The above meme pretty much explains the entirety of what this post is about and I could easily leave it at that. But I am just itching right now to talk about this, because I feel like I just accomplished something pretty great–all because I was finally willing to take a big risk, one I normally wouldn’t take: I let go of my fear of rejection long enough to tell someone I’ve grown to care about and like very much (as a friend) the truth about the way I felt about them, instead of skirting around my real feelings and avoiding the subject (but secretly going nuts).
I’ve always assumed (because of my internal programming) that I didn’t deserve to be liked or loved, and used to even push away people I liked through either becoming too needy and demanding (stepping over their boundaries), or too avoidant and aloof (building up too many boundaries for protection). There was no in between for me–it was always one or the other. I had no ability to regulate my reactions to others or defenses against them.
I also believed that I wasn’t loveable or even likeable, due to my internal programming. My NM (narcissist mother) taught me that I was not (though she never said she didn’t love me, I just knew because her actions and behaviors told me she did not). I believed that if anyone ever got to know “the real me,” whatever THAT was, that they would grow to hate me. And, because I was always sabotaging myself, sometimes I (unconsciously) made sure that would actually happen — by demanding too much, being too needy or high maintenance, or sometimes, rejecting THEM when I feared they might be getting ready to reject ME (pre-emptive rejection). I did a lot of projecting too. Assuming people were angry at me when actually I was the one who was angry at them. Assuming they felt sorry for me when I actually just felt sorry for myself. And assuming they would leave when actually it was really me who wanted to leave. In those cases, I could beg them to stay and be able to tell myself I did nothing wrong when they finally DID leave me. Yes, I could be a manipulative little bitch! (But I had no idea what I was doing).
All this borderline crap was so painful, that over time, I built a thin covert-narcissistic defense over these unstable and unpredictable behaviors. (By the way, my therapist finally agrees with me that this is exactly what happened). I stopped trying to reach out to anyone; I kept to myself, became a near recluse. I avoided people when they would approach me, or made excuses why I was too busy. I’d tell myself I didn’t like people–only animals (who would never judge or shame me and would always appreciate me). I’d tell myself I was too good for other people anyway so I didn’t have to feel that shame of feeling left out of things (which I’d really set myself up for by sabotaging any incipient friendships when they seemed to be getting too close).
Even online, where I generally feel safer connecting with people and making friends, I’d still hold other people at arm’s length and let them tell me a lot more about themselves than I’d ever tell them (except in my blog posts). I still felt like if I revealed too much, even online, I’d be dismissed as the “weak loser” my inner judge (really my mother’s nagging voice) always told me I was. I cared about the friends I met online and could allow myself a little more emotional vulnerability (and could allow myself to empathize with them) than I could with others in real life, but still stopped myself at a point just short of a true emotional connection. Eventually most of these friends moved on to more fertile waters, where there’d be more emotional give and take.
A few months ago, I met a new friend, one who I felt I could very much relate to in many ways, although some circumstances are different. We had similar childhoods and reacted to our cold, abusive, more outgoing and garrulous mothers in similar ways. Neither of us dared outshine our sparkling, charming, narcissistic mothers so we became shadows of what we could have been, never taking risks, never reaching out in healthy, authentic ways. We walled ourselves off from others to avoid further rejection. We are both broken people, in therapy for early childhood trauma, but we are also both beginning to heal as we learn to navigate the many strange new feelings that are now finally becoming accessible to us. We are not at the same stage of our journeys, but we have met at a kind of crossroads where both our journeys have met. I believe this woman is a teacher to me, who came at a time when it was needed. I may be a teacher to her as well, though I don’t want to assume that.
Although I value and care about all my online friends, I felt a kind of special kinship with this particular woman. I had a strong feeling she had something very important to teach me that no one else could. We began a tentative friendship, sometimes talking about the “deep stuff,” but mostly skirting around the real issues out of fear of revealing too much or making ourselves too vulnerable. Over time, my affection and caring for this woman deepened (not romantic feelings, just a desire for deeper and more meaningful friendship) but I began to worry that if I told her how I really felt, that I would be rejected. Again, that was me projecting my own insecurity onto her. But on the other hand, this person is shy and avoidant, and it seemed logical that I might easily scare her away if I revealed too much, just as I can be so easily scared by too much emotional intensity from others.
And yet I long for emotional intensity, in spite of my fear of it. I know that you can’t feel truly alive until you can be vulnerable and open your heart to another person, even though there’s a risk of being hurt. But I’m lonely and isolated and tired of living behind walls of my own making.
I talked to my therapist about this at length. I told him I wanted to reach out to this friend and tell her my feelings, even though I was scared to death. He encouraged me to do so, saying it would be good practice for me and that even if I was rejected, it would still be a big step for me just for having tried. He asked me to think about whether I was ready. I did, and realized I was.
This morning I finally did it. I was a nervous wreck, imagining the worst and trying to brace myself for her inevitable escape! I never trusted myself to know when I’d breached someone else’s boundaries because I never learned how to keep good boundaries or know how to navigate those of others. I was taking a huge chance!
But I’ve had practice now, and in therapy have learned a lot about being able to tell without asking when it’s okay to remove boundaries or when it’s best to step away or build reinforcements. So my friend and I finally talked on Facebook. We talked for over an hour. I told her how protective and maternal I felt toward her, so much so that the thought of anyone hurting this incredibly strong but vulnerable woman (who is younger than me) makes me feel so enraged I would want to beat them to a pulp (and I’m not a violent type of person at all). Maybe I have a “rescuer complex,” I don’t know, but why analyze it? Once I started talking, things got easier. I spilled out my need to explore my own vulnerability with her and start to navigate these “dangerous” waters of meaningful emotional connection and real friendship.
It turned out that she was grateful that I brought my feelings up, because she had been worrying she might have told me too much before (she hadn’t). But after my admission, she realized I was someone she could trust and she could feel safe opening up even more. We both got pretty emotional, and if we were physically in front of each other, this would have been the moment we embraced and the swelling movie-music would have started up.
A few minutes later she sent me a heartbreaking post (in PDF) she had written a few days before about her cold, narcissistic mother and how helpless she had always felt in front of her. It was so raw and vulnerable and beautifully written (and I could relate to it so much) that it brought me to tears. My friend said it also had made her feel so vulnerable and triggered after she wrote it that she decided to take her whole blog down (a blog which she had never made public). I think that at some point she will probably want to share that post with the world, because I think it would help so many people and it touched me so much. But I understand if she’s not ready for that yet. It’s a big step, one that might be too overwhelming for her at the moment. I’m just so grateful and moved that she trusted me enough to share it with me.
I know I need to respect her boundaries and not be too pushy about that or anything else. I’ve realized that learning to connect with another person, and learning when boundaries should be removed or stay in place, is like an intricate dance — knowing when it’s your turn, when it’s the other person’s turn, being careful to not to step on the toes of the other, but still remain courageous enough to reveal your heart when it feels right and sometimes learn to let go and let your partner spin you around. And also, always be willing to risk the possibility you may fall and get hurt.
Relationships are kept in balance and become healthy through empathic understanding of and respect for each other’s need for either more space or deeper connection, and this type of empathy is, fortunately, something we both possess, but just were never trained to use — and never had the confidence to try.
I feel like I made progress today, and I can’t wait to tell my therapist. I know he will be proud of me, but mostly I’m proud of myself for taking a risk and finding that instead of the rejection I’d so feared, that I helped someone else open their heart to me even more. As my friend said to me later, we are helping each other learn, and this is a valuable and wonderful experience for both of us which can help us grow even more, as long as we’re both mindful about it. Everyone you meet in life has the potential to become a teacher, and my friend has taught me today that vulnerability is the greatest kind of strength and the only thing that can lead us out of the darkness.