Several years ago, I sat in on a “relationship workshop” at my local library, hosted by a therapist in the area, which consisted of some informal discussion. The only thing I remember about it was the therapist asking about our hobbies, and the man sitting next to me who answered the therapist’s question. The man described his love for snowboarding by expressing how alive he felt while engaging in his hobby.
I remember saying, “Yeah, there’s a freedom in that,” and the therapist asking me to elaborate. I went on: “Well, when you’re doing something you love, you just feel free, like the truest version of yourself. You don’t have to meet anyone’s expectations of who you are, you can just be you.”
The freedom of being “true” to oneself seems to elude a lot of us. There are expectations of us at every turn, and sometimes these are projected upon us by the people in our lives who need us to be a certain something for them. In many relationships, there are unexpressed, and even unconscious, desires that inform how we relate to each other. Over the course of our lives, we are taught to shut down certain parts of ourselves to get along in the world. These parts of the self that were shut down for self-preservation tend to get in the way of having honest, open relationships with others. At least, for me.
There’s a complicated dance to do when in partnership. I notice, for myself, the ways in which I continually open and contract within the framework of a romance, a friendship, or even a mentorship. Though I’ve never seen it before, looking back specifically at my romantic relationships, I can see where I begin to contract more and more, eventually coming to a standstill in the dance and then leaving the floor altogether.
A certain family member once told me, in my adult life, that I always “needed someone to take care” of me. This same person took great care of me when I was little. As a child, I did need that, and her caregiving provided me with the security I needed to grow into the adult I am today. As sometimes happens, though, the dynamic of this vital relationship has shaped many a lot of the significant relationships I’ve had over the years, specifically when it comes to romantic partners. I’ve seen myself replaying this same scenario in my romantic partnerships, and am embarrassed to admit that only recently have I seen a connection in the dynamics.
I have always been a fiercely independent person, perhaps as a way to overcompensate for this childhood relationship in which I never felt trusted to take care of myself or to make mistakes and learn from them gracefully. I’ve been always adamant about doing things myself and taking care of myself on my own, insisting I never needed anyone to help me with anything. All through my teens, I’d rattle off a list to people of all the adversity I’d been through in an effort to prove how tough I was by showing them how much I could withstand while still standing. Ironically, it actually backfired when people then perceived me as fragile and in need of saving. “Strong” became embedded in my identity so much that I became incredibly comfortable being alone. I could handle being alone, and having to handle everything on my own all the time. It was trusting someone else to carry me, that I couldn’t abide.
Back to that talk about the freedom in hobbies. My experience engaging in my own hobbies, where I felt that freedom to just “be,” helped me speak to the exhilarating feeling of openness that occurs whenever we engage in things we love. Those moments are when we are in our full expression of ourselves, just as we are, and we are less bogged down with the conditioning that makes us believe we “have to be” something or someone we truly are not or don’t want to be, deep down.
There’s a huge contrast for me between these moments when I have the freedom to “just be” and my everyday, when I feel obligated to be whoever it is I think the other person wants me to be. This catapults me into a maze of guessing games, where I try to figure out who I need to be so that I’m not ridiculed, belittled, scolded, or attacked. While I strongly support people having a “safe container” where they can be whoever they are without worrying about retribution, and I extend that to others freely, I have never done the same for myself. Here, my mind and my heart have always been at odds with each other.
I’ve never really felt like I could depend on anyone to provide that safe container for me. For much of my life, my parents repeatedly told me that no one would take care of me and no one would be there for me in my life, so I had to be there for myself. I had to get used to being on my own, they stressed; so, I did that. I realize now their insistence that I be self-sufficient (which is a great thing to be, by the way) created a heavy burden for me at the same time.
Receiving love in all its forms, without any strings, is excruciatingly difficult for me. I always think, “There are always strings. Nothing is just given without expectation.” I never felt comfortable just accepting and receiving assistance without doing something in return because of the implicit messages my parents drilled into my head. I always felt I was indebted, or that I was burdensome when others cared for me or helped me. I especially felt indebted when given gifts of any kind, because I knew I was never in a financial position to reciprocate.
Similarly, in relationships, I tend to want to carry my own burden all by myself, but I’m all too eager to allow others the space to unburden themselves. As I was told recently, “You’re great at being everybody else’s cheerleader, but not so great at being your own cheerleader.” That’s all true.
Yet, something happens when I’m engaged in doing things I love. For the few moments I dance or sing to a song, or the few moments I spend creating something or the time I spend mixing ingredients to bake, I feel that spark of freedom, that “aliveness” which eludes me in so much of my everyday life. When I’m dancing, especially, I feel a thrilling openness; I feel more full, excited, and more content. When I dance regularly, that feeling carries over into my everyday life.
Lately, I’ve been remembering a short-lived fling with someone I once knew, when I felt more open and available than I have been in a long while. I’ve been trying to identify what it was about that time that made me feel more open and free. It was that we met while we were both immersed in something we both loved, which we both equally enjoyed. Having put my finger on it, I can tell my openness wasn’t about the person I was involved with, but about the fact I wasn’t afraid to be seen. I wasn’t afraid to be fully expressive and open, as I typically would’ve been in any other setting.
Having been “seen” and been so “exposed” to him, without so many of my usual filters and walls, I felt more comfortable being just myself. I felt cradled in that space where I allowed someone else to provide a safety net.
That, in a nutshell, is what I think we are looking for when we engage in close relationships. Strangely enough, I’m reminded of a country song by Allison Moorer now. I hardly ever listen to country music, as it’s not my favorite genre, but it seems the most appropriate phrase to describe the safety that has long escaped me in relationships. It’s called, “A Soft Place to Fall.”