When I was younger, I was surrounded by a lot of drama, conflict, and uncertainty. Unstable home lives, parents dealing with their own demons and relationship issues, substance abuse – these were things my friends and I were witnessing and dealing with on top of growing up and deciding how we wanted to abuse substances, or who we wanted to have sex with, or how we wanted to deal with conflict.
I don’t mean to oversimplify my adolescence – it was also like a heartwarming indie movie. Me, walking or driving under huge gorgeous redwoods, thinking about what my little self wanted – and afterwards coming home to a warm house wallpapered with art, intelligence, values of creativity, nature – with a warm balanced meal waiting.
No matter what kind of environment you grow up in, we all have to decide how we will manage our lives after we leave that environment. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a choice – sometimes I feel like a complete product of how I grew up and the coping mechanisms that seemed to just appear inevitably, without my permission.
But I think there was a decision, maybe when I was 8, maybe younger? – to handle conflict and relationships in a certain way. My plan was to completely avoid it. And it seemed like as good of a strategy as any for a long time. Facing it head on just never looked like it worked out great, from what I could see.
This plan had a lot of unexpected ripple effects. In elementary and early high school, I thought being a good friend (and friendships then, of course, are practice runs for all future relationships outside your family) was to make that person the center of attention. If they are dealing with something hard, I should drop everything and be there for them.
But what if the Hard Thing they are dealing with lasts for… the entirety of our friendship? I realized that I was bottling up feelings and problems I was having to make more room for their Hard Things – because they seemed bigger. I could wait. Then I couldn’t wait anymore – the resentment would spill over, and I was so angry at them for not magically realizing on their own that I had been giving them this gift, the gift of not asking anything of them for so long so I could support them. How could they just not ask how I was doing? Didn’t they realize that we talked about them 99% of the time?
It was a tough lesson to learn: that I couldn’t expect other people to make sure my needs were being met. I had to set the stage for how I wanted to be treated. It was up to me, and it was unfair to be mad at these people after creating that environment in the first place – they didn’t ask me to do it, they were just following my lead. I never said it was a problem, until it was a complete disaster.
The problem is, this totally conflicted with my plan of avoiding conflict. I would rather secretly resent everyone in my room than risk raised voices – or even dancing dangerously close to the idea of conflict. To this day it makes my stomach feel like a lava lamp – the idea of purposefully starting a conversation that would be uncomfortable.
This pattern (ugh, I even hate acknowledging that it’s a pattern – how… unevolved…) has been popping up in allll of my relationships. Friendships, family, boyfriends. And so many times, I felt like I cracked the code. “Look! I stood up for myself. I broke up with them after all that bullshit. I said how I felt, created boundaries, and cut them off when they didn’t respect them.” Okay. Except maybe next time those boundaries and outward declarations of how you felt could exist earlier in the relationship, and not just come crashing down on everyone, all of a sudden, when your resentment tank is full?
I don’t even realize I’m doing it. In the moment, I feel strong, and totally content. “He is way more busy than I am!” “I don’t have much going on right now, so it makes more sense for me to visit them more than they visit me.” “She just has more to talk about, my life right now is so mellow…”
The thing is, my life will always be mellow, without a lot going on. Because I do that on purpose. I love stability, zero drama (or the fantasy of it), a wide-open schedule – lots and lots of extra time for sleeping in, binging on a show, drawn-out conversations over beers, or road trips on long weekends. I make room for these things in my life on purpose, which is something I like about myself and the life I decided to have.
But even when things aren’t mellow – when my boyfriend is having heart surgery, when work is so busy that I can’t find any energy to blog or do anything other than stare at the TV when I get home – I will tell people, “Oh, there’s nothing much going on with me – I mean, things are a little crazy, but it’s just the same ol boring stuff – what’s up with you? You had that crazy thing happen the other day! We have to talk about that!”
In the moment, I don’t feel like I need that attention – I really DO want to talk about that crazy thing that happened, rather than my stuff. But after a while it builds up and I’m like “Why does no one care about my shit?” It’s like I check my gas tank and I’m 75% full, and I’m like, cool – I can totally drive for so long before I have to think about filling up. But it’s like I have a broken gas light or something – before I even think about checking on it, I’m broken down on the side of the road at 2am in the middle of a total emotional breakdown, before I realize that maybe I should think about how my gas tank is doing.
The frustrating thing is that I know all of this so well. But I forget every time, and I’m back in that tired old pattern, and when I’m on the side of the road again I’m just like yelling to the heavens, “GOD DAMMIT STEPHANIE!!!! Learn the lesson and MOVE. ON.”
It’s like the most dysfunctional relationship I’ve ever had is with myself. (…Wow. That was way more cheesy than it sounded at first. But I’ll leave it there, because whatever – cheesy is helpful sometimes. That could be the tag line for my heartwarming indie movie.)
Image by Two Happy Lambs Photography
It’s really annoying now, realizing that I can’t chat with my friend in the car and listen to a whole album before checking in on my tank – I have to look at that fucking thing every 5 minutes. That’s my life now, if I want to keep things the way I want them – I have to make sure I’m being honest, making sure my needs are met, making space for myself, and not expecting anyone else to do that for me.
I have to make a conscious decision about how I want to live my life and how I want my relationships to be – when we were younger, we only had the examples around us for guidance. Now we have to decide, and work – really hard – to get to the life we want for ourselves. And we can’t put it on autopilot to get there. Unfortunately.
Being an adult in adult relationships is really hard, guys. That’s why I need so much sleep and Netflix time – to recover from this bullshit.
File this under “Steph’s Issues” – see also, “On Being Self-Depricating“.
Any arm wrestling matches that you’re having with yourself lately? I don’t know about you, but this shit is exhausting.