“What did you do last night?” Connie asked calmly.
By this therapy session, I was months into grief over my breakup. The raw pain of loss had waned, but not left. Shame had begun to seep in over the fact that I was still broken. I was depressed. I was embarrassed. Why am I still hurting?, I would think.
The shame of my lingering grief led me to spend a lot of time alone during this time. I probably watched It’s Complicated ten times. I ordered out a lot. (My outrageous credit card bill could attest to this).
But just the night before, I had reclaimed one joy.
“I cooked dinner for myself,” I quietly told Connie. I can remember my voice about this time: shaky, wobbly. Tears were always near. I continued, “I made sticky rice and grilled chicken, sautéed kale and sweet potato hash. Oh, and I opened a bottle of wine to go with it.”
Connie held me kindly in her gaze, “Because you are worth opening a bottle of wine for.”
My whole life I thought joy and good things (sunsets, vacations, good meals, candles…) were not mine to enjoy. The effort was a waste if it was just me.
Somewhere I had picked up the belief that my only value came in providing for others. And being the overachiever I’ve always been, I was determined to serve others better than anyone else! As I got older, I contracted myself to my smallest, least needy self: I ate unhealthy, often “free-gan” meals; I adopted a “don’t-worry-about-me” attitude in my sex life; I denied myself luxuries such as gym memberships (I love lifting weights) or creative exploration (I have wanted to learn to paint for years).
It’s difficult to relay exactly how often I dismissed myself, because it was a daily – no – constant act. It was small things: I would wash all the dishes without asking for help. I would clean my partner’s rooms, do their laundry, cook regularly, clean up, not ask for grocery money, cover their tab, pack leftovers for their lunch and not mine.*
All this for what? For partners who tolerated me.
Crazy as this all sounds, I know I’m not alone.
All of this was done with the most desperate wish for my partner to intuit my needs. I remember many years ago, telling my long-term partner, “I just need you to know what I need.”
I look back on that Hannah and see so much fear. I, first, didn’t know my needs and, second, was terrified of saying them aloud. If I didn’t express my needs directly, then I could avoid the judgment and consequences that can come with asking for what you need: dismissal, disgust, sometimes outright cruelty. Best to avoid all that, if you had asked me.
Why am I sharing this with you? Because I bet I’m not the only one who’s fighting this fight.
I spent 24 years of my life with a knot in my stomach. The knot was a tangle of unmet need, shame, fear of pain, and clenched bracing against critical, unloving judgement. And now I want to speak from the other side of that knot.
I’ve been untangling that knot for about two years now, which means I’ve come into contact with every single way that I hate myself.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” you say. “Hold up! We were talking about having trouble asking for help with the dishes. Hating yourself is a huge jump!”
…is it? If you’re at a place of experiencing the knot in your stomach, you know how life-or-death that knot feels. When I was in my first therapy sessions with Connie or with my herbalist, I told them I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I hadn’t taken a good breath in years… maybe ever. My self-hatred was strangling me.
Since then (about two years ago), through therapy, herbal supplements, reiki, meditation, yoga, and more, I’ve come to love myself. Specifically, I’ve come to know I’m worth that bottle of wine (and much more!) 🙂
Note, I didn’t say I’m a perfect person. I haven’t “fixed” all my weaknesses. I’m still hateful sometimes. I’m still scared most of the time. I still dismiss myself and overdo for my partners sometimes. I still sometimes deny myself joy.
But I can see it. And I know what I’m aiming for in these actions, even if my actions are misguided.
I crave more than absolutely anything to have intimacy, to know the people in my life. And to have them know me. I crave to be seen and loved for what’s here, right now. Not a potential Hannah. Not high school Hannah. But the Hannah that is in this moment. The Hannah that will flow into a different Hannah moments from now.
I crave an intimacy with others that lets me be so unspeakably scared.
I want to receive that kind of intimacy. And I also want to give it. I now know the only way I will give or receive that kind of love is in first loving myself. Because, as my reiki practitioner says, “You are your primary relationship.”
Do you want to start that journey of untangling your knot? See a mindful therapist. Read Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance. Pin a dream board. Take note when the knot flares up. Repeat to yourself that it’s okay to be terrified.
I can love you in your fear. Please love me in mine.
Let’s start with that.
*Note: None of these is a negative experience in and of itself. It was the lack of reciprocal care that created the highly asymmetrical relationships I was in. But then again, who can be symmetrical with a martyr?