I’ve been listening to this podcast, The Overwhelmed Brain: Personal Growth for Critical Thinkers, a good bit for the last few months. The host, Paul Colaianni, is a personal empowerment coach, whose offerings of advice and perspective are usually in response to a listener’s email. I find his advice to be accessible and easily-understood. There always seems to be something personally relevant, even when the topic is not one I’ve felt bothered by before.
A recent episode, however, dealt with insecurity. I was driving home from work and thought, “Wow, that listener could be me.”
Oh wait. It is.
It actually was my email to the show. Because I do enjoy his approach, I had written in to see what perspective he might offer.
I have struggled off and on for years with jealousy. Sometimes that jealousy has resulted in extreme behaviors that I’m not proud of. But where does it come from?
“When you’re jealous,” Colaianni says, “there’s something that you believe that someone else is bringing to the table, or that you aren’t confident about in you.”
Jealousy is a manifestation of insecurity. For me specifically, I am emotionally insecure. I am often afraid that my partner (when I’m in relationship) will leave and emotionally abandon me. I do sometimes require more reassurance and emotional attention than others. I can be needy—though I argue that word is loaded with sometimes-unwarranted connotation that has often been defined by the emotionally avoidant men on the other side of my equation—and when those needs aren’t being met, I become anxious and activated. I’ll spend far too much time analyzing the occurrence that led to the anxiety, usually a conflict with my partner:
What did he say or do? Well, what did that mean? Is what I think it means different than what he actually said or did? Is there a disconnect between his actions and words? What was my role in the situation? What words or actions did I offer that exacerbated the situation, or made it better? What could I have done differently? What should I have done differently?
It’s easy for me to list my own faults in the situation. That leads to a list my own deficiencies, in general. And if he sees these things as flaws in me—which he must because they’ve made him mad enough not to talk to me after an angry exchange—then he knows it’s a flaw because he has an unflawed point of reference, which is almost always an ex.
At least that’s how my thinking has usually gone.
I have found myself spending an inordinate amount of time comparing myself to my partners’ exes. Rarely were they women I knew. I often knew a good bit about them, because they’d come up in early conversations about past relationships. More often, they were just these nebulous, vacuous ideas of what his life had been like before me.
So, if there is conflict between my partner and me, it must be because I don’t measure up to his ideal. His ideal is based on his own past experience. That experience was defined by his exes. I must not be as good as they are. What he had before is what he really wants. He is likely to leave me to be with one of them, or someone more like them.
But this idea that his previous relationships were ideal is fallacious. If they’d been idyllic, they wouldn’t be past relationships at all—he’d still be in one of them. So those women may have had fantastic qualities, but somewhere something went wrong in how those two people related to each other. Usually what I do know about them comes as self-reported flaw. The men with whom I’ve been in romantic partnership are self-aware enough to admit to at least some cursory, palatable version of their own mistakes, and they can usually point out their former partner’s mistakes, as well. So I’m only comparing myself and my relationship to their admitted interpretations of events that occurred years before.
I have often gotten caught up in comparisons of physicality. Being a 5’11 Amazon, I am taller and bigger than most other women, even when I’m not struggling with my weight. I am a physical outlier, for sure, and that means that their previous partners were almost certainly smaller than I am.
Was she shorter and thinner than I? Probably. Was she prettier? Did she have better hair? Was she so physically attractive that she could get him to push past the emotional boundaries that prevent him from being fully present?
But Colianni cautions, “If you’re gonna compare something you’re insecure about, you don’t compare it to the people that appear to be perfect, because you’ll always be unhappy if you do that.”
Somewhere in my own head, these women became idealized by my partner. Whomever they actually were is still unknown to me; I am basing judgments about myself based on my perceptions of his perceptions (and very limited admissions of that time in his past) of this woman with whom he had an unhealthy relationship that ended in emotional trauma.
So, if I am already afraid that he will leave me, because that’s what I learned to believe people who loved me do, those fears are underscored by wholly unreasonable beliefs about my partner. Using that standard of comparison can only lead to skewed results.
The only standard of comparison should be me. But I have struggled for years with my sense of self-worth. I’ve written several times before about calculating my value. It’s all too easy for me to pick apart what I think is wrong with me. What do I think is right? What do I find valuable in myself?
I am smart. Tests have said I’m very intelligent. I know a lot of information, and I am very adept at making connections between data, extrapolating further meaning. I enjoy learning, and I am constantly curious about new topics.
I am funny. I have a wicked sense of humor, though that’s somewhat subjective. I love to laugh, especially with other people about absurd moments we share together.
I am tenacious. It’s not just I go after what I want—at least once I make my mind up about what that is. I am unlikely to give up when I run into challenges. It’s what got me and my sons through the last five years.
I am brave. I have fears. Some are rational, some are not. But rarely do I let that fear stop me. If what I want is on the other side of that fear, I will find a way. Sometimes I’m able to make friends with the fear and sing it to sleep, so I can step lightly past it. Sometimes I have to whip out my Vorpal sword and go straight through it.
I am loving. I feel deeply, and I express those emotions readily. I also try to act on those feelings. I try to do things and behave in ways that express my care and concern and affection. Admittedly, this sometimes butts up against my fears, and I can raise my defenses to try to keep people from hurting me. But I can never maintain that distance for very long, because I feel the people I love, no matter what.
I am self-aware. I have spent a lot of time getting to the root of my own heart. Much of that journey has been documented openly on Muchness and Light. Whether through therapy or conversations with friends or while I was on some meditational walk, I have learned who I am and what makes me tick, both good and bad.
Were those other women those things? Maybe. Were they as smart or funny or brave? Maybe. Maybe not. Did they share his same interests? Probably. Only his interests? Unlikely. Did they have insecurities? Probably. Were they able to put aside their own insecurities and needs, making him comfortable enough to be secure and happy with them? Obviously not for long, if they were.
But really, none of that matters.
All I can do is strive to be the best plausible version of myself. Trying to be the best possible leads me down a path of perfectionism and self-criticism. I will almost never live up to social ideals, nor to anyone else’s personal ideals. It’s taken me a long time to come to understand what is valuable about myself, to myself. The best way for me to honor that is to act in ways that support rather than undermine my value, and that includes the behavior that I will accept from others.
But I still have insecurities that sometimes are at least a catalyst for conflict within relationships.
Be vulnerable, Colaianni offers. Sharing my insecurities gives my partner the opportunity to access one of four things within himself:
- Apathetic ignorance
Sometimes they’ve been compassionate about it, at least for a while. Really, though, it’s easy to offer sympathy and kindness to someone who reveals they’ve been abused. It’s rare that I’ve met an asshole who said out loud that abusing others was acceptable. And it’s not the abuse, per se, that is still an ongoing issue, but rather the tangential aftershocks that continue for so long—the fear, the sometimes-constant anxiety, the ways in which the abuse colors almost every decision the victim makes from that point forward.
Once my partner realizes the damage left me with more than just some shit to talk about over drinks, it’s very rare for their attitude to remain compassionate or to shift toward acceptance. When I asked to stop once during a romantic moment—unexpectedly triggered by a brush of a hand that felt all too terribly familiar—that partner yelled at me that the past is in the past and that I should just “get over it.” Needless to say, I didn’t see him again.
Most often, I’ve been met with apathetic ignorance. They don’t want to know, and they don’t want to care. Rango specifically told me my shit was my problem, to work on it by myself, and to keep it away from him. He was actually more verbal about it than most. My experience is that most of the emotionally avoidant men I’ve dated tend to pretend my damage doesn’t exist, distancing themselves when they realize I won’t be all rainbows and light all the time.
But, Colaianni stresses further, It’s a choice in them, not a problem with me. It’s a problem in me when I devalue myself because of it.
“They are choices, and they are in them. Because if you show up owning what you’re insecure about and being okay talking about it, now the ball’s in their court. They have to do something about it. They have to make a choice. Whatever’s going on at that point is going on in them.”
This is where my choice to value myself outweighs their choice. In a healthy relationship, I’ll be met with compassion and acceptance; I’ll be supported and actively loved (not just thought of affectionately). If I am again faced with apathetic ignorance or judgment, that is a huge red flag that I cannot ignore. It signals a conflict in values that is likely insurmountable and wholly unhealthy for me.
And if I expect anyone else to treat me with compassion and acceptance, I must do the same. I cannot apathetically ignore my own needs and must find ways to meet those needs myself. I’ve spent years hurling judgment from within, and many of my bruises and scars were self-inflicted. No one else is allowed to hurt me, and neither am I.
But my needs and assessments alone are not the entirety of the relationship. By definition, I have to be relating to something else, and that happens to be someone else. So if I know what I value in myself, what do I value in that someone else? What happens when those values clash, and is it fatal to the relationship?
This turned into a much longer, more in-depth process of thought than I’d imagined when I emailed The Overwhelmed Brain. I’m turning this into a three-part series on Value. Stay tuned.