You Should Have Known Better (or How It’s Time to Start Listening to What People Say About Themselves / Stop Ignoring What They’re Really Showing of Themselves)

It’s no secret that I went through another shitty break up fairly recently, or that it’s taking quite some time to work through it (side note – surely this shit should get easier with age???). I’ve done a lot of processing, both public and private, about my role in the relationship’s demise, and I see how both circumstances and a lot of my choices and behaviour impacted the outcome. Now, I’m at the point of trying to reconcile my role with the part that he played, and exploring how my desire to take responsibility for the overall situation, which may possibly be a misguided attempt to maintain an element of control, could be skewing my perception and obscuring the real lessons.

See, I thought I had learned a lot – enough  certainly – to be safely entering a new connection. I was prepared for the work it was going to take to align two very independent people, both with protective walls around their hearts and differing modes of interaction. I was willing to work on my listening skills, which admittedly left room for improvement, and on my coping skills, which had taken a beating. I was up for being a support for someone, for learning about them, and taking fresh information on board; in fact, I invited it. For trying new things and different ways, for emotional and physical closeness, even though it felt frightening for the first time. I was prepared to try again, even though after Sitting on the Fence for so long, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to. It actually felt miraculous to have a chance that seemed so solid, and I was prepared to give it everything I could.

What I wasn’t prepared for was to be punished and criticised for having a breakdown, or to be rejected because I am ethically non-monogamous. To be accused of being knowingly hurtful – while still honouring our connection – for continuing to love others whose importance I had carefully revealed. To be abandoned, so soon after the termination of a pregnancy, at a moment when my psyche was brutally damaged and I was in need of care. Especially not when I’d entered into the relationship as an infinite lover, received verbal support when I’d consulted with him about the best ways to navigate it together, and been totally upfront about and responsible for where my mental health was at, and about the impact the pregnancy was having on me. 

I wasn’t prepared to be called dramatic and inappropriate for expressing my concerns or needs. Charged with creating a scene when trying to uphold my boundaries or ask genuine questions. Having people I care deeply about be reduced to the wilfully unexamined pain he felt about me being close to them, based on monogamous paradigms he proved unable – and  ultimately apparently unwilling – to reconsider.

Most of all, I wasn’t prepared to be totally shut out overnight. Literally left out by the side of the road; instantly blocked, ignored and cast aside. No longer cared for. No longer given the courtesy of a reply. No chance to talk things over or make sense of what was a very painful and confusing time for us both. It’s pretty much my greatest fear, and something I’d shared a lot of vulnerability about with him, given some very particular circumstances around my last relationship.

I kept thinking it must be a mistake or a misunderstanding. He would call…He would return an email…He would eventually check to see if I was okay…If it was really over, he would tell me rather than just ignore me. My boyfriend was loving and tender and respectful. He was a considerate man who took other’s needs into account. He looked out for me, and wanted the best for me. I knew this, believed it wholeheartedly. Maybe he just needed some time to calm down – it was a pretty confronting situation to process, right?

Wrong. So very, very wrong.

But as the days turned into weeks, and then into months, I still wasn’t prepared to accept that this shut down, unavailable, angry and seemingly callous person was the man I’d been dating for 5 months, and getting to know over the best part of a year. I was so unprepared for it that I didn’t really accept that it was happening, either in the lead up, at the time, or even in the months immediately following.

The thing is, I should have been. I should have been prepared for all of that.

He told me his damn self long before we got together what his coping mechanisms were, and even warned me that I might not like the person I would find once I got to know him.

He’d just come out of 18 months of self-imposed hermitude. As in, saw no one outside of colleagues and roommates for that entire time. Connected only superficially. Focused deeply on his work and spent all of his spare time keeping to himself. For months leading up to us dating, he told me about his need to withdraw to process, and confessed that he can be mean when he’s unhappy. He was frequently hesitant to reveal more about himself, and would turn my questions back on me, protesting that I was more interesting, or claiming that he preferred to listen than talk about himself.

So why on earth would I think it could be any different with me? Why didn’t I believe him? Why did I open my heart, my home, my world, to someone who gave me every reason upfront not to? Most importantly, why did I try to convince him that he was wrong about himself?

I mean it. I think it’s time to take a long, close look at myself because this isn’t the first time I’ve made this exact mistake.

We could, I guess, talk about mother issues. Father issues. Martyr issues, caretaker issues. God complexes. Messiah complexes. Florence Nightingale and Henderson complexes. Narcissism, and how easy it is to be fooled by it. A misguided sense that I know better, because I’m an intuitive empath who does often turn out to be right about the core of a person. But I think, at heart, it comes down to finding it hard to imagine that the good feelings I have about someone might be more about myself than the result of our particular connection, and of therefore not listening with a healthily sceptical ear.

Seeing the best in others is something I never want to give up. I’ve learned that assuming people will do their best is one of the most likely ways to ensure they will step up, and I’ve experienced some magical moments of connection as a result. But when hoping for the best, one should balance it with being prepared for the worst, and I think that’s what my approach has been lacking.

The other day, someone I’m rather attracted to shared a bad feeling about themselves. It’s a small but significant change that instead of immediately trying to convince him he was being hard on himself, or assuming it was the product of low self esteem that could be loved back to health, I instead asked why he thought that was the case. It remains to be seen how well I’ve learned, but asking the question sure felt like a good start.

Paying better attention to his behaviour, rather than my feelings about him, can be sobering. I like him. I get excited thinking about him. I’d really like to spend more time with him, but I see that I have to choose how much time and energy I invest in trying to make that happen, and in fact exercise restraint in doing so. While I feel great when we’re interacting, and there are always valid reasons for when our interaction gets patchy, the reality is that it does get patchy. Frequently. While he’s expressed his own desire to connect, he’s also confided that he doesn’t feel ready to just yet. He’s mentioned not really liking himself all that much right now. More concerningly, there’s a pattern that close contact with him leads to withdrawal. That’s not good for me, and certainly not what I want to experience with a lover or even a friend. Realistically, it’s probably not that great for him either, possibly triggering a shame spiral that may be harder to break than if I just leave him to do his thing. So I’m practicing sitting with that, matching up what he’s saying  with his behaviour, and then letting my feelings get involved. If it’s sensible and sustainable to do so. Which it seems it very well might not be.

Recently, at the risk of ‘losing’ a  rediscovered connection, one who held particular fascination and sway with my younger self’s heart, I flat out asked him if he knew he was coming across as a dick. Sure, there were likely to be explanations and reasons. But he was showing me some pretty consistently dicky behaviour, and when I put my feelings about him aside, I was able to see a different view. I realised that if his behaviour was going to be more than a passing moment, and without acknowledgment, then it actually wasn’t going to be a loss after all.

Looking at my relationships wholistically changes how I feel about individual situations. It takes away the hooks of attachment, compulsion and a range of similarly potentially destructive emotions. Admitting to myself that it might be better to sever a connection with someone who isn’t treating me consistently respectfully or well, even if I really do like them, is a new skill, and one I’m committed to developing.

I also recognise I need to give myself a break.

Because I’m finally starting to understand that no matter how well I pay attention, no matter how critical or sceptical an eye I might employ, sometimes a person just doesn’t know themselves well enough, or hasn’t had enough positive experience with being accepted, to be able to present their full self at all, let alone consistently. Fear of rejection, mingled – ironically – with fear of hurting someone, takes over. Unable to accept themselves, they seek to hold on to love while deeply fearing they are not worthy of receiving it. This dissonance creates an irreconcilable imbalance. Their words and actions will be paradoxically contradictory; you may even start to doubt yourself in the face of it, so vast is the discrepancy. What follows is a relationship based on manipulation rather than care or love. Under my old regime, I’ve sure fallen prey to it on more than one occasion, and I see now that it was definitely the case with that damn niggling break up.

As with my most recent experience, someone might, for example, staunchly advocate for the importance of talking openly, yet prove evasive when questioned, although in such a way that their politeness or ‘kindness’ cannot be faulted and you then start to doubt your own approach. Perhaps they will verbally confirm support, while failing to provide it, but will then pay such exquisite attention when you least expect them to, leaving you wondering if you actually imagined the times you know they weren’t there for you. They may hold you to incredibly high standards of behaviour, but act out in the same ways they’ve demanded you not to – but because they’ve been so vocal in their disregard for that kind of behaviour, you’re likely to ignore it or explain it away. They might expect you to know that they are upset without communicating it, or even denying it at the time, only to bring it up much later as a failure on your part…all the while criticising you for not expressing your needs clearly enough. And in any of those cases, if you’re too invested in what you want to believe, the impact can be disastrous at worst, and unsettlingly confusing at best.

My ex demonstrated a lot of kindness. He was, in many ways and a lot of the time, a considerate and caring person. He actively tried to make my routine easier. Expressed subtle and sweet tenderness and affection. Seemed to show genuine interest in the woman that I am, and strive to be. But at any point of conflict, from our first to our last, no matter how calm I stayed, no matter how well I explained myself, no matter how unreasonable the situation, if he already had a view of what my words or actions meant, no further discussion would be entered into. And for someone like me, someone who believes meaning is fluid, and impacted by both circumstance and intention, that is a dangerous zone to enter. His kindness also blinded me to the reality that he entered a red zone temper-wise that was so extreme he would rather drive away than let me see it, and that could take days to recover from. And for some time, it confounded me into denying that he was routinely withdrawing affection if he considered me ‘undeserving’ of it.

He had told me he was set in his ways, and frequently joked about his own stupidity – using humour to express his insecurities was a favoured tactic – but he’d also stressed how important it was to talk about things honestly and respectfully so they could be resolved. Not holding grudges was something he would passionately advocate for while at the same time waiting months to tell me about things he’d been upset about.

Which version was I to believe? Harder still, which version was I to respond to? It’s little wonder that I came to doubt – and judge – myself so intensely, blaming myself for things I now see I had very little control over by that point. Whenever I’d start to have a fuller picture and try to take a step back, there was the kindness again. Coupled with just enough self-deprecation to have me convinced that I was overreacting.

Still, I persevered with the notion that he was reasonable, considerate and loving, even though by this point, he had both warned me and shown me that it wasn’t the case a lot of the time. It’s taken a lot to forgive myself for falling for it, and honestly, to feel safe in the world of other people again.

As I continue to ponder months later, doing my best to take my mistakes on board and protect myself from future damage, I’m noticing something. A few things, really. The first is that now that I’m beginning to be aware of how much I’ve missed in the past, I’m able to spot so many discrepancies between what people say and do these days that it’s almost overwhelming sometimes. The lovely antidote is that I’m also noticing people coming into my sphere who seem to value integrity as much as I do.

On the other hand, I’m aware that I need to run a much stronger filter on the people I let close to me. Because, in conscious and less witting ways, people do tend to give away who they really are, no matter how skilled they have become at hiding the parts they would prefer nobody sees. So where does this leave me? Even understanding as much as I do about how potentially catastrophic it can be to misjudge people in this way, the practice of vetting them more carefully isn’t happening totally naturally yet. So, it’s a case of the price of (emotional and psychological) freedom being constant (behavioural) vigilance, until it becomes second nature for me to protect myself with a less automatically willing ear and heart.

Until that happens, I’ve created a set of guidelines to help me stay on course.

  1. Pay attention to what a person is telling or showing me about themselves.
    Rather than assuming I know better, or that their lack of self-confidence is the real reason behind their words (and that I can love them back to a healthy sense of self), LISTEN! Ask questions, gathering information instead of making presumptions. Engage in conversation to find out more.
  2. Listen with a healthy dose of scepticism.
    That means suspending judgment until I have enough evidence to make a conclusion. Or even a decent hypothesis. This translates to refraining from settling into a view of someone in the immediate moment, instead forming a fuller picture over time.
  3. Endeavour to see the whole person.
    Be open to finding the best about people, while also being aware that this desire can blind me to their worst. Or even just their all. Humans are dynamic and beautifully (and sometimes dangerously) flawed. If those flaws fall into a toxic range, downplaying them won’t bring me closer to the good of a person. It will take me closer to personal disaster.
  4. Exercise mindfulness and restraint with my feelings.
    Feelings, especially the yummy ones, are great. But they have a tendency to blind me to the interaction that’s really taking place, if I’m not careful. So until I can learn to fully inhabit them without projecting them onto my relationships, the solution is to run them through a filter before becoming absorbed in them. Are my good feelings the result of some kindness on the part of the other? Or are they a reflection of something I’m expressing? It’s a simple yet powerful question to ask.
  5. Take a step back.
    If I’m noticing a lack of alignment, especially between someone’s actions and energy or words, that dissonance is likely a useful indication that things aren’t as they seem. Distancing myself from the connection to refocus and renew perspective, and exercise some serious self care if required, is the best thing to do in this case.
  6. If that step back is challenged, all the more reason to take it!
    Manipulation works so well because it is confusing, and leaves the person on the receiving end doubting themselves. In this way, the cycle can be perpetuated endlessly as the receiver questions their instincts and rational processes, and turns back to the connection for answers and/or comfort that may never come. While it might feel sad or distressing to create distance, it’s the most likely way to see a truer picture. And to stay on top of emotional exhaustion or injury.
  7. Know that, no matter how much work this might seem like, it’s worth it.
    Building good foundations is much easier to do than handling any potential damage control/crisis management that may follow without it. Simple as that.

For the immediate future, I’m finding myself a lot more wary of letting people ‘in’. But whereas I might once have found that idea disheartening, what I’m experiencing is a greater mobility and freedom within connection and interaction. I find myself observing people more, and feeling them less. I’m content more often than I am excited these days, and it’s a trade off I’m happy to make.

I remain fairly confident that I will re-enter the deeper feeling space again before too long, and I hope to once more be the kind of person who has a good impact on those she loves – but not until the calibration point has reset around myself, and I am able to see things as they are, rather than how I want them to be.

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