It began with me – with falling in love with myself.
I know that’s a cliché, that you’ve heard it before, read it in some glossy women’s magazine. But that’s where I had to start. I really couldn’t accept and love another if I didn’t love myself.
For some of you, loving yourself may come naturally. It may not be something you have to remember to do or work at. But I had to make a conscious choice. I had to learn to stop punishing myself and to care for myself instead. I had to undo years of self-harm and reprogramme my body, mind and spirit. I still do. Daily, I have to make that choice.
There were some significant milestones on that journey of learning to love myself:
The day I accepted I had an addiction to food, sought help, sat in a room with fellow binge eaters, starvers, compulsive exercisers and self-harmers and felt the tears streaming down my face.
The day I spoke my truth to someone I’d been scared of all my life, despite my fear they wouldn’t love me anymore, knowing that continuing to stay silent would do me harm.
The day I decided to take voluntary redundancy from my stressful, all-consuming, high-adrenalin Reuters job, setting myself free to find my path and to find a more loving, gentle way of working, one that nurtured my soul rather than fed my ego. I didn’t know then how difficult it would be, how I would meander, how I’d feel lost in the woods so many times, how I’d struggle to trust that I could make a living from being authentically me, but I wouldn’t change that decision or this journey for the world. It was the start of this blog and everything that’s followed on from it. It was the reawakening of my creativity and the love for writing I’d had as a child – both of which had been suffocated by 10-hour days, deadlines and rigid straitjackets.
The day I took myself off to Tarifa in the south of Spain, on my own, with my tent, and spent the best part of nine days holidaying at my own pace, listening to my body’s rhythm, paying attention to my needs – sleeping late in my little tent, reading my book, eating breakfast on a mat in its tiny porch, shopping for giant, juicy nectarines then going to a quiet beach in the afternoon, to lie under a sun umbrella until the sun had lost its heat, to read some more of my book, swim in the glorious sea and generally do exactly as I pleased. That trip took courage. Could I travel on my own again, in my early 40s, and avoid all the crazy behaviours I’d done in the past – getting drunk, getting entangled with surfer dudes or fellow travellers, bingeing on food? Could I enjoy my own company, meet my own needs, listen to my heart and follow it? Yes, I could. Those nine days during which I maintained a healthy, peaceful, loving relationship with myself (most of the time – I’m not perfect and never will be) felt like a major step on the path towards being in a healthy, peaceful, loving relationship with someone else.
The day I decided to try extreme self-care instead of continuing to take a course of antidepressants after swallowing just half a pill. The day I knew, deep down, that the choices I was making were a major factory in my misery and that if I made different choices, spent my time in more loving ways, perhaps I could be happy naturally, without chemical help. The day I took myself off to the beach at Camber Sands on a weekday – downing tools, playing hooky from my work, skipping through the barriers at St Pancras station like an excited schoolgirl who was bunking off class – and stretched out in the sunshine, swam in the sea and got covered in sand. I could breathe, I could breathe again. I know how to make myself happy, I thought. (I blogged about that day: Extreme self-care).
The day I decided – the day I made a choice. The day I decided to get off the fence and commit to a relationship I’d been in and out of for a few years. I decided to give it my best shot. I decided I deserved happiness, connection, partnership and love. I chose to accept and to love. And after a while, the doubts and fears faded away and the love flowed. (I blogged about that choice: Love is … ).
And finally, the day I decided to follow my heart and move out of London to the sea so I could have more space, a slower pace, and swim and play in the waves (I went in the sea today. No wetsuit. Invigorating!).
All those milestones and many more helped me to fall in love with myself, and with another.
It took years, until my early 40s, but pretty much every day I give thanks for the miracle – the miracle of healing from self-destructive patterns, the miracle of learning to love and accept myself, and the miracle of falling and staying in love.
I honestly never thought I could. I didn’t think it was possible for me to have the connection to a man that I saw others have. I didn’t think it was possible for me to settle on one person, fall in love with him and stop thinking there was someone better out there. It feels like I’ve spent my life looking around, waiting for the man to arrive about whom I wouldn’t have any doubts, waiting for some knight in shining armour or guy on a white horse or Mr Big (actually I preferred Aidan), some perfect bloke who’d tick all those boxes I vowed I never had. In my crazy, self-destructive days, my body would wander as well as my eye. Then it was just my eye that would dart around, look over the shoulder of the bloke I was with, searching for some other man. I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t think it would be possible to be in a relationship and stay in a relationship, eyes, body, heart and soul. But it is. And it’s a miracle.
I never understood how I could feel head over heels about someone one day then repelled by them the next. I’d catch a fleck of grey hair in a beard or see their legs in shorts or listen to them crunch their cornflakes and I’d feel such repulsion, such disgust, such a strong desire to get them out of my life, to run for the hills. The push-pull. The ‘I want you. I don’t want you’. I’ve written about this before. Remembering it makes me wince. Those feelings were so strong. And I think they were so strong because I hated, despised certain aspects of myself. My eating habits, my body, my flesh, the fact I was ageing, my indecision, my flaws, whatever it was. But once I’d made peace with those things, as best I could, once I’d reconciled myself with my imperfections, I no longer felt repelled by seeing those parts of me in others.
The push-pull has gone. The ‘I love you. No, I hate you’ has gone. My feelings are constant, steady. OK, I’m not a robot. I’m human. There are ebbs and flows. But I don’t want out. I never want out. I want to stay. I want to find a way through. I know there’s always a way through.
Ideal. Ordeal. Real Deal, to quote my therapist, who’s quoting someone else. You may have read this before here, but it makes so much sense to me.
Ideal – we see someone or start dating someone and are whisked away to the land of pink clouds and romance. This feeling is heightened when the object of our affection is unavailable or unattainable or distant or the relationship is undoubtedly going to end. This increases that notion of the Ideal because we know it’s always going to be this good, we know we’ll never get to the messy stuff, to the muddle, to the negotiation, to the compromise, to the working things out. And we know we’ll never have to risk our heart, risk hurt, commit to a relationship and face our fears of being suffocated or trapped.
Ordeal – when the pink cloud plummets to the ground, the bubble bursts and we start seeing things we don’t like. We start realising that relationships take work, negotiation, compromise and we might have to give up a few things to gain love. And we start confronting our very real fears of commitment and intimacy and as we do, the voices telling us this isn’t right or there’s someone better out there shout louder and louder. Sometimes, we believe them. It’s easier, isn’t it? It’s easier to believe there’s someone better out there than to confront our own fears and get into the muddle and mess of a relationship. It’s easier to leave than to stay. (Note – I’m not advocating staying if your instinct tells you to get out – just to ask yourself whether it is actually your instinct or whether it’s your fear.) So many of us quit the Ordeal and go back in search of the Ideal. I’ve done it. Ah yes, that soft, pink, fluffy cloud, that ‘falling in love’ feeling, which, apparently, is akin to a cocaine hit. This feels nice, this feels right, this feels so much better than that messy Ordeal stage. But sooner or later, the Ordeal creeps up on us, so we either get out and go in search of the Ideal again or we stick it out and get to the …
Real Deal – we’ve been through the Ordeal and we feel closer to our partner than ever before. This feels real. This feels like it’s for keeps. This feels like love. Mini ordeals keep cropping up but we now know that they always will, whatever the relationship. We know the Ideal is just a stage, it doesn’t last. We know that if we ditch what we have to go in pursuit of the Ideal, the bubble will soon burst and we’ll have sacrificed something so lovely and real. So we stay. Love deepens. We don’t run. We work it out.
As I write, I’m aware of all the times it definitely wasn’t a good idea to stay, of the times when I was in a relationship with someone who couldn’t meet my needs, when I was repeating self-destructive patterns and self-defeating behaviours. We do this too, don’t we? We stay too long. We think he or she will change. It’s so hard to know. It’s so hard to decipher. But deep down, I think we know. If we’re courageous and wholly honest with ourselves, we probably know. And if we’re bold enough to speak our truth and to ask for our needs to be met or to ask where the relationship is heading, despite our fear we won’t get the answer we so desperately want, then we’ll save ourselves so much heartache. Short-term pain for long-term gain.
What a complex topic and what a long blog! I don’t have all the answers. I only have my own. I have my experiences, my learning, my recovery from years of dysfunctional relationships with myself and with others. But this is a topic I’m passionate about and one I want to help others find their way through. I already do that, with friends and other women who come to me. But now I want to expand it, do more of it, coach people into healthy relationships with themselves and others.
If any of the above is of interest to you, there are two things you can do:
Come along to a ‘Dating with Soul‘ workshop I am running with Helen Gormley, a friend and a mindfulness and resilience coach – a relaxed evening where we’re inviting single men and women to take a more thoughtful and mindful approach to dating and look just a little bit deeper into their relationship patterns with a view to enjoying the dating process more and ultimately, finding love if that’s what they want. (Don’t worry – we won’t be going as deep as this blog!). It’s in Poole on the evening of Nov 24. You can book on here.
Secondly, I’m developing a coaching practice around dating and relationships, helping people create healthy, loving relationships with themselves and with others. If you’re interested in speaking to me about this, please do get in touch. I’d love to hear where you’re at and see if I can help.
Otherwise, thank you for reading all the way to the bottom and feel free to comment! x