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There’s this falsehood that many people who are in the process of improving their self-esteem, addressing unhealthy or redundant habits, or who are thinking about doing any of these things, subscribe to, and it’s this idea that once we tackle whatever it is that we think has held us back and even “grow up” as such, that we will not be knocked by things anymore. We believe that once we do what we feel that we need to, that we won’t be put to the test. But, how would we know that we have the courage to deal with things and how would we know the length and breadth of what we’ve learned, unless these on-the-job training lessons are put to the test on occasion?

In the almost ten years since I embarked on my own personal journey of learning to like and love me as well as starting Baggage Reclaim, I’ve thought that I’m “finally” a grownup on a number occasions due to coming out of the other side of deeply testing situations. I think on some level, for a time I believed that once I had some experience under my belt of having improved self-esteem, I was never going to be ‘back there’ but if life has taught me anything in recent years, it’s that a lot of what I’ve learned along the way has prepared me for facing adversity such as different major stresses I’ve experienced with both of my parents, grieving the loss of my relationship with my father and his family, and having to face down experiences that had the potential to bring up those fears of rejection, failure, and even success.

Each time I’ve been put in testing situations, I’ve had to figure out through trial and error as well as my existing bank of self-knowledge, how to get back up.

Each testing experience, I’ve come out of it thinking, “OK – yeah, I’ve definitely grown up now”, and then down the line, something else happens and it’s, “Jaysus! Now I’ve grown up”. It reminds me of when after each breakup and disappointment, I’d think (and often say) that I’d never get over this”.

For the majority of my life, a lot of my story was “I got knocked down” but over the last decade it’s changed to, “I’m still standing” or “I got back up”.

I’m still standing. You’re still standing. We’re still standing.

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unselfish doesn't mean little or no boundaries. that's just code for being a doormat.

When we suppress and repress our own feelings, opinions, needs, expectations and desires, we become oversensitised to those of others and develop a pesky habit of taking ownership of their feelings and behaviour. It’s as if in silencing us and being on high alert, we think that we’re feeling their feelings and thinking their thoughts, causing us to anticipate and forecast doom while burdening us with ‘duties’.

When we take ownership of other people’s feelings and behaviour, we spend a lot of our time grappling with doubt, guilt and shame. We fear that we are being “selfish” and we also tend to engage with people who feel entitled to our compliance.

We see it as our responsibility to be and do things that make people feel better… even if it’s to our detriment and even if it means that we are preventing them from taking ownership of their feelings and behaviour… and even if it means that we are avoiding our own responsibilities.

As a result, when we perceive that we’re being requested or expected to do something that takes care of their needs, expectations, and desires, even if it isn’t 1) fair and reasonable and 2) our responsibility, we convince ourselves that to say no or leave them to it, would be “selfish”. We imagine that they’re feeling really bad or thinking whatever and whatever about us. In order to relieve that tension within us and keep up with this image of being what we think is unselfish, we do what they need/want/expect or do what we think that they need/want/expect.

We of course, end up feeling pretty bloody awful because it’s one thing if we are being and doing stuff because it’s truly who we are and without expectation of a reward of some kind, but invariably, we are not being ourselves and we also have an underlying expectation that we should be rewarded in some way, so lack of conflict, criticism, disappointment etc. Really, all we’re doing is operating under the misguided hope that one day somebody will say, “Wow! Isn’t _______ such an altruistic person? Did you know that they’ve thrown themselves under a bus thousands of times? I think it’s time that the universe cut him/her a break and let the good times roll.”

That’s not how it works.

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There's no such thing as a one-sided committed relationship.

Over the years, many a reader has claimed that they’ve been emotionally available to an emotionally unavailable partner. Here’s the thing:

If we are truly emotionally available and want to keep our integrity and basically not be met with tumbleweeds or the equivalent of, “What? What was that? You’re breaking up…” or even a ‘dead ringtone’, why are we choosing to be emotionally available to somebody who is afraid of intimacy, commitment, progression, balance, and consistency?

Why are we claiming to be emotionally available to somebody who doesn’t want to ‘hear’ us and ‘feel’ us to the level of which we’re claiming that we’re available?

One of the things I’ve learned from experience and also through the stories of BR readers, is that when we habitually engage with an emotionally unavailable person, even if we started out available, in the context of this involvement, we adjust ourselves. It may be conscious, it might be unconscious, but we do.

We can pick up on cues that indicate that certain subjects or situations are not a good idea.

We edit ourselves.

Let’s be real: If we’ve been raised in an environment with a lot of tension or where feelings or discussions were a no-no, or where we’ve gotten into the habit of being a pleaser, we can be pretty damn adept at reading a room or reading for what we feel are signs of tension, and then adjusting ourselves.

What do you do when you feel as if you’re putting yourself out there with somebody who at one point, was all over you like a rash or certainly giving the impression of availability, and now they seem to be stepping back by quietly or even aggressively putting up walls? You become more guarded and stop being as honest and vulnerable as you were before.

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Just because you did some seemingly good deeds, it doesn't give you the credits to act out and mistreat me

Have you ever been on the best date ever or best few dates ever, only to be unceremoniously blanked afterwards despite promises of another date? This person wanted to leave you with a really good impression and fill you up with good feelings and memories so that when you didn’t hear from them again, they could move on with a clear conscience.

Some people extend this beyond dates and devote their energies to trying to come out smelling of roses when really, it’s Eau de Bullsh*t (BS). It doesn’t matter whether it’s months or years; they engage in compartmentalisation and image management activities that appear to put them in a good light.

They’re masters of abrupt endings of what are often believed (by outsiders and even their partners), to be near “perfect” relationships.

Holding back their concerns or their secret ambivalence, you’re invariably ambushed by their announcement (if you get one) and their exit, all while insisting that there’s no one else (even though there is).

The exit can be so fast and in such a way that it can be tricky to get answers to burning questions. If they dignify a conversation, it’ll be poetic and nostalgic smoke and mirrors, possibly reminding you how amazing you are and how they’ve been so happy in the relationship (So why the eff are you leaving me then?, you wonder). Or, you’re met with such an alarmingly level of coldness that you wonder if they’ve experienced a knock to the head. They might even sleep with you, take you out to dinner or even on a fancy holiday, to let you down gently…

You may be brokenhearted while singing their praises even when others aren’t. It can be uncomfortable to admit that you may have felt flattered or even very grateful, that somebody “like them” had ‘chosen’ you, that you don’t know how entrenched you are in their image.

This image management and compartmentalisation malarkey is at the dubious end of people pleasing, which on the whole is about trying to influence and control people’s feelings and behaviour by attempting to cater to and satisfy what we perceive as other people’s needs, expectations, desires, feelings, and opinions, so that we can relieve tension and avoid conflict, criticism etc. You don’t see what’s coming because in their efforts to ‘look good’, they smile to your face, closely guard their innermost feelings and thoughts even when they contradict that outward appearance, and appear to be giving you ‘everything’, because they’re wearing a mask while telling you (or inferring) that it’s their face.

In their mind, they’re not going be “that guy” or “that woman”, you know, the one who’s cheating on their partner. They’re above that. They are doing it but it’s not cheating. It’s horizontal friendship or some other guff. They don’t want to be in the same camp as say, their own parent/caregiver or even yours, so they pad out what they’re doing with all of this puffing you up and sheltering you from the truth.

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What’s so bad about saying that we like and love ourselves? Or, what’s so bad about saying that we would like to get to know ourselves and evolve our relationship to one that’s coming from a place of healthier self-esteem and personal security? Doesn’t this benefit everyone all round? Isn’t this better than looking for romantic partners and other people in our lives, to fill voids or even parent us? Isn’t this better than rocking up to relationships expecting this person to tell us who we are and validate us?

What’s so bad about saying, “I’m OK” or “I like and accept myself”?

When did things get so bad that being self-aware, having some self-worth and self-compassion, along with internalising our accomplishments, achievements and deeds, became a source of embarrassment and shame?

Some people teach shame.

They teach us to feel wrong, bad, and humiliated. When we were little, we may have been told that “good girls” or “good boys” don’t take pride in who they are because it’s “showing off” or it will make people uncomfortable, envious or jealous. We may have gotten into the habit of dimming our light to fit in with or boost others. We may associate even the teensiest kind thought or action of self-appreciation as “selfish”, “uppity” or “self-involved”. It may be embedded in us as a default reaction to fear thinking decently of ourselves or thinking independently in case we cause embarrassment and problems.

Even though we’re grown-ups and know that the teachings are wrong, we remain loyal to the pattern out of fear of betraying and upsetting the proverbial applecart. This keeps us small.

Sometimes this happens because the person is trying to squash us because they then get to feel big or certainly less inadequate, but often, they think that they’re teaching us protective life lessons designed to spare us from a bigger pain that they imagine for us.

Reading stories from readers and students who are people pleasers or who just quite simply don’t like themselves, there was this recurring theme:

Often, when a person projects their fears and perspective onto us through criticism or distorted talk and ‘lessons’, it’s their way of not only protecting us from, for example, failing or being ridiculed, but it’s about controlling us so that they can feel in control and fit in with whoever they’re trying to please. They may have wanted us to tow the line so that they looked good to the community, parish, family etc. They are in their own pattern.

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Never treat you like you don't matter just to prove to someone else how much they matter

Over the years of writing BR, I’ve emphasised how relationships are 100:100. We have to own our own and let others own theirs. We have to show up and be our true selves rather than show up on the basis that we are half of a person and that we’ll do a bit and they’ll do the rest. With the whole 50:50 premise, we’re leaving a lot out. Where did the other 50% of us go? It’s difficult to dispute when we’re putting our whole selves in and are willing to evolve but once we start making others responsible for part of what we should be doing, the waters get murky.

There’s a very specific reason though why going into relationships with a 100:100 outlook is vital:

When we have a 50:50 mentality and we’re of the people pleasing, trying to fill voids inclination, we tend to overcompensate for our partners because aside from being excessively emotionally reliant on them for our self-esteem and very quickly struggling to discern where we end and they begin, we on some level don’t feel worthy and take ownership of other people’s feelings and behaviour. This means that we feel that we are more responsible for the relationship than they are.

We’re thinking in 50:50 terms and then devaluing ourselves (or feeling devalued) and then feeling that we are 70:30, 80:20, or even 90:20 responsible for the relationship.

We know that we have things twisted when we deny, rationalise and minimise concerns as well as our own needs, expectations, wishes, feelings and opinions. We keep telling ourselves that the reason why a person is unable to show up emotionally and in other ways, is because they’re having a “tough time” or are “busy”, or that we’re “needy”, “too sensitive”, or that it must be our “problems”. We pull back, tread carefully, up the efforts, shrink a little (or a lot), force a smile, keep trying to show how much we love and care only to feel as if that’s making it worse, and sometimes put up with some pretty unpleasant if not downright abusive carry-on.

Part of us is almost thinking, Jeez – all they have to do is the exam equivalent of showing up and signing their name! I’ll take care of the rest! Or, we’re thinking along the lines of, If it were me and I had somebody right here ready to love and care about me (even though I wasn’t pulling my weight), I’d be so grateful and loving. I wouldn’t want to leave.

Of course, the problem is that when they do leave or there are attempts to tackle the issues, because we covered their ‘share’ of the relationship and felt excessively responsible, we also feel excessively to blame.

We blame ourselves for it going wrong, for not being “enough”, and keep trying to retrace our steps to figure out where we botched things, wondering what happened to the “amazing” person that they were in be beginning… when we didn’t really know them and they hadn’t unfolded.

At what point did we start covering for them?

For many Blame Absorbers, it can be right at the beginning, often because they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. There’s this underlying concern that this person may figure out that they’ve made a mistake so they buffer this by making some overpayments into the pleasing investment account (like when we make overpayments on our mortgages). This overcompensating can also happen because on some level below the awareness line, they sense that this person chimes with their pattern…so again, they get cracking with building them up. It can come down to an uneasiness that comes with the familiarity of certain feeling and thought responses to what is happening, or the familiarity of the person’s behaviour. It may feel like ‘home’…

It might start at what appears to the early signs of problems. Things may appear hunkydory and then, boom! They come back one day and it’s as if they’ve turned into Hollowman or Hollowwoman. The lights are on but nobody’s home. Or they suddenly respond lukewarm or coldly where they appeared to previously reciprocate and enjoy something. Maybe it’s after the first conflict or after feeling wounded by criticism. They’re asked if something is bothering them or whether they’re “OK” and they claim that everything’s “fine” while acting the opposite.

If you’ve been overcompensating for your partners, you will know because you’re either in it and taking ownership of their feelings and behaviour, or you’re out of it and doing the same thing and feeling wounded by your “failure”.

You’ll be damn near exhausted from trying to figure out the magic words and deeds to keep this person happy so that you can feel happy. You might not know your up from your down because you’ve been ignoring your instincts and listening to them deny, minimise or rationalise the very real concerns. You will feel as if you are failing or have failed because the relationship is all about your effort and on some level you know that you’re giving you away and all for what? To be left feeling inadequate and that nothing was ever good enough?

Well it’s time to ask, What about me?

It’s time to get honest and open up your awareness about where you have held you back and taken over their responsibilities. It’s time to be honest about where you have been hurting and where you’ve had to practically cattle prod partners into responding and showing up. You’ve got to be honest about where you forgot you while trying to make another person the centre of the universe. They’re just not that special. Why are you bowing down and acting as if a miracle has taken place in being given the time of day and now it’s like you have to prove that they didn’t make a mistake in being that person they were in the beginning? Why does everything rest on you?

We can empathise with people and recognise where they have their own stuff to deal with but you know what? If someone’s stuff is going to prevent them from chipping in with love, care, trust, and respect and they’re going to enjoy the fruits of you being an almost skivvy in the relationship, it’s time for them to jog on, because your efforts will not be respected and appreciated for it. If anything, they will feel some level of guilt and rather than step up, they’ll act out, keep distancing themselves from you while telling you what they think you want to hear or pulling other passive aggressive acts because the nicer you are the worse they feel; or they’ll make an exit where they can go back to their comfort zone or press the reset button, all while likely taking no responsibility.

Do not accept less than the very basics of what you deserve by overcompensating and then feeling that you have to wait for some sort of payback. Never treat you like you don’t matter in a messy effort to prove to someone else how much they matter. You know where you stand when you show up as a person who can own their own and has a good sense of self, because you can quickly tell where you’re being left hanging by somebody who is of a very different inclination. Instead of blaming you, you recognise that you both want different things and that no relationship of any decency is going to go anywhere good when it lacks consistency, commitment, balance, progression and intimacy that only materialises when two people show up to a relationship.

Forgive you for where you let them off the hook from showing up and where you forgot your own responsibilities. Learn from this experience and what you’ve experienced will be transformed from loss to the gain that it is. These experiences are there to teach us where we need to step up and show up for ourselves in order to change the nature of our journey.

Your thoughts?

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We grow and we evolve and sometimes we don’t take everyone who started with or joined us on the journey, along for the rest of the ride.

 

One of the challenges that friendship can sometimes pose is this desire, whether its on our part or on the part of our friend(s), that nothing changes or that the friendship is maintained in orderly fashion. There are often roles within friendships, particularly imbalanced ones where one party may be more of a Florence Nightingale type or the one who never has his/her stuff together and juggles various dramas, or the one who is super responsible and never appears to put a foot wrong. There can be recurring ‘go-to’ topics – the ex that got away or family dramas or reminiscing about the good ‘ole days or whatever. There can be underlying predictions about who will settle down first or whose life will be plain sailing and when the running order is messed about with by real life, the person who always thought that they would be doing what we’re doing (or vice versa), can feel very confused, wounded, and yes, even envious and resentful.

When we ask why it bothers us that things have changed or why things had to go in a certain order, what’s revealed underneath these concerns is where we personalise things to too high a degree.

We often don’t want things to change because we are resisting change or are still affected by the past enough that it’s distorting our present and our perception of our future. If things stay the same, if the routine of the friendship doesn’t change, then we can remain in our comfort zone. We feel as if it’s a level playing field. If we accept the change but we judge us unfairly, we see that change as a reflection of our ‘failure’ and/or as rejection. We feel as if we have time to play with. When our friends appear to be changing and evolving, we may put pressure on ourselves. It can trigger an unease that subtly plays its way out in the dynamic. It’s one thing if we don’t want things to change from being healthy to unhealthy but it’s another when we don’t want our friendships to evolve because we don’t want to evolve.

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Own your own and let others own theirs

Have you ever had that disconcerting experience of being accused of something you haven’t done and it turns out that the person is in essence, working up a case against you because they have done something to you (that you don’t know about yet) or they feel guilty about something that they’ve kept hidden (possibly including from themselves)? It’s as if they need to create a situation so that they can feel justified in having done what they’ve done.

Ah! The joy of projection!

A friend was at a group dinner with her husband and several couples and spent time talking to her friend’s husband. One of the women spread a rumour afterwards that my friend was having an affair. I laughed at the time and said, “I’d lay bets she’s having her own affair”, and lo and behold, it all came out a few months later that she was.

I experienced projection when a relative claimed that I had an issue with her even though I didn’t. Her ‘evidence’ was to take situations and re-cast them as a personal attack. As an example, my 5-year old was a bit moody after school one day and rather than it being that it’s because she’s five and worn out from a busy day at school and possibly a bit ‘hangry’ (hungry + angry), it became, “Natalie must have told her to be funny with me because she has a problem with me”. Quite a leap, and she apologised for the “misunderstanding”. OK, I thought, but I wondered what was really behind this. Then it all came out about how weeks before, she’d said some inappropriate stuff behind my back to my mother of all people (HE-LLO!) and all while smiling to my face and making out that she was cool with me. The ‘secret’ and those feelings she was masking found a way to show themselves and so they were ‘relieved’ by creating these situations and projecting. This also happens when celebrities, politicians etc., try to change the story by inserting themselves into it, only they’re re-cast as a victim, or by smearing someone else, or throwing in another story to distract from the real issue.

Many of us have projected at some point in our lives. It’s something that we do unconsciously and when we’re out of touch with how we feel and are not as self-aware as we could be, or we’re going out of our way to suppress and repress our emotions, we relocate our feelings in others. We carry on as if they share our feelings, so, “I feel this way so you feel this way too”, or we attempt to distance ourselves from what we deem to be uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, so, “I don’t want to admit that I feel this way so now I’m going to say that you do”.

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Trying to control uncertainty is like trying to cup the ocean in your hands

One of the things that many of us grownups struggle with is uncertainty. We can find it difficult to not know exactly what’s going to happen next. We want to be able to move through life with the confidence that comes with knowing that something is definite. If we had our way, we’d be happy 100% of the time and not experience loss, disappointment, conflict, criticism, or rejection. We forget that life ebbs and flows and that we learn what ‘up’ is because we also learn what ‘down’ is. We have to learn how to navigate these so that we can enjoy and maximise those ups and gradually recover from those downs.

What many of us are looking for though, are ironclad guarantees or at the very least, a crystal ball to let us know whether or not we should bother. These would remove the uncertainty that comes with being vulnerable. We wouldn’t have to think or respond.

We can find decision-making scary and some of us are allergic to commitment, simply because it requires us to decide to be or do something without knowing exactly what’s going to happen next.

So we might, for instance, have to commit to following through with our desire to start a business and while we’ll have our idea and plan, we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen from end to end and we don’t have a play by play list of what we’re going to be and do. Instead, we have to make the decision, commit, and then invest our energy towards that commitment instead of looking for reasons to back out or question it.

Same goes for relationships. Before the point where we’re going to commit to something longer term and start talking ‘forever’, we have to give getting to know a person through the discovery phase of dating and then a relationship, a shot. We don’t know how it’s going to pan out hence why it’s a wise idea to do some due diligence, not so that we can avoid anything we find remotely unfavourable but more so that if and when we decide to give a relationship a go and commit, we’re making the commitment with the best of the knowledge that we have at the time rather than doing it without self-knowledge, self-awareness, and a healthy dose of reality about the person in question.

When I hear people talking about ‘casual dating’ – Seriously, what else can we water down? – I realise that what people who are afraid of commitment and vulnerability are looking for, are guarantees.

“I need to know that they’re ‘the one’ before I dare to invest myself emotionally.”

“I need to know that they’re perfect and will basically be exactly as I imagine forever and ever, before I’ll commit.”

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Each relationship presents us with an oppportunity to know and grow ourselves better

It can be incredibly frustrating to desire healthier relationships and to have done some self work, only to get into a relationship and experience a near assault of confusing emotions that leave us struggling to distinguish between our own issues and the existence of concerns. We can become almost paralysed by the task of needing to work out our next move because we’re afraid of ‘getting it wrong’ due to being unable to tell whether it’s our issues plus a concern, or whether we are manufacturing the concern due to our issues. Is it my issues or am I in the wrong relationship?

In reality, the relationship is highlighting where we need to be more vigilant and ground ourselves in the present so that we can grow and transcend a pattern, but it’s also pointing to an area of work in the relationship. Relationships take two and are 100:100, not 50:50. Once we start trying to cut the relationship in half, that’s where things get messy. We must know where we end and they begin. One person’s idea of doing ‘their share’ may be hogging up the whole relationship or doing very little.

We must honour the fact that we are both responsible for the relationship. Once we are willing to own ourselves, it’s that much easier to know our own feelings, opinions, needs, expectations and desires so we can have a far greater sense of whether we’re in a relationship that’s befitting of us. We can look at how we want to feel and behave and also respond from a place of love, care, trust and respect to our partner. In acknowledging the separateness instead of trying to work out what’s in their head or trying to influence and control their feelings and behaviour so that we can get validation or give ourselves permission to feel and act better, we can see what’s ours and what’s theirs. We can have more honest communication.

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My Book - Mr Unavailable and the Fallback Girl

Stop believing that you did something to make them unavailable or that their inadequacies are down to your inadequacies - it is not about you; they are unavailable!
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