the other person is in control of their own emotions, choices, and actions.
When faced with rejection, we tend to believe that we are the victim: that they are purposefully doing this to us.
What we fail to see is that, in the process, our wounded inner child has taken hold. And this wounded inner child is now directing our perceptions and honing in on the absolute worst possibility: the one that makes us feel unheard, misunderstood, undervalued, and disrespected.
The stress headache and subsequent rumination that followed were familiar sensations in my body…
The day of my birthday, immediately after Christmas, my mom would often cheerily announce that she had “combined” my gift with the one I had already opened a few days before and there was, therefore, no separate present forthcoming. Never mind that months prior, my sister had been given a birthday gift and she and I had received identical Christmas gifts.
Forgotten again, I could feel a headache lining my scalp and my jaw clenching in frustration and disappointment.
I could not speak of this out loud, lest I be chastised, shamed, or accused of being jealous.
How does a child process what they cannot speak?
We opt for survival, choosing attachment ahead of authenticity. We know our parents love us, which leaves one option: it’s our fault. We believe:
>> we aren’t loveable
>> we don’t matter
>> we are forgotten or unseen
And we carry these beliefs and perceptions into adulthood when we feel the familiar stinging sensations of disappointment. With a heavy reliance on decoding subtleties and modeling the behavior of others (including our parents), most of us lean toward “trusting our gut” and mistake our emotions for truth.
Unless we have taken steps to develop new skillsets, inevitable mishaps and miscommunications trigger these old wounds, and we are left reeling. We reinforce our beliefs:
>> we are not a priority
>> we deserve better
>> the other person was not interested
We fall into the familiar rut of extracting meaning about ourselves from our pain. We deduce that we are not:
>> good enough
>> attractive or special enough
>> deserving of connection or attachment.
Then, we lash out in rage and blame.
In search of soothing, and blind to this cycle, we take to friends and social media for solidarity and validation.
Paul was not my first.
I spent months analyzing a now-ex boyfriend, more months invested in a post-breakup spiral, and hours or days or weeks assessing why a man had ghosted me or canceled a date.
I was looping back to this cycle again and again and again and again with different partners. The pain of the loop now greater than the salve of the solution, I searched for answers.
And I found them…with an approach of compassionate inquiry, a model of curiosity. I came to an understanding that these perceptions are entirely my doing (ouch) and that I would be better served by feeling my own feelings instead of trying to guess why someone else behaved the way they did (double ouch).
I learned that none of the above is possible without the difficult but valuable art of compassion. This compassion allows us to see another list of possibilities: one that isn’t centered around harm to us or steeped in meaning about our loveability.
Our childhood brains cannot comprehend adult stressors, multitasking, or oversights, but our adult ones can.
We can create a list of possibilities for disappointments, losses, and difficulties.
Why would someone cancel a date last minute and not communicate in a way that we wish they would? They may be:
>> suffering from chronic or periodic anxiety, depression, or overwhelm
>> suffering from social anxiety and the costs of going on a date outweigh the benefit
>> not mentally feeling well
>> not physically feeling well due to chronic disease, illness, or injury
>> feeling anxiety about either amending plans or communicating due to developmental trauma
>> overwhelmed from a car accident, death of a family member, or loss of a pet
>> overloaded in another area of life
>> reconsidering their availability
>> struggling with ADHD
>> finding it hard to pace themselves
The only way to know why someone did something is to ask them.
With compassion, we can set aside choosing the worst option and skip making it mean something (awful) about ourselves that validates our own (unhealthy) core belief.
We can let go of the idea that someone else is making an active choice to manipulate or harm us and practice replacing it with trust. We can trust that there’s a good chance the other person is doing their best and offering their fullest capacity.
Disappointments suck. It’s ok to feel angry, disappointed, or let down by something that we hoped would turn out differently. With self-compassion and curiosity, we can feel our feelings and focus on the exploration of sensations in our bodies. We can become curious and compassionate witnesses to our experiences.
We can reestablish connection where there was disconnection.
I have a lot of re-learning to do in this easy-in-concept, difficult-in-practice skillset. It’s still a work in progress.
But, if I could go back in time, I would pour poor Paul a cup of compassion along with my coffee.