While in my 20s, I seemed to be having toxic cycles of repetitive relationship disasters.
My best friend pulled me aside and handed me the cold, hard truth: “Maybe it’s not them, but you.”
I felt the blow of that realization all the way to my core.
For weeks I ruminated, justifying all my actions, behaviors, and potential dysfunction.
It couldn’t be me, could it? Sh*t, it’s actually me.
Gaslighting, narcissism, and cold feet: every noncommittal bone in my body knew something wasn’t quite right with my outlook.
I was a boys’ worst nightmare. I looked sweet and gentle, but underneath I was a cold-hearted black widow, ready to consume her male after taking his life.
Even the idea that I had some deep-rooted issues was a huge undertaking. It was as if someone had opened a mysterious, secret door and introduced me to myself, but the person I was meeting was not who I thought I was, nor who I wanted to be.
How had I become so jaded?
I delved into my past (and knew it wasn’t perfect), but I couldn’t see all the junk and mental clutter that had accumulated over the years. My parents were divorced, but I was happy for them. They got along better afterward and treated each other with respect, for the most part.
Another close friend of mine (different from the first bearer of bad news) had been seeing a therapist and recommended the same network she’d been using. I made an appointment and went in ready to fix my sh*t. Clearly, it would be an easy fix. She would tell me what to do and I would do it. Done.
Or so I thought.
Her office was like any ordinary office, clean and professional. White walls displayed simple two-toned abstract art left for interpretation or boredom. Tissues were placed on each end table and a light brown corduroy loveseat was strategically placed in the center of the two. I sat down and placed a small pillow on my lap for moral support.
After all the usual intake questions, she asked me about myself, and we began talking. Most times it felt like an informal interview for a job, but then headed into some more tender places. I could feel my body tensing up at times and feel heaviness from within stirring about. The more intimate the conversation went, the more I felt as if I couldn’t squirm away.
It didn’t take long for this intuitive stranger to find my triggers and wounds.
We spoke a bit about my recent past and my childhood the way most psychoanalytical work begins. She asked me about my upbringing and we spoke openly.
At first, I couldn’t look her in the eyes, but over time that changed, and she became similar to that of a trusted and present maternal energy.
We spoke of my childhood for many months.
Both of my parents worked full-time jobs, and I had learned to fend for myself at a young age. I had grown up fast and was determined to be independent, so I didn’t have to rely on anyone. That was a big part of my personality.
I was the “giver” and that was the only way I could be in control.
No one could let me down if I was completely responsible for myself.
I had a few close relationships, but I never was able to be vulnerable enough to actually “be” in the relationship. My therapist described me as someone who was driving a car with one foot out the door.
She was right.
I would leave relationships the minute sh*t got rough. I would abandon ship the minute there was conflict, and I never allowed myself enough to feel any emotions around it. Everything was always someone else’s fault.
I’d been called a cold-hearted b*tch on more than one occasion.
My coping mechanism worked for years, but I’d found a boy I’d been getting to know and like, and I didn’t want to run from him.
One evening, I aggressively drove away in my car after a fight with him and had this epiphany. What am I running from, and where the hell am I going? I just sat there in my car feeling like a loser.
That was the night I knew I had deep-rooted issues.
I needed some way out of this pattern. It was toxic and cyclical. My dysfunction had taken me hostage. and I was no longer driving the ship. My fears and unconscious past were the prime navigators, and I was along for the awful disastrous ride.
Therapy lasted three long years. On the way to my appointments, I would have a heaving stomachache and feel as if I was heading into an execution lineup.
My therapist had this ability to see right through me.
We repeated the same cycle every hour-long session. We’d catch up on small talk, and she would ask me a few open-ended questions. The minute she’d hit a trigger and notice a subtle emotional reaction, she’d lean in and ask what was going on within me.
I would crack and an outpouring of emotions would flow out without restraint. My face often feeling hot and red, full of shame and raw embarrassment. In therapy, I could not hide anything.
Eventually, grabbing the box of tissues became a reflex. I’d cradle them, knowing they’d be catching the heavy tears falling from my sullen eyes. Apparently, I had some old tears to release.
When we repress our emotions, they’re buried deep, and when triggered, any conflict can activate all of our past memories as well, creating a sh*tstorm of negative feelings. Most of us are not even aware of it.
It was like a web of pain that unraveled all the way back to when I was a little girl. It was a survival mechanism that I developed for protection.
I had issues with unworthiness.
Somewhere along my life, I made the assumption that having needs was an unattractive characteristic, and I worked hard at providing everything for myself that I could possibly need. I had my first job at 15 and I was driven to be independent. People liked that about me. While most of my peers were rebelling and partaking in high-risk behaviors, I was working hard and “growing up.”
I had relationships, but barely showed my authentic self to anyone—I was too afraid to love.
Months into our sessions, after weekly emotional episodes, I learned to say “no” and speak my truth. I didn’t know who I was, what I wanted, or what emotion I was feeling at any given time.
With the suggestion of my therapist, I purchased a book of emotions so I could identify what was I feeling. She and I brainstormed different canned responses for when conflict arose.
She helped me form personal boundaries that I needed in order to feel confident in relationships.
I felt safe sharing my stories with her.
After all the therapy, I eventually caught up to a present moment emotional state and let go of the painful past.
As a result of all that inner work, I ended a five-year relationship and spent a few years living alone in an apartment in downtown San Francisco.
In all honestly, I spent some of that time grieving and crying my eyes out in the kitchen of my second-floor apartment, while listening to the cheery ting, ting, ting of the trolly chugging just below me on Powell Street.
I took my time healing.
I often wandered through the quaint, old North Beach neighborhood while smelling the pungent garlicky essence of Italian food and watched people enjoying their delicious home-cooked meals. I sampled hundreds of varieties of green tea in Chinatown and spoke with people from all corners of the earth.
I spent time getting to know and love myself.
Little by little, I discovered what made me feel good.
And each act of self-love led to another.