I’ve mentioned before my penchant for unavailable dudes, but I’d never have imagined that dating one would drive me to therapy. Yet here I am. Therapy, side note, is wonderful, and I recommend that everyone try it at least once in their lives. There might not seem to be any real benefit to having an impartial ear listen as you work through your problems, but somehow, it helps.
Though that guy’s come and gone from my life, the issues have lingered, chief among them being why did that ever seem like a good idea? But, there’s more. It’s tempting to just blame these men for being wishy-washy, for not having their shit together, for all their addictions. But after several months on this merry-go-round, I knew it was time to look at the common denominator in each of these situations—me. My self-sabotaging behaviors, the barriers to intimacy I erect, all the ways in which I’m unavailable.
What a bore.
In the handful of weeks my therapist and I have seen each other, an issue that keeps floating to the surface is the difficulty I have in giving voice to my needs and wants. I am astoundingly bad at this. So bad, that half the time I’m not even consciously aware of my needs and wants. Don’t get me wrong, they’re there, I have them, they just tend to get expressed by way of everyone’s favorite communication style—passive aggression. On top of all that, the thought of stating my needs and wants to another human being (“asserting yourself” is what my therapist optimistically calls it), fills me with such dread; even writing these words makes me anxious. To me, it feels downright confrontational, and I am nothing if not conflict-averse.
This personality quirk is especially detrimental in the realm of dating. “I’m looking for someone who’s bad at communication and has a hard time telling me what they need,” said no one’s online dating profile ever. I’ve long-adopted a go-with-the-flow attitude, even seen it as desirable, but my therapist (again with him) says that it’s actually through asserting ones needs and wants that a relationship is deepened and strengthened. After all, what better way to reveal yourself to someone than by telling them what you need or want? Well shit. The very thing that feels most safe is what’s standing in the way of achieving what I want most, which is real emotional intimacy. But opening myself up is the antithesis of what feels comfortable. Not rocking the boat feels comfortable. There’s a reason they call it smooth sailing.
But in sublimating my own needs and wants, not only do I deny myself those things, in the process I deny others true knowledge of who I am; a true exchange of trust.
I took the Enneagram test last week and discovered that I’m a Type Nine—no great surprise. According to the results, Nines are “dreamers” who crave harmony but abhor confrontation; we’re prone to living in idealized fantasy worlds where problems get swept under the rug; we’re bad at asserting ourselves. In other words, mindfulness is hard for us.
Mindfulness is a word my nutritionist liked to trot out all the time. The ultimate in in-the-moment living, it’s having awareness of your needs and wants at any given point and choosing to do the thing you truly want to do. No, I don’t actually want that fourth drink, because I’d rather not be hungover tomorrow; I will skip eating that second cookie because I don’t want to deal with looking at the number on that scale. I understand the concept of mindfulness, but I’d grouse about the practice—to keep my true best intentions at the forefront of my mind seemed a Sisyphean feat. After all, how do you be your own best advocate when living in the conscious present is so difficult?
Tests like the Enneagram have their limits, sure, but on some level I was glad to see that I wasn’t alone with what I have always consider to be the worst parts of myself. It’s a comfort to realize it’s just my personality and these traits exist on a continuum, becoming more or less dominant over time. Still, it’s scary to think that doing the thing that feels most counterintuitive is exactly the thing that will get me out of the situation I’m in. I want to be known, I want intimacy, but that means being able to have to courage to assert myself.
I am now very aware of when and how I do this, because I think about it for at least an hour every week, if not more. I’ve come to realize that this is one of the great challenges of my life, just like losing weight was a challenge. And just like losing weight, I have a great coach this time around.
Changing this habit will not be a magic bullet; it won’t make everything better. But I do feel like a more fulfilling life awaits on the other side. And I have been trying, a little bit, but everyday, I still miss opportunities to say what I really want to say, and everyday I feel uncomfortable and anxious (my therapist likes to call this “growth”). It feels unnatural; I was not brought up to assert myself. I grew up in a house where problems were covered over with humor, or silence, and were hardly ever addressed full-on. In finally understanding what a negative impact this silence is having on my life though, it makes perpetuating it unsustainable.
In AA, they say that admitting you have a problem is the first step toward recovery. In the same way, I feel that this awareness is a starting point. It reminds me of when I struggled with health anxiety and realized that in order to get over it, I was going to have to stop googling my symptoms and not run to the doctor every other day. It terrified me, because it felt like letting go of control, but even through my fear, I saw that unless I started doing it, I was going to keep myself stuck in the same pattern. So too now, I’ve identified the problem, and now I must act, or at least try.